Bhatt has consistently found success by playing complex, relatable, and unsinkable women.
When Abhishek Chaubey was casting for Udta Punjab (2016), his searing film on Punjab’s opioid crisis, Alia Bhatt was not on his mind. The filmmaker auditioned many actors, but no one was working out. At that time, Shahid Kapoor, who had already been cast by Chaubey, suggested Alia’s name. Both actors had worked together in Vikas Bahl’s frothy Shaandaar (2015), and Kapoor thought she would be a good fit. Chaubey thought it was a joke. “We could hardly be blamed,” he said over the phone. Until then, he had only watched Student of the Year (2012), her hollow vessel of a debut where she was draped in designer labels. “What we had seen of her and her family was far removed from first-hand knowledge of the world Udta was set in. I was doubtful.” Daughter of the actor Soni Razdan and the filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, Alia had gained some notoriety as the classic “nepo-baby”.
In the interim, Alia read Udta’s script and conveyed interest. A meeting was arranged with the understanding that they would not go ahead if Chaubey was unconvinced. “We spoke for 45 minutes, and what impressed me was her willingness to walk the distance for the film. She acknowledged my doubts but also said that she wanted to do it with the right intention. We directors are suckers for this kind of commitment.” The result was a sensational performance, rooted in its lack of vanity.
Alia’s decision to act in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016) also makes for a telling anecdote. Batra’s perceptive take on the interpersonal dynamics of a dysfunctional family was produced by Karan Johar, who had earlier launched Alia in SOTY. In later interviews, he admitted that he had tried talking her out of doing Batra’s film. The reason was simple: Alia’s character was not central to the plot.
In both instances, filmmakers expressed some premature hesitation in casting Alia. One stemmed from genuine doubt, while the other resulted from well-meaning intent. Together, they outlined the norm mainstream female actors in the Hindi film industry are mandated to follow: lean more on lead roles (Udta Punjab and Kapoor & Sons are ensembles) and earn credibility by starring opposite popular male actors (both films are not conventionally template-driven). That someone so young was defying it became a matter of concern for some and incredulity for others.
A rebel without pause
Alia Bhatt has never been one to follow rules. Signs of rebellion were noticed early: her sophomore venture was Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014), a moody road film that was a stylistic and thematic departure from SOTY. She was cast opposite Randeep Hooda, a gifted actor with not much visibility. Over the years, there have been other such leaps. She shouldered an urban existential drama, Dear Zindagi (2016), opposite Shah Rukh Khan, and followed it up with a spy thriller, Raazi (2018), an adaptation of Harinder Sikka’s 2008 novel, Calling Sehmat.
She forayed into production with Darlings (2022) and lent her presence to a global sensation, RRR (2022). She also fronted Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) and won a National Award for her rousing performance as a Mumbai brothel madam who challenges fate by befriending it. The film released theatrically during the pandemic, and its major commercial success sealed her reputation as a formidable talent.
This year, she headlined Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and batted for gender equality. Alia plays Rani Chatterjee, an opinionated Bengali feminist who falls for Rocky Randhawa, a West Delhi Punjabi gym-bro. Rani demands that she and Rocky seek their parents’ approval for marriage. In any other film, such insistence would not have been unusual, but in Johar’s conservative-leaning world, it feels disruptive because it recognises tradition as a subset of patriarchy.
Alia followed up RRKPK with her much-hyped Hollywood debut, Heart of Stone. Tom Harper’s globetrotting spy thriller was also her 20th outing. Alia is not the first Hindi film actor to make this segue. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, for instance, is a legitimate global star. Though the trajectory of Alia’s future Hollywood journey is unknown, her performance as the Indian-origin hacker Keya Dhawan is assured. Interestingly, she refuses to use a mixed accent in an attempt to belong.
It is only August and she is only 30.
“Over the years, Alia has played women have opinions, ambition, independence, and intent. But more crucially, they have the space to be unlikeable.”
Alia has crafted a distinct filmography in a short span of time, which appears more singular when compared with the work of Deepika Padukone (2007), Sonam Kapoor (2007), and Anushka Sharma (2008), actors who started out a few years before her. Parineeti Chopra (2011) is a closer contemporary, but even she opted for insipid, studio-backed rom-coms until as late as 2019. All of them (not unlike others before them) followed a conventional road map before forging their own path. Alia took the highway.
Hers is an eclectic career built by big swings and fearless pursuit. Her privilege might have allowed her to make daring decisions, but as Chaubey insists, there is also intent. Her choices are driven by craft and validated by commerce, making her a prodigious talent. As a female actor, Alia has crafted a subversive outline that is free from traditional demands. “Alia has been doing strong female roles from an early stage, which was not considered conventional wisdom,” said Sumit Roy, one of the three writers of RRKPK. “Her decision to do Highway and other female-led films has had an effect on female actors who have come after her. Suddenly, they have the confidence to say ‘no’ to films which only cater to the big male ego. Because she has done it and is such a successful star, other people believe hers is a feasible path to success.”
This makes it easy to concede Alia’s contribution in the Hindi mainstream space, where films are largely made by and for men, leaving women with only parts to play. Alia seems to be championing a specific modernity that insists on dismantling archaic discrepancy. Though persuasive, this reading is not wholly accurate. In her oeuvre, we also find ample instances of compliance to gendered diktats.
In films like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), Kalank (2019), and even Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva (2022), she essays characters who are entrusted with the task of aiding men in their journey of self-realisation. With the exception of Kalank, these films all did well at the box office. Their commercial success underlines Alia’s credibility as an artist, but it also complicates the brand of feminism she inhabits on screen. It disrupts an otherwise neat demonstration of female agency, begging the question: How does one fathom the undeniable significance of Alia Bhatt?
