Film critics use superlatives to describe the talent of this pint-sized bombshell — effortless, spontaneous, natural, spunky, uninhibited, etc.
Alia Bhatt, daughter of the well-known Hindi film producer and director Mahesh Bhatt who has not only given Hindi cinema’s serial kisser, Emraan Hashmi but also cult films like Saaransh, Arth, Jism and Aashiqui whose songs have moved millions of teenagers to tears, has achieved in five years and with only 10 films what most of the actors haven’t achieved in their entire film career. This Karan Johar find, who burst on the celluloid in 2012 in his film Student of the Year, like the fresh air hasn’t looked back; she has set her own enviable standards of critical acclaim and commercial success giving hard time to established actors. Her very second film Highway, which takes the protagonist, betraying Stockholm syndrome on an inner emotional journey, is so bold and unconventional for a new comer it shatters the myth that only seasoned thespians can reach such depths of expressions. No wonder five-time National Award winner Shabana Azmi felt that in Highway Alia had shown the kind of maturity in expressing numerous shades of emotions, which she herself was able to do in Arth but only after spending nine years in the filmdom! Several actors who have had mega breaks — Deepika Padukone (Om Shanti Om), Anushka Sharma (Band Baaja Baaraat), Parineeti Chopra (Ishaqzaade) or Kriti Sanon (Heropanti) — didn’t dare to opt for a role like in Highway, which bordered on parallel cinema and looked like a sure duck at the box office.
Film critics use superlatives to describe the talent of this pint-sized bombshell — effortless, spontaneous, natural, spunky, uninhibited, etc. She is all of that and much more. She isn’t a method actor like Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil. Her ability to get under the skin of a character and act wholly like that in such a spontaneous and natural manner that it doesn’t seem like acting is her biggest asset. When connoisseurs watch her act as Ananya Swaminathan in the film Two States and compare it with Deepika’s south Indian act in Chennai Express (Deepika’s best before Bajirao Mastani) they can discern the subtle difference in nuances of fine acting. It’s a simple story simply told and Alia lets her eyes do all the talking.
In Udta Punjab, she has raised her own high bar. Acting as a Bihari migrant, so different from her real life, she has given a gut wrenching performance; her empty blank eyes after the gangrape scene haunt the sensitive viewers for days. So many shades of emotions — pain, suffocation, anguish and utter helplessness — drip from her face. Her portrayal comes close to the unforgettable performance by late Nargis in Mother India. But Nargis had already done nearly 50 films with the top actors of her generation, including Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. Udta Punjab’s performance also reminds of Nandita Das’ award-winning performance in Bawandar, based on the real story of gangrape victim Bhanwari Devi.
After watching Highway and Udta Punjab, Shobhaa De reportedly said that Alia was the Big B in the making. It’s a huge compliment but they belong to two different generations and two different schools of acting. After ruling the Bollywood box office for two decades as an angry man and mouthing his trade mark lines in his baritone, the Big B opted for experimental films, like Black, Paa, Piku and Pink when he was past 60 years of age. But Alia did Highway at the ripe age of 22 when she was just one-film old! Besides, Amitabh gave more than a dozen flops in a row before he hit the jackpot with Zanjeer (1973), whereas most of Alia’s first 10 films except Shaandaar have done well, some like Dulhania have been super duper hits.
While she is flawless in serious roles, she is equally at home in lighter roles making them electrifying with her live wire energy, effervescence and spontaneity. Countless films have presented the colourful Holi scene from Mother India to Sholay to Silsila, but none of them can match the sheer energy, rhythm, colour and spectacle of the Holi scene in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. The credit for that goes to Alia and Varun Dhawan who have performed with gay abandon and carefree spirit. Immersed in the Holi spirit, Alia looks stunningly beautiful with her infectious dance steps.
Very few of her contemporaries can come anywhere near her versatility. In 2014, two years after her debut, she acted in Highway, Two States and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania. There isn’t anything remotely similar in Dulhania and Highway, but she pulled it off with flying colours. Again in 2016, Alia acted in Kapoor & Sons, Dear Zindagi and Udta Punjab, each is so different from the other. When one sees her in Badrinath Ki Dulhania after seeing her in Udta Punjab, one can’t believe one’s eyes. The transformation is so complete. Barely 24, she shows glimpses of Nargis in serious roles, spontaneity of Madhubala in light roles and fleeting shades of Waheeda Rehman in emotional roles. She can rise to the sublime standards of Meena Kumari if she is given the role of Chhoti Bahu of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. If she doesn’t let her success and stardom go into her head and selects films which offer opportunities to display her whole repertoire as an actor, the day is not far when she will be hailed as Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman all rolled in one! She is the female version of Ranbir Kapoor but he is yet to do a role in a film noir like Udta Punjab. Watching two such enormously talented actors together in Dragon directed by Ayan Mukerji will be a treat.
Alia has an impressive body of her work and won a number of awards, including the best actress award at the 18th IIFA for Udta Punjab. If she remains focused and grows as a creative actor for the next two decades, she could be Meryl Streep of Bollywood. Her blank eyes and traumatised face after the gangrape in Udta Punjab resembles Meryl’s face in Sophie’s Choice when she is asked to choose between her son and daughter to be gassed by the Nazi security. Meryl has been nominated 18 times for the Oscar, the highest for an actress. Alia can match that number of nomination for the Indian awards by the time she turns 30.
Though not a formally trained singer, she became an instant rage among love-struck young hearts with her moving Main tenu samjhawan ki.
The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Libya