Dressed in a pink tee and a pair of blue jeans, her shoulder-length dark hair framing her smiling face, Alia Bhatt can barely sit still in the restaurant in Mumbai, India.
One moment she is busy describing her role in her latest hit film Kapoor & Sons and how ‘it deeply touched a chord in me’; the next she is leaning against the window pouting for the photographer. Then she’s back to the conversation, animatedly picking up where she left off.
The 23-year-old petite Bollywood star may be barely 1.6m tall, but she is a powerhouse of energy and happy buzz.
‘I’m like this only,’ she coos excitedly. ‘Of course, there are times when I have my feminine moments and moods and sometimes I do get a bit confused…’
While Alia tasted success with Kapoor & Sons (top) and 2 States (right), the debacle of Shaandaar (above) was tough on her.
However, right now she is clearly on a high, riding a wave of success starring opposite Sidharth Malhotra and the industry’s hot favourite Fawad Khan.
‘The essence of Kapoor & Sons is Dadu, an ailing 90-year-old grandfather, played by Rishi Kapoor, who wishes to see his entire family come together for a photograph one last time,’ she says. Alia plays the role of Tia, the love interest of Dadu’s grandson, played by Sidharth.
She is quick to admit that when she was auditioned for the role, she did not bother to find out ‘the length of my role, how much screen time I have, how many songs I have or who the director was.
‘In retrospect, I have the least screen time but then that isn’t why I do films. It’s not that I want the film to revolve around me. I look at the film in its entirety and the power of the screenplay. This is a unique story – of a family that fights, laughs, has conflicts… everybody will be able to relate to it.’
She herself can relate rather well to her character Tia in the film. ‘Tia’s basically a very happy person. I could relate to it a lot personally because she is so easy-going, not at all hyper; so chilled out.’
Directed by Shakun Batra, who also made a hilarious video on Alia titled Genius of the Year, Alia says she was extremely comfortable working on Kapoor & Sons ‘thanks to the awesome team. Shakun’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with. He has such a good heart and is open to criticism and suggestions,’ says Alia, who has acted in six films and has even bagged an honour – a critics’ award for best actress in Highway.
Daughter of film-maker Mahesh Bhatt and actress Soni Razdan, Alia’s eyes sparkle as she relates the experience of working with veteran actor Rishi Kapoor. ‘Watching him at work was a lesson in professionalism. He’d think nothing of sitting patiently for five hours every day to get his make-up done. Even after so many years of doing the same thing he’s still passionate about his work. That’s what matters.’
Having co-actors such as Fawad and Sidharth, too, were what made being part of the movie a pleasure, she says.
‘Fawad is extremely spontaneous. It was such fun on the sets. Sid is very good at improvising. I love that because when you are caught off-guard you get the most natural reactions in movies.’
Does she still share a good relationship off camera with Sidharth? After all, there have been a lot of rumours linking her with the star.
Alia does not deny it. ‘He is very close to me and we share a great bond,’ she says. ‘We started our careers together. He is among the closest friends I have in the industry.’ So do the rumours and gossip worry her? ‘My family and I are used to it now,’ says Alia, who first appeared before the camera as a six-year-old in the 1999 thriller Sangharsh, before debuting opposite Sidharth in Karan Johar’s romantic drama Student of the Year, 13 years later in 2012.
‘The only way to handle such pressures is to be at peace with your work.’
So is she happy with the way her career is panning out?
‘You have to feel confident with the projects that you choose,’ says the actress. ‘Eventually, if the content is good, it will do well. I just believe in the project!’
Alia feels she has grown as a performer. ‘All the directors and actors I have worked with have left an impression on me. I’ve learnt a lot from all of them, whether it is to do with dance, acting, relaxing in front of the camera, lighting… Everyone I have worked with has inspired me, influenced me in many ways.’
She admits that with each film she has done, she has become more and more aware of the process of film-making.
‘When it comes to acting, I do what my director wants me to. I feel every director has a tone or style that is his own. If you respect it and follow their lead, your performance will also have different tones in different films. That is something I’ve learnt and that I have been following,’ she says earnestly. Alia’s method has paid off richly for her. Film critics praised her award-winning acting in Highway as Veera Tripathi, a young woman who develops Stockholm syndrome – a very different role from the one in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (Humpty Sharma’s bride), as Kavya Pratap Singh, a young woman who falls in love with a happy-go-lucky guy while out shopping for her wedding trousseau.
Then there was 2 State, where she portrayed the role of Ananya, a south Indian girl from a conservative family who falls in love with a boy from a background totally different to hers. Her performance again drew rave reviews.
What does she consider when signing a new film?
‘I go purely by instinct,’ she says. ‘I look at it this way – would somebody go to watch the film? Is the role different from any I’ve done? Will I want to watch the film? If it ticks all these boxes, I say OK.’
Is that why she is today referred to as the youngest superstar?
Alia mulls over that title for a moment. ‘I’ve a lot more to achieve,’ she says. ‘I have a lot more ambitions and dreams. I would not call something a dream project. I do not want to have goals but to leave milestones. I want to outdo myself with each and every role.’
It is perhaps this single-minded focus on her career that has seen Alia work with some of the top actors in Bollywood in a brief period of time – from Varun Dhawan and Randeep Hooda to Arjun Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor. In fact Shahid is her co-star in her forthcoming film Udta Punjab, a thriller. Was it an advantage starting out young?