- Alia Bhatt has defied the norm mainstream female actors are mandated to follow: lean more on lead roles, and earn credibility by starring opposite popular male actors.
- This year, Alia headlined Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and batted for gender equality by playing Rani Chatterjee, an opinionated Bengali feminist.
- Alia has crafted a distinct filmography in a short span of time, which appears more singular when compared to the work of Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor and Anushka Sharma.
- Alia and her relevance reveal themselves in her portrayal of multiple characters. The actor has not advocated modernity as much as represented the modern woman.
A sum of her parts
Clear answers are hard to find. Alia has never been vocal about her opinions, and it is impossible to gauge her personal ideology. In an interview with The Washington Post in 2022, she had explained her restraint, saying: “I choose to do my work and speak through my work, and not really get into speaking in between.” Some answers offer themselves when one examines her film choices. Alia and her relevance reveal themselves in her portrayal of multiple characters. The actor has not advocated modernity as much as represented the modern woman. Her many diverse roles are iterations of both complex modernity and complex womanhood.
Over the years, Alia has played women who have opinions, ambition, independence, and intent. But more crucially, they have the space to be unlikeable. Take Dear Zindagi, for instance. Here she plays Kaira, an irritable cinematographer navigating the slippery slope of modern dating. She has a profession and a personality. There is a restiveness in her, a nagging dissatisfaction that feels intimate in its messiness. Alia’s rendering of the modern woman comes closest in her acknowledgement of this messiness, in seeking help and wanting to be seen, despite and because of it.
Tia Mallik in Kapoor & Sons is an independent girl in Ooty, capable of taking care of herself. She hosts parties for her friends, smokes up in the washroom, and wants to put her house up for rent. Her problems are big and small, mundane in their ability to overwhelm but not define her. In Udta Punjab, Bauria is a young migrant from Bihar whose life gets upended when she chances upon a drug packet. Despite the tragedies that befall her, Bauria is never reduced to a victim.
“Alia represents who modern women are, with their ambiguous feminism(s), and not who they should be.”
There are other examples: In Highway, she plays Veera Tripathi, a young girl who calls out a relative for sexually abusing her, discarding the feminine duty to preserve the sanctity of family. In 2 States (2014), Alia essays the role of Ananya Swaminathan, an IIM graduate and working professional. In Raazi, she is Sehmat, an Indian spy married in Pakistan as part of an operation. She evades suspicion by living up to the expectations of her as a woman. On the surface, she is dutiful, obedient, and harmless, but down below, she is stealthily using her petite physicality as a weapon.
The actor is so committed to showcasing women as full-bodied individuals that even in love stories, where men traditionally do most of the heavy lifting, she stakes equal claim in the narrative. As Safeena Firdausi, an aspiring doctor in Gully Boy (2019), she asks the man she loves to follow his dream of rapping because she can take care of both their needs. In Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017), her character, Vaidehi Trivedi, leaves a man at the altar to pursue her dream of becoming an air hostess. Though they end up together, the film shows us how Vaidehi defends her vocation.
Through her performances, the sight of women working, worrying about unaccommodating landlords, breaking down in rage, or just breaking down to negotiate—attributes hardly associated with female characters in Hindi films—are becoming common with repetition. Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Kalank, and Brahmāstra, lesser films where her characters halt their lives for someone else (a man) or something else (a wedding lehenga), do not alter this reckoning. Alia represents who modern women are, with their ambiguous feminism(s), and not who they should be.
Putting money where her heart is
Of course, what counts as being “modern” is relative, subject to change. What it denotes, however, is a severance from the past. In that sense, the women Alia plays are a reflection of the time we live in. But it is also true that her talent has emboldened writers to craft these women more and make them better.
“Alia’s decision to do female-led films has had an effect on female actors who have come after her.”Sumit Roy Writer of ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’
Roy said: “The thing about Alia is that she is not only a huge star, but she is also a phenomenal actor. With a very good actor, you are not inhibited in the writing.” Darlings is a great example of this. The 2022 black comedy revolves around Badrunissa Qureshi, a lower-middle-class Muslim woman who dreams of a better life despite her alcoholic, abusive husband. Someday, Badru hopes, he will change. The director Jasmeet K. Reen admits she went to Alia because of her talent. “It is a very tricky film,” said Reen. “Badru is not stupid or delusional. She has not accepted her present as set reality. She recognises there is a problem, but she also feels that her husband loves her and will change for her, just like how she changed for him.” Alia is expectedly good. She uses her baby face with ruthless abandon.
Darlings was the third time Alia played an astute Muslim woman (after Raazi and Gully Boy). These characters all mark a departure from how Muslims have recently been depicted in Hindi cinema. Reen recollects that by the time she approached Alia, Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment had already come on board as a producer. “Alia heard the script and instantly connected as an actor. And then she said she wants to produce it. It was amazing because it is a tough script to back.” If we are to treat Alia’s work as a stand-in for her beliefs, then bankrolling Darlings can be thought of as her most definitive political stance yet. All the principal characters in the outing are Muslim, a rarity that challenges the gradual erasure of the community from our screens.
In comparison, it is almost poetic how conventional her personal life seems. Last year, she tied the knot with Ranbir Kapoor, another defining actor of this generation, and in November, they had a daughter. In interviews, she freely admits doing certain things because her husband likes it that way, provoking instant criticism and thought pieces. The question many ask, is how can someone like Alia Bhatt, a successful woman in today’s day and age, be this compliant? The answer, again, hides in her choices: a modern woman can be many things—unfettered by labels. She is an ocean, not a drop.
Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer. Her work is situated at the juncture of gender and pop culture.