(This appeared as the cover feature of the February 2014 issue of THE MAN magazine. Photos by Raj Chaturvedi, Sourced via Google Images)
There is a minor commotion when Alia Bhatt enters the location of our cover shoot. No, she is not throwing a tantrum or anything. It is just the very warm Alia chatting up and exchanging pleasantries with the team. She talks animatedly to her managers and flashes that baby smile a lot. But as soon as the lights come on and the camera starts clicking, the cute and bubbly Alia undergoes a complete transformation. She pouts, she smiles, she throws seductive glances at the lenses and within seconds you know that the diva in her has arrived. A photographer’s delight, the 20-year-old is a natural poser.
Alia credits this ease to Karan Johar, the director who introduced her to Bollywood in his film Student Of The Year. “Karan used to tell us to look at the camera and smile if we were scared or shy,” she says. The director should be proud, given that this student of his has definitely picked up all the right lessons. At least some of us would have dismissed Alia as one of the many lucky star kids, who already have their ways charted out. It is all a matter of inheritance, we would think. Born to maverick director Mahesh Bhatt and the beautiful actor Soni Razdan, good looks and cinema are in Alia’s genes.
This is the very notion that Alia wanted to fight. For as long as she could remember, she wanted to do nothing but be on the other side of the TV screen that she was so fascinated with. And by the time she became old enough to realise that she wanted to be an actor, Alia decided that she would not take the easy way out.”I didn’t want to land a role just because I am Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter or Pooja’s [Bhatt, her half sister] sister,” she says. “If that’s what I had wanted, then I could just do a film made by our production house [Vishesh Films].” All of 17 then, Alia chose to be part of a group of 500 other girls who auditioned for Karan’s high school drama. “If I wasn’t good enough, I am sure that Karan wouldn’t have opted for me,” she says. “After all, I wasn’t in the perfect shape then.” However, Karan was impressed, but he had just one condition that she should lose weight to fit the part of Shanaya Singhania. And, so she did it and how! Alia lost 15 kilos in three months and even sported a bikini in the film to show her fab body off. “I will thank Karan for the rest of my life for pushing me to lose weight,” she says. “That is the push that I really needed.”
Another person whom she can’t stop talking about these days is Imtiaz Ali, the director of her upcoming film Highway. Alia, who grew up idolising the Kapoor sisters, was delighted when she got a chance to work with the director who gave Kareena the biggest break in her career with his film Jab We Met. “Working with him was amazing,” she beams. “Whatever you hear about Imtiaz is less. He is just outstanding and the experience to work and connect with him is just so different.” But while signing the film, little did she know that she would be setting foot onboard a life-changing journey. The Mumbai-bred Alia, whose childhood was restricted to just the usual “school-home-school-friends-home” regime, discovered a whole new world outside her coccoon. She travelled through six states in the country, visiting most places for the first time in her life, and claims to be a completely different person now after the journey. “It was a different experience. It was quite interesting because I got to learn a lot,” she says. “All of us were together like a family because we were shooting the film at one stretch. It was very challenging in a positive way. It was an adventure for me.” The actor, who plays Veera, a city slicker from Delhi who finds freedom in bondage, was so touched by the film that she says that Highway is like “releasing your personal videos on screen”. So she is in a happy and content space now, right? “Happy, yes,” she says. “But content, no.” She is happy that she is doing work that is different and challenging at such an early phase of her career, but she is too young to be content, feels Alia.
With Dharma Production’s 2 States with Arjun Kapoor and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya with Varun Dhawan, 2014 will be a big year for Alia. The characters she plays in both these films are like chalk and cheese, she says. “In 2 States, I play a Tam-Brahm girl who falls for a Punjabi boy and in Humpty I play a north-Indian girl,” says Alia. “That pretty much says how different they are from each other.” For 2 States, which is based on Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller of the same name, Alia had to undergo special diction training in Tamil to get under the skin of her character. But she will not be playing a caricature, she points out subtly hinting at the way south Indian characters have been portrayed in Bollywood in the past. “I play a modern south Indian girl, so she doesn’t speak with an accent. Look all of us are something. Someone’s Maharasthrian, someone South Indian, someone else is Punjabi, but they all speak normal English and Hindi,” she says. “But when they speak in their mother toungue, they speak it authentically. That’s why it was important to get it correct.” Coming to Humpty…, all she says is that is it a very “real and connected, fun film”.
