The Incorruptible Alia Bhatt

The baby-faced actor has used innocence as the scaffolding on which her career-defining performances rest.
The Incorruptible Alia Bhatt

An anxiety formed when two posters for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), starring Alia Bhatt as the titular brothel madam, dropped. One was of her in braids, a blouse and skirt, looking as one report put it, “vulnerable” and “innocent”; and the other, in black and white, of her in a sari and red bindi, looking “fierce”; the former painterly, the latter photographic. 

This was the anxiety — could Alia Bhatt’s face, attached as it was to headstrong, pouty youthisms in 2 States (2014), Dear Zindagi (2016) and peppy romantic comedies where sex feels like a sweet plaything (think of the Dulhaniya films), conjure the violation and volition of the brothel madam? It was a leap that not only her as an artist, but we too, as spectators, had to make — to reimagine the face in contexts we would never have imagined it in, arguing its malleability.

Would her performance make that leap palatable? Would the innocence her face exudes lend itself to a story that is founded on sexualized brutality?   

Posters of Gangubai Kathiawadi
Posters of Gangubai Kathiawadi

Innocence as a Weapon 

This question becomes more urgent with Gangubai Kathiawadi because calling something “innocent” is invariably to repress its sexuality, as the scholar in psychoanalysis Jacqueline Rose noted in her analysis of the forever child of literature, Peter Pan. With that in mind, how can an innocent face, then, inhere the interiority of dirty, violative sex? 

Yet that is the contradiction that forms the bedrock of Bhatt’s character-building, and the actor, with her sharply observed performance, weaponised this innocence to create a character who wears contradiction on her sleeve. At no point are we allowed to forget the innocence that was erased and written over to produce a “madam”, a politician, a protector. When she puts her hands on the back of a bench, seated cross legged, looking out into the world; when she sits next to her lover whom she’s married off to another, sunglasses on, ankles of one leg on the knee of the other, a spread out posture; when she puts her feet on the chair in front of her, flipping a beedi onto her lips; when she walks putting the pressure of all her weight on each step — every gesture is a forceful act of un-making that innocence. It doesn’t come naturally, and yet, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, uncharacteristic. To not forget that she is the boss, and to not forget that she was wrenched out of her childlike idyll to become this boss. In this performance, as in many others, it is adulthood that has to be performed clinically and strategically, as though innocence is what comes innately and anything else involves an effort.  

In an interview, she invoked this very innocence, that very criticism thrown at her: “[Gangubai’s] innocence and her vulnerability was intact, despite having to play this very strong role for these women.” When Bhansali was building parallels with her performance, he invoked Nargis from Mother India (1957), Seema Biswas from Bandit Queen (1994), Meena Kumari in Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962);  that Bhatt’s Gangubai stands alongside these performances, in his hall of fame, all women of deep, grunting pathos, but also stands apart. Her performance does not lean into the connotations of her face, but rubs up against it; that while Kumari, Nargis, and Biswas had a bracing gravity to their gaze that lent itself to their performance of tragedy, Bhatt’s pathos comes from a face, a gaze, where youth still lives. 

A still from Highway
A still from Highway

The Edge of Trauma

This isn’t the first time Bhatt has done this, and it likely won’t be the last. If she performed the role of a kidnapped upper class girl, who quite literally stumbled into stockholm syndrome in Highway (2014), her sophomore stab as an actress, the horror of her climactic reveal of sexual abuse was made that much more poignant, even unsettling by that face crumpling with the pain of this confession. 

We assume innocence as that posture which is untainted by sex. So, even when Bhatt performed love and sex on screen in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014) and Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017), with her co-star Varun Dhawan — another face that is stuck in youth — it felt like two unbaked bodies yanking at each other, and vaguely unlike sex itself. When they kiss, it is soft, shot with flares and bright light, evoking minimal darkness. There was little urgency to their performance of longing, and this chaste charm has become a constant in the chemistry she shares with all her co-actors including Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor.  

To see innocence suddenly distorted is to see a vision of childhood itself — safe, untroubled by culture, a return to nature — as distorted. It is this distortion that makes her performance in Udta Punjab, as an aspiring hockey player who gets caught in the drug trade in Punjab, being physically and sexually abused, pimped out and hopeless, that much more hurtful. Each howl, each fetal collapse feels like lost time. 

