Why Alia Bhatt’s Filmfare Best Actress win for Udta Punjab is a great sign for Hindi cinema

Pradeep Menon

Jan,22 2017 09:41:54 IST

On September 19, 2012, I was at Mehboob Studio for some patchwork shoot for an ad film, with the cast of Karan Johar’s upcoming film, in which he was launching three new faces. When the three of them entered, their personality differences were stark.

There was the lively one, Varun (Dhawan), who cheerfully greeted everyone on the set. There was the brooding one, Sidharth (Malhotra), who preferred to spend time by the mirror. And there was the shy one, Alia (Bhatt), who looked far more nervous and self-conscious than one would expect an actor to be. Needless to say, that day everyone made the shoot about the boys.

Exactly a month later, Student of the Year hit theatres. That film was about the boys as well, because in the film, Alia Bhatt’s character wasn’t even a serious contender for the ‘title’. Her Shanaya Singhania wasn’t much more than arm candy for the boys; and as an actor, Alia just scraped through that part, looking truly at ease only in the songs.

There was a phase in her career when it looked like Alia Bhatt was doomed to go down the same path that women in cinema (and indeed, most other professions) tend to go — in the shade of the larger-than-life alpha-male. But it took Alia only one more film — her next release, Imtiaz Ali’s Highway — to make everyone notice her precocious talent.

Alia was searing in Highway, displaying a maturity that few actors that young have ever shown. She could hold long takes with the camera just on her, she could show emotional range *within* those long single takes, and most of all, she could convince you that she was the character.

Alia Bhatt in (clockwise from top left) Student Of The Year; Udta Punjab; Dear Zindagi and Highway

Alia Bhatt in (clockwise from top left) Student Of The Year; Udta Punjab; Dear Zindagi and Highway

If you compare Highway with her latest release, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, you’ll notice how remarkably similar the two films are, if you consider plot alone. A young girl with an active life has a chance encounter with a mysterious older man. She opens up to that man, eventually revealing to him her deepest, darkest secret. She falls in love with that man soon after, but realises there’s no future there. So she moves on with positivity, a stronger person.

So similar in theme, yet the two films are so remarkably different in space and texture, that you fully begin to appreciate the range Alia Bhatt, the actor, has. Her Veera in Highway and her Kaira in Dear Zindagi were two different urban girls, who could also exist in any city in the country. Yes, most of her films have had her play the chirpy urban girl, but she’s managed to set each of them apart in different ways. Her Ananya Swaminathan in 2 States was bold and mature, her Kavya in Humpty Sharma was spunky and funny.

And who can forget Udta Punjab, easily one of the finest performances of 2016? Scarcely would one have imagined Alia Bhatt as the diminutive, tanned and freckled Bihari girl living a life fraught with tragedy. It wasn’t just a physical and emotional departure for her, but also a reminder of the fact that young female actors today are staking their claim to diverse, daring roles that push their limits as actors.

There has been talk of Sonam Kapoor deserving Best Actor — Female awards over Alia Bhatt for her terrific performance in Neerja. Sonam was excellent, but you cannot help feel that the role could have been done by many of the leading young female stars of today. (Surely we can imagine Parineeti Chopra or even Alia Bhatt doing an equally good, if not better job had they done Neerja instead.)

However, Alia’s anonymous rural Indian girl in Udta Punjab is the kind of performance you just cannot imagine any other actor doing, simply because that character seemed like a whole new person altogether.

Alia Bhatt also sets a terrific example with how little she cares about what’s said about her. Remember, there was a time in 2014 when, if there was one name that could rival Narendra Modi’s presence in Whatsapp group discourse across India, it was Alia Bhatt – all because of a Koffee With Karan rapid fire. While India’s patriarchy (which includes men and women alike) was sniggering at Alia’s ‘IQ’, she was sporting enough to star in that excellent AIB sketch, ‘Genius of the Year’.

It is this attitude that makes her a beacon of hope for our cinema, because if an actor doesn’t care what’s said about them, they will be willing to be truly courageous with their choice of roles. Films are being made specifically keeping Alia Bhatt in mind. That can only augur well for a nation that’s starved of films that break the mould and bring forward what it’s really like to be a woman in India.

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 09:41 AM