Like a true-blue snob, I’d judged Alia Bhatt, long before she had even made her Bollywood debut.
At the time, about six or seven years ago, I used to hang out frequently with her smart, well-read, and articulate sister Shaheen, the older daughter of Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan. She often spoke of her baby sister with affection but also with that typical, lighthearted disdain that older siblings often have (news-flash: we do it to make ourselves feel better). She once told me that Alia thought ‘diabetes’ was actually spelled ‘diaberries’. We threw our heads back and giggled at her ignorance, a good three years before the Internet did. I asked her what Alia planned to do with her life. “She’s joining Bollywood, of course,” replied Shaheen, in a ‘what else’ tone. At least one of us was unaware that we were going to be in awe of her work one day.
When her debut film, Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year, released in 2012, I refused to watch it. Since I was working as a features writer at a leading newspaper at the time and not reviewing films, I had no reason to; furthermore, absolutely nothing about the promos and the director’s previous work had appealed to me. The reviews written by people I followed then ranged from downright dismissive to apologetic at best.
As far as I was concerned, the movie — which also marked the debut of Varun Dhawan, director David Dhawan’s son — was akin to a field trip for Bollywood brats. I, then a Christopher Nolan fanboy (oh, how things have changed), had better things to do with my time.
Four years later, having watched every film Bhatt has ever acted in barring that one, I decided to look it up. My brain had already zeroed in on a likely opinion: she would be awkward, yet earnest, and show only flashes of the spark we see now. As far as the existing narrative in my head was concerned, it was Imtiaz Ali who had ‘awakened’ her inner actress in Highway (2014), which at the time had seemed like a fluke.
Imagine my surprise when I watched Student Of The Year and came away gobsmacked by Bhatt’s portrayal of Shanaya Singhania, a KJo heroine who comes across as a hybrid of Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham’s Poo (played by Kareena Kapoor) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’s Tina (played by Rani Mukerji). A Gucci-and-Prada-obsessed character, Shanaya exists in the film to be coveted by both the male leads (the other being Sidharth Malhotra), and is ostensibly a ‘trophy’ character.
But what amazed me was her poise and the knowing sense of control she seemed to exert upon scenes that featured her. Her penchant for playing a unique kind of Bollywood heroine in nearly all her films — cute, girlish, but wise to the world and essentially, unapologetically feminist — was visible even here, in a Johar film, where female characters tend to behave according to a strict, upper-caste North Indian Hindu, and NRI-palatable code (revealing Western dresses are fine in college, but the girl becomes ‘marriage material’ only after she wears an Indian outfit).
In her first scene, she spots her boyfriend (Dhawan) flirting with another girl (Sana Saeed) in public. A ‘typical’ Hindi film heroine may have looked upset, but Alia’s Shanaya takes it as a challenge — she grabs a glass of red wine and throws it on the girl’s top, then gives her wayward boyfriend a warning. Later, when the same girl boasts about her achievement of heading the cheerleading squad, she rolls her eyes and says she’d rather have all the boys cheering for her than cheer them on with pom-poms anyway.
Even when the film devolves into utter silliness — an idiotic plan to make her boyfriend jealous by flirting with his best friend, a ridiculous Triwizard-Tournament-style intra-school competition — Bhatt is unusually in control of her character. When Shanaya leaves a frame, you feel her absence, which is more that can be said about many other actresses in their debut films. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), she did not win any of the ‘best female debut’ awards that year bar one.
Since then, her career has only been on the up and up, a parabolic graph that has thwarted conservative industry pundits who have a certain idea of what a Bollywood actress’ career should resemble.
When written off as a star kid after SOTY, she surprised viewers with serious acting chops in Highway. In films like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, 2 States, Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921, and Dear Zindagi, she cemented her reputation as a new age, millennial Bollywood heroine: a Betty Cooper with just the right amount of Veronica Lodge; a daaru-swigging, occasionally pot-smoking, bikini-wearing girl next door. Put her in any situation — a house party in Kodaikanal, a hostel room in a premier B-school, or with her abductors on a dusty North Indian highway — and make her do anything — cry, laugh, dance — and it seems believable.
And just when everybody thought she was getting too comfortable, that filmmakers were writing carefully tweaked manic-pixie-dream-girl roles for her, she came up with that powerhouse turn in Udta Punjab, a film where it didn’t matter that her character didn’t have a name for the entire film, where she portrayed the loss of innocence and the indelibility of abuse in a manner rarely seen in mainstream Hindi cinema. Smita Patil would’ve approved.
Today, as she turns 24, the success of Badrinath Ki Dulhania under her belt, that parabolic growth curve remains constant. The film may have divided critics and viewers, with some (like this writer) of the opinion that a few of its depictions are problematic and others championing its overall progressive intent.
What everyone agrees on is that Bhatt is Bollywood’s truest feminist heroine, a girl with true grit whose appeal spans from Kota to Kormangala. Through her films, she’s played a part in India talking about Stockholm Syndrome, arranged marriage, depression, LGBTQ acceptance, and other things that a ‘bratty’ star kid who was apparently handed her career on a platter has no business doing.
There’s a difference between exploiting one’s privilege and wielding it responsibly — most succumb to the former, but Bhatt has done the latter in a way few Bollywood heroines have.
So, happy 24th birthday, Alia and please accept my apologies for the premature judgment. Although, I must say, of all the times I’ve had to eat my own words, this has been the most satisfying.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)