May 31 2020
Keeping up with Alia Bhatt
11 February 2019

The young face of an alternate Bollywood, she is hard to pin down these days. When we finally do, it turns into a conversation on Gully Boy, trolls and Hollywood

At 25, Alia Bhatt is living the dream. With multiple box-office hits and critical successes behind her, she has three diverse releases this year: Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, Abhishek Verman’s Kalankand Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra.

A couple of weeks ago, I’d seen her sharing the stage with some of Mumbai’s finest hip-hop artistes, at Gully Boy’s music launch, before an electrified 10,000-strong audience. This week, an interaction with her has me going on what seems like a wild goose chase, from Prabhadevi to Goregaon’s Westin hotel and finally to Film City, to the sets of The Kapil Sharma Show.

At the Gully Boy concert, she’d formed an instant connect with the crowd, addressing them in Mumbai’s patois — Hindi laced with street slang. With Kapil Sharma, she was disarming, joking with the host about a possible ‘Funny Boy’ sequel. In contrast, Westin’s modern glass-metal architecture, where the planned press interaction was to happen, preclude any possibility of warmth and intimacy. As the minutes excruciatingly turn into hours, I wonder if I’m waiting for Alia or Godot? They say the measure of a Bollywood actor’s stardom is directly proportional to how long s/he makes you wait. At this point, her star power is approaching its pinnacle.


Keeping up with Alia Bhatt

The experimenter

I finally catch up with her — dressed in a strappy pink-beige button-down dress — in her new ‘moving home’ designed by Gauri Khan. Charming and warm, she is in perfect control, issuing orders to her team as I reel off my questions.

Style forward
  • For someone who is constantly experimenting with her style, Alia is not brand or designer conscious. “I believe in wearing anything you are comfortable in,” she says. Interiors is another passion. Her home has been covered by Architectural Digestand, most recently, her vanity van, in which we met, made headlines too. It feels like an extension of her personality, mixing work and play in equal measure: pastel tones, metallic walls that reflect mood lighting, wooden flooring, Victorian era lamps. Alia has also bought a new house that she is converting into an office space. “I love anything home related and doing up homes and places,” she says.

Alia has maintained a similar balance in her acting career, essaying roles in mainstream entertainers — Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania or her début, as leading lady in Student of the Year (she appeared as a child star in Sangharsh) — and gritty takes in HighwayUdta Punjab and Raazi. She is among the new crop of young Bollywood actors, like Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal, who are straddling mainstream and independent cinema with equal ease. “I genuinely believe balance is important. For my sanity and satisfaction, I like to do both ‘mainstream’ and ‘non’,” she shares. Then, with a hint of annoyance at the compartmentalisation, she adds, “I don’t even know how to call it! I just try and do different films — a simpler film, a bigger film, a ‘filmy’ one, one this, one that,” trailing off into giggles that punctuate the rest of our conversation.

Despite her wide range of films, she says her process as an actor hasn’t changed (“a film is a film”). She tries to stay in tune with her director’s sensibility, and her understanding of her characters — their motivations, thoughts and feelings — stems from cues she gets from the filmmaker.

In Gully Boy she plays Safeena, a young Bombay (“Mumbaiyaa”, she playfully corrects me) girl from the other end of the social spectrum. Alia, who has consistently and convincingly essayed characters far removed from her own reality, says, “I haven’t played a character like her before.” Safeena is an ambitious medical student from a conservative family, who is “over expressive... has a kind of cute but psycho feeling, but there is a lot of sensitivity to her”. Her description makes me wonder about the similarities between the actor and her character. “She is very clear about what she wants in life. So am I, career-wise and personally, and I’ll do everything to achieve it. That’s the only commonality.”


Keeping up with Alia Bhatt

Tackling trolls

With parents — filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actor Soni Razdan — who are stalwarts in the film industry, Alia grew up in the public eye. Does stardom get overwhelming? “It is a different life that you lead and I can’t compare it to anything else because it’s the only life I’ve led. But it’s not normal,” she says, before quickly switching the word “normal” with “regular” — “which is also the wrong word”.