At one point during the shoot, the photographer Raj Chaturvedi, tells her that she has to stand on top of a ledge and jump down to the lower level. Although she crinkles her forehead for a second, Alia is quick to realise that he is joking. “That’s all? What else should I do?” she asks, with a mischevious grin. And Raj immediately shows her a set of tall speakers she would have to stand and pose on. She agrees without even thinking about it and gives the perfect shot in no time. This eagerness to try out anything new and challenging is what keeps her going. However good or bad the film is or however big or small her role is, if it is challenging enough for her, she wouldn’t think again before saying yes. “I don’t care about screen time or screen space. I believe in the power of the character,” says Alia. “I feel you can make an impact with just three seconds. Like Amitabh Bachchan did in The Great Gatsby. Even Meryl Streep in her first film did not have such a big role, but now she is Meryl Streep. So that’s what I think really matters.” However, she admits that it was not all rosy and picture perfect as she had dreamt it would be. As a young girl, Alia used to stand in front of a mirror and act and pose. “I just thought it was all a lot of fun and that it would be easy,” she says.
The moment Karan asked her to lose weight, her bubble burst. Although she agrees that losing weight was the best thing that happened to her at that point, she is put off by this obsession with a perfect body. “The idea of being perfect is what I have a problem with. I am basically not perfect, body or otherwise,” says Alia. “People sometimes tend to forget that actors are also humans and can make mistakes. That is the worst part of it all.”
Although just one film old, she is being touted as Bollywood’s next big thing. “People have been very kind to me within and outside the industry,” she says. “It is humbling.” But Alia is not one to be swayed by such praise. She knows better than anyone that hard work alone pays off. “I am very self-critical. It is always good to have a harsher opinion of yourself. Then you will never have that ‘I am above it all’ feeling,” she says. “That never takes you anywhere trust me. So I would like it if I continue to be harsh on myself because that would make me strive harder to look better, work better and be better.” And, in case she goes off limit and all this fame does get to her head, she is confident that her family will “kick some sense” into her. “I am the baby at home,” says Alia, with a smile. “But that doesn’t mean that I can act the way I want to. if I start behaving like a celebrity, I am sure, they will throw me out of the house.” With so much written about her from the clothes she wears to whom she hangs out with, does the attention get a bit too much at times? “Not at all,” she says. But what about all the brickbats? “Before I started working, my father warned me about all this,” says Alia. “He told that people might say things that might hurt really bad and that they would write me off. So I was prepared for it.” She is just happy in the knowledge that her loved ones and friends know who the real Alia is and no amount of this banter can change that.
While she might not care what is written about her, Alia makes it a point to keep a check on what is written about her contemporaries. She rubbishes the notion of being insecure and instead calls it “being aware”. “It is always good to know what everyone is doing. It doesn’t do me any good to stay in a bubble and think that I am the best,” says Alia. “Only when I have an idea what kind of work others are doing, will there be an urge to push myself harder.” Alia has also been very vocal about her admiration for Parineeti Chopra’s acting skills. “She is a very warm person and a superb actor,” says Alia, when asked about her. “She is someone I feel will go a long way in this industry. And, it is great that she is so good because competition is such a great motivating factor for me.”
As we wind up our conversation, Alia gets ready for the last shot. Her managers clear the way for her to walk up to where the shot is being set and she strolls by like a seasoned red carpet diva. She has the style, she has the looks. The only thing that will now seal the deal for Alia is the performances she will deliver this year. And, if her confidence and diligence are anything to go by, we think we already have an idea where she is headed. Box: Quick five I feel happy when… am working and sleeping. I also love to watch movies and spend time with my friends and family. If not an actor, I would be… nothing. Sadly, I have no qualifications to be anything. You would find me munching on…. Absolutely everything! I love Mexican food– the nachos and burritos. I loooove French fries, then Chinese. I just don’t like sweets. My workout regime consists of… altitude training, weight training and cardio. I also do yoga and at the moment I am learning Kathak. My diet is… a low carb high protein one, with one cheat day. Cheat days are great because I can indulge in say a subway sandwich and diet coke or noodles. But if I eat too much I feel really guilty and do double cardio the next day to burn it off.