Decoding the steady success of one of India’s most bankable stars

Alia Bhatt’s decade-long successes are testimony to a change in what people watch, enjoy, and how stories have evolved in cinema.

Alia Bhatt has completed 10 years as the leading lady in Hindi cinema this year. Most recently, she has delivered a superhit Sanjay Leela Bhansali period crime drama with Gangubai Kathiawadi, and will star alongside heavyweights Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, and Sophie Okenado in a Hollywood film for Netflix, Heart of Stone.

Bhatt has made a transition to a highly coveted league of actors, without routine PR and media blitz that often marks any little bit of work done overseas by Indian stars. It speaks volumes of her popularity and acting capabilities that she will also feature in RRR, the biggest movie of 2022, and Brahmastra, another mega-budget film.

For about two years now, Bhatt has been facing targeted negative attention, verging on mudslinging, on social media because she is a film family kid. Arguments of nepotism could hold up because of the relatively important debut she got in a Karan Johar film, Student of the Year [2012], and her constant score of good roles for Johar’s production house, Dharma Productions. But her body of work testifies to the tremendous talent and an unprecedented ability to move the bar for women in mainstream cinema. As The Guardian put it while reviewing Gangubai Kathiawadi, “Bhatt is terrific, tearing through the film, her performance gathering momentum, as respect, desire, and a certain amount of fear flickers in the eyes of those around her.”

To understand what has changed that Alia Bhatt could build herself such an impact in a relatively short period of time, one has to speak with filmmakers, writers, and collaborators that she has worked with. Seema Pahwa, veteran actor and a celebrated coach to young actors, recalls experiences of working with Alia on the set of Gangubai Kathiawadi. “She is very mature and sorted as an actor. When on set, she never gave us concerns about being unable to deliver; causing delays or having a difficult temperament. She was always on time, worked hard, and remained focused on the role. I was a bit concerned when we began given that she has mostly worked in commercial films. But she is very focused and disciplined.”

Pahwa, who has witnessed the growth of quality parts for women over decades, explains the defining factor of having good actors in an ensemble film. “He [Bhansali] has cast very experienced actors for every character, because if you ignore even a single character, however small, then that affects the film. His decision to cast experienced and well-known actors to play everyone around Gangubai has helped every performer stand out.”

Prakash Kapadia, co-writer [dialogue] of Gangubai Kathiawadi, and longtime collaborator of Bhansali explains why Bhatt has proven to be a unique talent. “She is grounded, well mannered, and a very down-to-earth actor. She is open to taking risks. She is fresh, and has an edgy innocence to herself.”

Bhatt has displayed interest in going beyond her comfort zone early in her career. She delivered a solid performance as a Bihari migrant labourer in Udta Punjab [2016] and also made her mark in a short but key part in the family drama Kapoor & Sons [2016]. Ayesha De Vitre, screenwriter and hairstylist, has worked with her for a long time. She also co-wrote Shakun Batra’s film. Bhatt’s appetite for risk has set her apart for De Vitre, a seasoned professional working behind the scenes in film over time.

“She is the most focused person that I have ever met. She is a crazy multi-tasker. She is a master of all trades. She has vision, and she has an appetite for risk; at the same time, she sees things through. She is very strong-headed, and will always see a project through. She puts content above everything. She attracts good stuff.” De Vitre also recalls casting Bhatt in the film as a sweet surprise. “We were struggling with Kapoor & Sons. We hadn’t managed to cast anyone at all when she asked me about the film that I had co-written. She asked to read it, and the next thing we knew, she was really excited to be part of it. She didn’t care about the size of the role, and that she wouldn’t be part of the final Kapoor & Sons photograph. She didn’t worry about it being an ensemble move, and all she wanted was to be part of a good film. After she came on board, we managed to set the ball rolling. She would spit ball on dialogue, and try to improve on the film. That small scene when she recalls her parents, she makes it work so well.”

While wanting to break away from a comfort zone has been a priority for Hindi film heroines for some time now, specific traits about Alia Bhatt emerge from her directors as a committed, versatile actor. Gauri Shinde has directed her in Dear Zindagi [2016] along with Shah Rukh Khan. “Apart from great acting skills, to become a star, you need to have a presence where you sparkle on screen: a distinctive edge. Not only does she sparkle on screen, she radiates in front of the camera. Acting is very instinctive, and her innate charm and endearing qualities are the toppings. In my film, subtle aspects of her character — anxiety, personality, fear — as Kyra may have gone unnoticed in the hands of another actor. She succeeded in creating a three-dimensional character. It’s not an entirely likeable role but she has made it stand out. She is always honing her talent constantly,” Shinde concludes.

Meghna Gulzar has been instrumental in giving Bhatt one of her most powerful roles in Raazi [2018], where she plays a spy who has to make difficult choices. “Alia was younger [during Raazi], but she certainly wasn’t lacking in experience. She had Highway, Udta Punjab, and Dear Zindagi behind her, and they’re all complex roles. That’s the beauty of Alia as a performer: you can’t see the effort she has put into the craft. Only her expression of the character comes through. Raazi needed her to be fragile and vulnerable and yet deceptive and complicated. And she managed to deliver all of it. We fed off each other. She guided me as much as I guided her. She gave me her vulnerability. I gave her my complexity!

That’s what makes every character she portrays, so real. So identifiable.”

Like every other heroine in Hindi cinema, one does get a lot of Alia Bhatt in one’s line of vision with endorsements, appearances, and social media. Marketability aside, her steady success indicates a focus on working on great content, irrespective of stars or banners. It is also testimony to a change in what people watch, enjoy, and how stories have evolved in cinema. A woman proving to be the most bankable star of her generation is perhaps progressive change that is most welcome for the medium.

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