What she can agree on, however, is the pressure that actors face, of 24/7 scrutiny on social media platforms. Trolling is in vogue — she was on the receiving end after she named Prithviraj Chauhan the president of India on season four of Koffee with Karan and, more recently, dating Ranbir Kapoor has also provided grist — but her mantra now is ignorance is bliss. With 27.8 million followers on Instagram and over a million on Facebook, she says, “While there is love, there will be some hate too. As much as possible, you have to not let it affect you.” She doesn’t court trouble online; her posts are mostly safe, of family, friends, shoots, red carpets, the occasional reflection on mental health, and plenty of photos of her cat Edward. A good sense of humour comes in handy, too. Nowadays she often introduces herself in public appearances stating, “My superpower is that I don’t know the name of the president”. “It really gets people laughing and that makes me happy,” she shares.


Keeping up with Alia Bhatt

A good rap

Alia prepared for her role in Gully Boy with an intensive workshop with Zoya Akhtar, co-actor Vijay Raaz and workshop director, Atul Mongia. It involved nailing the dialect and improvising Safeena’s reactions. “Zoya corrected and I reacted. In three days, we had the character painted out and we went on sets,” she says.

  • “Not being afraid to speak up takes a lot of courage,” she says, hoping that recent developments wouldn’t make men circumspect around women in the work environment, which she thinks would “defeat the whole purpose [of the movement]”. For her, it is also about safety — and not just for women. “It’s about the misuse of human resources and conducting yourself in an improper, unforgivable manner, which [may] start off in a simple, even professional atmosphere but [could] go all the way to rape,” she says. For her, change must start at at the grassroots, in social education. “If we take it up passionately as a cause, then hopefully there will be some positive transformation.”

For Akhtar, this was her first time working with Alia, and the director says the actor “was painless”, adding, “She is so diligent, so thorough. We met a couple of times, did readings. She came to sets on time, did her thing; you didn’t even notice when she walked in and out. She is a great actor to collaborate with.”

Meanwhile, ever since Gully Boy’s album release, there’s been a wave of appreciation for its eclectic music. Alia herself is in thrall. “The music seems like it’s a revolution. It’s totally raw, new, and the stories are hard truths. I feel it could be a very important footprint on the sands of our cinema, and that is crucial when you’re setting out to make a mark,” says the actor, who sang in films like Highway and Udta Punjab.

Since she doesn’t rap in the film, she didn’t bond with the rappers like co-star Ranveer Singh did. But she did hang out with them on sets and in the dubbing studio. “They are just so talented, I love their vibe and what they’ve brought to the film. I listen to the music every morning, so Ranveer has totally rubbed off on me,” she smiles. The film is inspired by the lives of rappers Divine and Naezy and Mumbai’s hip-hop community.


Mumbai: Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt during the music launch of the upcoming Hindi film 'Gully Boy' in Mumbai, Thursday, January 24, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI1_25_2019_000076B)

Mumbai: Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt during the music launch of the upcoming Hindi film 'Gully Boy' in Mumbai, Thursday, January 24, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI1_25_2019_000076B)   | Photo Credit: PTI

Berlin beckons

Gully Boy has its gala screening today at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival. “I’m really excited to be there, enjoy the festival and the weather. But also witness the reaction to the film,” she says. This is not her first outing at the Berlinale (she was there with Highway) and she says it has a “tough audience”. “If they don’t like a film, they will just walk out.”

Speaking of the West, Alia calls Hollywood a “dream”, “a hope” and something she’d like to venture into. “But baby steps! I am not leaping into it,” she says. “The Indian film industry is big enough to try and make a mark in. First I’ll try and find my feet here and then swim over there.”

Gully Boy releases on February 14.



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