Alia Bhatt is the greatest Bollywood actor of her generation, and she doesn’t even know it
Alia Bhatt is the greatest actress working in Hindi films today, and she doesn’t even know it. She might even be among the greatest contemporary actors in Hindi cinema, period, regardless of gender, but imagine telling her that.
The thing about Alia, who turns 26 on March 15, is that she’s perhaps the most naturally gifted performer we have right now. Unlike the scores of her contemporaries, who can’t help but remind everyone of that three-month residency they did at the Lee Strasberg institute, Alia needs neither education nor pretentious anecdotes to prove her credentials. Her powers are formidable, and luckily for both her and her audience, unlikely to ever diminish.
Lessons can be forgotten, but you see, what Alia accomplishes on screen cannot be taught - it’s instinctive. She was designed to be something else entirely, created in Karan Johar’s secret laboratory to become just another pretty face to peddle, another young starlet forced to forever defend her nepotistic origins. But she had the one thing no one, least of all Karan, could have anticipated: talent.
After her lukewarm debut in Student of the Year, she has made a series of excellent career choices, aligning herself with promising filmmakers and routinely delivering exceptional performances, even if the films themselves are rather ordinary.
On the heels of yet another nuanced turn in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, here’s a look at her five best roles.
Highway is a great example of Alia’s talent. It’s almost as if she, from the first frame, is in an active disagreement with the tone that director Imtiaz Ali strikes with his ambitious, but messy drama about a kidnapped girl experiencing the Stockholm Syndrome. Her dreamy performance is not at all like the on-the-nose melodrama that Imtiaz routinely revels in.
I have it on good authority that Alia’s Bihari accent in Udta Punjab is above reproach. How uncommon is that, in an industry that to this day treats accents like comedy relief - the Goans all say ‘man’ and the Marathis are all named ‘Tawde’ and the Dilliwalas can’t help but pepper their language with colourful expletives. But Alia was not just heartbreakingly magnetic in director Abhishek Chaubey’s drug drama, she was authentic. It was an internalised performance in a film that was all about the externalities.
Dear Zndagi is another film that simply can’t keep up with Alia’s charms. In Gauri Shinde millennial film about millennial problems, Alia finally played a character who seems to be the closest to what she might be in real life - an urban girl experiencing the perils of big city loneliness, and struggling with the pressures of surviving in a concrete jungle, alone despite being perpetually surrounded by people. Also, it’s no small feat to go toe-to-toe with Shah Rukh Khan and manage to not embarrass yourself.
One of the best qualities about Alia as a performer is just how perceptive she is. She knows exactly which buttons to push, and more importantly when to take her foot off the pedal. For instance, Raazi is one those rare movies in which she quietly slid into her environment, and resisted the temptation to draw attention to herself. It’s one thing that she’s playing a spy, which makes her acting choices thematically relevant, but she could so easily have put on a distracting Kashmiri accent, or fallen into the same trap that consumes lesser actors. Instead, she chooses to let Sehmat be Sehmat, using her body language and eyes to communicate what her words can’t.
There is a lot to love about Gully Boy - shiny, attractive things like Ranveer Singh and the music and the Bombayness of it all - but underneath all of this, balancing the film on their steady shoulders, like the chawls that act as foundations to Mumbai’s skyscrapers, is a horde of supporting actors. Leading them is Alia, whose adorable feistiness is a thing to behold. Her Safeena is the sort of girl who’s aware of her otherworldly allure, but is just as prone to scaring people away. And that’s the insecurity with which Alia plays her.