It’s hard to recall another film star from the last couple of decades who has consistently redefined both herself and our expectations the way Alia Bhatt has. When she made her debut in Student of the Year (2012), it’s fair to say she had the the least impressive turn-up, but over the past 10 years, she has selected her projects well, refused to be slotted to a type, and become that rare female actor who can flex box office muscle.
As the 29-year-old actor completes a decade in the industry, we look at her films and performances. And we’re keeping RRR (2022) out of the ranking because it is simply not an Alia Bhatt by any standard. The actor repeatedly mentioned in her promotional interviews that she would have done anything just to be a part of the Rajamouli universe — and that’s precisely what happened. The hyper-masculine universe of RRR has little place for Bhatt. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule as far as Bhatt’s filmography goes.
It makes for an amazing casting coup on paper — Alia Bhatt stepping into the shoes of her step-sister while her father comes out of retirement to direct the sequel of his 30-year-old box-office blockbuster. Yet, Sadak 2 is a puzzlingly dull film, devoid of any edge or poignance. Every frame and every use of background music is so particularly Vishesh Films, but strangely enough, it's Bhatt herself who seems least at ease here, unable to channel her energy in a film that has little place for it.
Brahmastra isn’t the weakest Alia Bhatt performance, but it's the film’s timing that hurts the actor’s filmography the most. Brahmastra arrived in the same year that Bhatt delivered Gangubai Kathiawadi and Darlings. Even though Bhatt occupies one-half of the love story that lies at the centre of this coming-of-age fantasy adventure, her Isha makes little impact. It’s an underwritten character and no one could look past how the bulk of her dialogues were screams of “Shivaaaa”, as Isha called for her beloved Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor). Commercially speaking, Brahmastra is the biggest hit of Bhatt’s career and yet she has so little to do in it.
Bhatt looked elegant and beautiful in Abhishek Verman’s 2019 costume-drama, but as someone who had soared with her naturalistic portrayals of a contemporary woman, she struggled to do justice to the poetry-heavy dialogue or bring the romantic gravitas that we associate with period films. Bhatt’s shortcomings become all the more glaring because the actors around her, especially Madhuri Dixit, are clearly more seasoned at melodrama.
This film was one of the biggest hits of the year and it hasn’t aged well at all. Despite a few inspired moments of farcical lunacy, Badrinath ki Dulhania was far too forgiving towards its hero and far too unappreciative of its other protagonist’s potential. Vaidehi (Bhatt) is interesting on paper, but we barely get any scenes exploring her inner life (or the actor’s gift for comedy). Bhatt landed the local dialect and is at her best when the script lets her use her comic timing. The scene with a conversation on dowry, in which Vaidehi goes hammer and tongs at regressive traditions, is a reminder that this film may have fared better if it had been about the dulhania (bride) rather than Badrinath.
In Karan Johar’s return to his classic candyfloss escapism, Bhatt’s Shanaya Singhania was the embodiment of every presumption that the audience made about celebrity kids. As it turns out, our disdain for the light-hearted character turned into disdain for the performance and the perfromer itself. Bhatt is undoubtedly raw in Student of the Year, but it is a debut and you can still see hints of potential, like in the hospital scene where Shanaya earnestly folds her hands in a praying gesture, before realizing she has overdone the sincerity. For someone who went on to produce (or co-produce) 10 of Bhatt’s 18 films, Johar was not particularly attentive towards Shanaya’s character here, focusing his gaze on the two heroes instead.
Much like its spiritual sequel Badrinath ki Dulhania, Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania is essentially about its hero. However, the screenplay makes space for Bhatt who outshines everyone else, particularly in the first half. Who else can pull off the line “Main paida hi hot hui thi (I was born hot)” with such a disarming blend of arrogance and innocence? Bhatt excels at portraying new-age progressive young women and her Kavya Pratap Singh is feisty, quick-witted and charming. The film duly ends with a grand gesture from Kavya as she proposes to the hero in an amusing turning of the tables. The moment feels almost prophetic of how the actor was going to redefine, in her own capacity, our expectations of a Hindi Film Heroine.
Bhatt plays Alia Arora, a low-lying black sheep who prefers to stay in the backdrop amidst a bunch of caricatures. She carries the part with the ease and tapped into the latent melancholy of an orphan who is loved, but not openly embraced, who has taught herself to smile and daydream as a coping mechanism. Look out for the moment where she exclaims, “Main naajayaz hoon...So cool!” It is a moment that’s delivered with such infectious energy that we forget how ridiculous that line would have sounded coming from a lesser performer.