‘I don’t know if I can call it an advantage but it has given me a lot of scope and opportunities to do a lot of things – from working with younger or older actors to endorsing major brands. In that sense yes, but I will not want to give my age that much importance – I think age is just a number.’
Alia has not had a completely successful run. The young star has tasted failure as well and admits ‘it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
‘Failure is my biggest fear,’ she reveals. ‘I intentionally disappeared after the Shaandaar (Fabulous) fiasco. Failure is almost like a bad break-up – it is printed on your face; numbers [of viewers] dropping, [the movie] failing… I felt lying low was the only way to protect myself.’
She admits that the experience prepared her to face failures better. ‘It was my first flop. Next time – I hope there is no next time but I know there could be – I’ll be prepared for it.’ She says that when she saw the finished product, she knew ‘this was not what we set out to make.
‘The film didn’t come together. You cannot fool the audience anymore.’
But Alia sees it as a learning experience. ‘I’ve always been choosy when accepting films, but after Shaandaar I kind of calmed down a lot. I realised that if a film is good, it will work. But if a film is even mediocre, you cannot make it a success. Only films with good content will work.’ Though Alia’s family has very close links with Bollywood, as a child she wasn’t a regular on the sets. ‘I remember visiting the sets only to enjoy all the good food there,’ she says, giggling like a schoolkid.
‘Only when I entered the profession did I realise how tough acting and film-making is.’
Did her parents offer her a lot of advice when she entered the industry? After all Alia’s mother Soni Razdan, a British-born Indian film and television actress, has acted in over 15 films, many of them award winners such as 36 Chowringhee Lane and Saaransh, while her father Mahesh Bhatt is an award-winning film-maker.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘My mother’s one piece of advice was “Less is more when it comes to acting”. That has stuck with me. I’ve learnt that basically the less you do the more the impact you create; don’t overact.’
She says she learnt a lot from her father too. ‘I learnt to respect people’s time. So I’m very particular about punctuality. That is also something people thank me for as well and I’ve found that it’s so valuable.’
Alia says her family – father Mahesh Bhatt, mother Soni Razdan and sister Shaheen (below) – are her best critics as well as supporters.
Sister Shaheen is the one she is closest to. ‘She is like my best friend; she plays the part of my mother also sometimes. I think she is more protective of me than my mother is. She brightens my day every time I see her face. I just love talking to her, expressing my feelings, all my inhibitions and fears. She is one person I can talk to really freely.’
Shaheen is also going to be accompanying Alia as she gets ready to move out of her parents’ home and into her own house. ‘I am a bit nervous to be on my own,’ says Alia. ‘But I’m also excited because I’m moving in with my sister. So we will get to have some girls’ time. It will be like our girl’s pad!’
So what made her move out on her own?
‘A genuine lack of space,’ she says with a grin. ‘I found I just don’t have any space for my clothes, shoes… And there are times when I want to have some phone meetings late in the night. Or I want to read up on something. Or I need to get some costume fittings done and I realised I can’t do any of that because it would disturb my parents. So, honestly, that’s the only reason.’
She also believes that stepping out and being on her own will make her more responsible.
‘I guess I’ll understand the world more – start paying my own bills, learn to cook and how to run a house… it is very difficult and I think the earlier you start the better it is,’ she says.
Do her parents critique her films?
‘My parents and sister always have some suggestions to make. While they do praise me if I’ve done a good job, they also point out areas where they think I could improve. And yes, they make it clear when they feel something wasn’t up to the mark. Generally, they don’t praise me a lot,’ she laughs.
Naturally films are the inevitable topic of discussion at home. ‘The thing all of us are so passionate about is films. Our lives revolve around it. So sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we end up discussing films.’
With work now taking over her life, does she feel she is missing out on family life?
‘However busy I am I ensure I have quality time for them. Like, when my sister threw a surprise party on my birthday [March 15], I took some time off to be with her. The last week, my mother visited me when I was shooting along with Shah Rukh for Gauri [Shinde’s] yet-to-be-titled film. We had a nice time.’
So how was it working with King Khan?
‘Ahhhhmazing,’ she says. ‘Like, I can go on and on talking about it. The first shot with him was with my back to the camera so I didn’t really get as nervous. It was beautiful.
‘I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. But I have a very easy relationship with him and what really broke the ice was when we did an awards function together. We spent a lot of time together during the rehearsal. During that time I understood a little more about the way he works. On sets he is a bundle of energy to have around – by far my favourite co-star.’
Who else are her favourites in the industry?
‘Sidharth, Ayan Mukherjee and Karan Johar,’ she says. ‘Karan is actually friend/father figure to me. I have learnt people skills from him. He has taught me to believe in not just yourself but even other people.’
So, what gives her pride and joy?
‘Women and their achievements,’ she says. ‘I feel proud and happy to see what Malala [Yousafzai] does; I feel proud to see the way my manager – a woman – works. I feel proud to see the way women have excelled around us. I am very passionate towards women’s issues and believe that girls need to realise that they can achieve all their dreams – it’s within them. The choice is in their hands.’
Career-wise she is waiting to do an action-packed role. ‘I’m waiting for someone to offer that to me,’ she says. ‘I’d also want to do a comedy. That would be really good fun.’
Until that happens Alia is happy to live in the moment – after all she is only 23.