There is something tactical here. Just like how writers will create a kind, loving presence of a character, only to bump them off in order to firmly create pathos — because we wonder, looking at that character, “All that chummy goodness, all it could have wrought, all gone now” — Bhatt’s innocence is a way for us to imagine its future, and to see it pulverized is to see that future, too, wither away. 

The Giggling Girl

The film’s journey here shifts, as it does in Gangubai Kathiawadi — to return Bhatt’s character to that innocence which has been taken away so forcefully as to almost make it disappear. But innocence is resilient, and we see it in Gangubai’s friendship with Kamli, a fellow sex-worker — they skip together, bubbled by the same rope, and discuss the possibility of her getting a gold-capped tooth. To see her 5’3’’ height against her opponent, the 5’9’’ Vijay Raaz as a trans politician, is to register the comic aspect of this feud. Her threats never feel physically daunting, even when she kicks men, slaps them around, threatens women, stands up to them. And while the giggles have softened, the excitement for life hasn’t been trammelled, not entirely. This is what makes the climax more painful. That, on a pedestal, even as she has become the celebrated voice of her community, she is standing alone, crying — that innocence has fled, no trace of it left. 

In Udta Punjab on the other hand, her character’s destiny is more sweetly tied up, returning her to the joys of which she was once made. Sitting by the beach, when asked her real name, she jokes, giggling, “Mary Jane” — a play on marijuana — and then walks towards the sea to take a dunk in her clothes, with a childlike wonder and bravado; a bravado that isn’t hasn’t been cut down to practical size by her traumatic experiences. 

Innocence, after all, is a state that we have attributed to, even imposed on childhood. To be innocent is to not be ready for the world, and so it makes sense that we give it to children, those we have shielded from it, for as long as possible, untouched by irony, by cynicism. Faith comes easy; hope, easier. Innocence can often be framed as ignorance, and this becomes especially true when we speak of adults as “innocent” or “innocent-looking”. When applied to women, especially, this ignorance is flecked by infantilisation. 

And it is this very infantilisation she used so comically in Darlings (2022), where she plays a Muslim woman in an abusive marriage who takes matters into her own hands, and pulps her husband — feeding him sleeping pills, tying him up, beating and torturing him in ways he tortured her. That she looks the way she does, doe-eyed and incapable of violence, not to mention the prevailing stereotype of the married and domesticated Muslim woman being thumbed under the husband, allows Bhatt’s character to exert this violence with that much more impunity. 

A still from Darlings
A still from Darlings

The Opposite of Naive

In one scene, she applies a coat of red nail paint, red lipstick, puts on a red scrunchie and that red dress that leaves a shoulder bare, sweeping the floor, slit up her thigh (her “frocks”). It briefly allows the film to reverse this image of her, to add the contrast of sex and desire to the soft-focus sweetness of Bhatt’s Badrunissa, even if it is to be vengeful and its pretense is worn on her sleeve-lessness. Soon, though, she relapses into innocence, weeping for their lost daughter, and when a phone comes, nervous, she bumbles away, with only one foot still in heels. This performance does not last. She still needs to be protected. 

Her villainy has its limits, like Gangubai’s heroism did — murder is too much, too dark. Perhaps, the moral demands murder makes of the murderer is too heavy for a face that is still battling its alabaster sweetness? In Raazi (2018), nervously wielding a gun in Pakistan as part of a covert Indian operation, too, as critic Raja Sen wrote, “[With] her innocent face and her round cheeks — that bounce with the recoil of the gun she fires — Bhatt really looks the part of the naive little operative…”. 

Bhatt was 19 years old when she made her debut in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year, as a “girl’s got everything” teenager stuck between two bubblegum boys. It was a face and voice, with squinting eyes and unsanded pitch, that felt ambered in late teenage babbles. To, then, over the course of a snaking, versatile career, utilize this eternal youth to sometimes play it against type; to sometimes milk its obvious possibilities, and the ways in which it is socialized, is Bhatt’s gamble as a playful, conniving artist, one that reaps just as much applause as it does raise eyebrows.

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