Meghna Gulzar’s spy-thriller feels like a turning point in Bhatt’s career. Her performance in Raazi held the film together even as the narrative got tangled in tropes and contrivances. Each time Bhatt’s Sehmat makes a narrow escape, we see on her face both a sense of relief and dread, and Bhatt makes us care for Sehmat in a way that the narrative doesn’t really earn. The “Mujhe ghar jaana hai (I want to go home)” scene might have acquired meme-level fame, but it’s also one of the most heart wrenching moments.
It’s low-key tragic that Bhatt has only done three romantic comedies in her career so far. 2 States is one of them and has all the harmless fun of a Bollywood romance. Bhatt effortlessly captures the sweet perseverance of Ananya, an optimistic young woman who will not let orthodoxy win over love. The film (yet again, alas) unfolds from the hero’s perspective, but it relies equally on both the leads. Bhatt shines in multiple scenes, like when she delivers a monologue at the wedding and when Krrish proposes to her in the middle of a job interview. The glee on Bhatt’s face is a sight to behold and perhaps the closest we have to a romantic moment that’s at the same level as Jim finally asking Pam out in The Office.
A film about domestic violence that switches moods faster than most people change channels, and ranges from macabre to slapstick? Bhatt chose a cracker of her film to introduce herself as a producer. As an actor, Bhatt plays the battered wife Badrunissa, who goes through many epiphanies and navigates contradictions. Bhatt captures each of Badru’s dilemmas and helms the narrative, without being outplayed by Shefali Shah and Vijay Varma, who are both at the top of their game. Bhatt’s brilliance lies in how self-assured she is, never buckling under the pressure of being the ‘star’ of the film.
Kaira, the protagonist of Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, is someone riddled with childhood trauma, struggling to make peace with her avoidant-style relationship patterns, while also being belligerent and determined to open herself up to love. Bhatt shows the many facets of this character and carries the film confidently on her own. Her co-star was Shah Rukh Khan and they play off each other’s energy beautifully.
While Shakun Batra’s film is not an Alia Bhatt film by any stretch, the actor leaves an indelible mark on the film. She plays a chirpy, happy-go-lucky character with a melancholic past of her own, which should have felt familiar because we’d seen Bhatt play roles like this, but she’s so good that you can’t look away from her. In the few scenes that she appears in, Bhatt manages to make the manic pixie dream girl stereotype feel like a real person.
It’s thanks to Bhatt’s performance that this film isn’t just a Ranveer Singh vehicle, but also the story of Safeena, a fiery young woman from a conservative Muslim household who is determined to have freedom. The role had gimmicky details, like a ghetto accent, but Bhatt keeps her portrayal rooted and the affectations never take over. The scenes in which she erupts into violent outbursts are raw and intimidating, but it’s in the quiet moments, when we see her feeling like an outsider in Murad’s life, that really stay with you. For example, when an exasperated Murad suggests breaking up after being confronted by an increasingly shrill Safeena, Safeena throws the phone away and goes quiet. She lets us glimpse the vulnerability under Safeena’s shrewd and street smart exterior — Bhatt nails this moment.
This was the first time that Bhatt made audiences sit up and notice just how powerful she can be as a performer. In Abhishek Choubey’s cautionary tale about Punjab’s drug crisis, Bhatt plays Kumari Pinky, a migrant laborer from Bihar. The actor doesn’t have too many lines. It’s Bhatt’s desolate gaze and body language that do the talking, from the way Kumari hits her head in frustration, her tears when she’s being held captive by a local mafia, to the way she breaks into a run after escaping her captors. We see Kumari as more than a sum of tragedies because Bhatt, once again, is able to hold up the humanity of the character she’s playing.
Highway carries many elements that would go on to become recurring themes in the Bhatt’s chosen roles — a character with a dual life, a journey of self-discovery, a long-impending emotional outburst. Bhatt is visibly raw in this film, but she makes that rawness work. It felt almost like Bhatt was discovering herself as an actor just as her character Veera was slowly making sense of the new world she finds herself in after being abducted. Highway was the first film in which Bhatt was the lead, and it shattered the image of frivolousness that Bhatt had been saddled with after Student of the Year.
Especially in a year where alpha-male hero narratives dominated mainstream Indian cinema, Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi served as a reminder that there’s more to a hero than being manly. A few years ago, if you were asked to picture a quintessential Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine, Alia Bhatt would probably not even make the shortlist. Yet as Gangubai Kathiawadi, the actor felt like an organic part of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s operatic universe as the embodiment of strength and poetic melancholy. Bhatt played a role that required her to age 20 years and more, and she does all this with elegant ease. When Gangubai nervously meets the Prime Minister and gradually gains confidence in her voice, we see a wounded woman who spent several years in disrepute and learned to pick herself up to reach where she was at that moment. Rarely has a Bhansali film depended so singularly on one actor, and Bhatt knocks it out of the park.