Sep 2023

THE AGE OF ALIA

Remember her name: ALIA BHATT is a Hindi movie MEGASTAR. And now, writes Courtney Thompson, she’s taking Hollywood

PHOTOGRAPHY by GEORGES ANTONI
STYLING by RACHEL WAYMAN

Twenty-two million people live in the Mumbai metropolitan area. It’s the most densely populated city in India, known as the City of Dreams and home to British-Indian actor Alia Bhatt, who you probably won’t find walking down the street. Because with more than three times the population of Mumbai following her on Instagram alone (79.4 million), she’s one of the most recognisable faces in Indian film and wouldn’t exactly have a peaceful time.

TOP: SCANLAN THEODORE jacket, $1,400; MARIAM SEDDIQ dress, $3300; ABOVE: GUCCI gloves, POA, and top, $1100; RIGHT: SPORTMAX dress, $1365, and shoes, $6740, MEADOWLARK earrings, POA.

So when Bhatt visits cities like New York – with less than half as many people – the thing she looks forward to most is simply walking through the park with her daughter. “We can’t really do that in India,” Bhatt says, speaking from NYC where she’s holidaying with her husband, fellow actor Ranbi Kapoor, and their 10-month-old baby, Raha. “I can’t take her out like that, it becomes a little complicated for us. So just walking around and watching her fall asleep in her pram, taking her to cafes and shopping. I put her in my little carrier and she’s just like, strapped onto me. That’s something that I really cherish.”

Free time is not something Bhatt has had a lot of over the past few years. In addition to Raha’s arrival in November and getting married in April last year, she starred in four movies – including the Oscar-winning epic RRR – and filmed her first Hollywood movie, Heart of Stone, in 2022. While Bhatt can’t speak about the project due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strikes, acting in the Netflix spy thriller (streaming now) opposite Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan was a significant moment in her career. She also has her own production company, Eternal Sunshine Productions, as well as a maternity and children’s clothing line, Ed-a-Mamma, and was named as a global house ambassador for Gucci. “When you think of luxury, when you think of fashion, when you think of keeping up with today and the younger generations, Gucci’s number one,” says Bhatt, speaking about what drew her to the Italian house. “I’ve always loved the brand and their ethos. And the clothes; they feel luxurious, but they also feel like home.”

Bhatt is more attuned to the reality of working in the film industry than most, given her father, Mahesh Bhatt, was one of India’s most successful directors and producers, and her mother, Soni Razdan, was an actor. Though if you ask Bhatt, she didn’t pay much attention to her parents’ glitzy careers growing up. “I remember the life lessons that my father would give me,” she says. “I remember the way my mother would care for me when I was unwell. I remember the conversations we had at our dining table. I remember the time we spent with our grandparents.”

“I remember liking being good at something CREATIVE.”

ABOVE: MARIAM SEDDIQ dress, $3300; BELOW LEFT: GUCCI gloves, POA, and top, $1100; BELOW RIGHT: GUCCI blouse, $3650, stockings, $530, skirt, $5200, and shoes, $1350; BOTTOM: GUCCI top, $1850, skirt, POA, stockings, $530, and shoes, $1760. HAIR Mark Townsend, MAKEUP Fiona Stiles.

Bhatt’s first professional role was as a five-year-old in her father’s 1999 thriller Sangharsh, but her earliest memories of film are of watching “random movies on satellite and Indian movies and dancing in front of the TV” in her bedroom in Mumbai. A natural performer, Bhatt tells a story about being in kindergarten and being called upon by her teacher to sing in front of the class. “She said, ‘Now look at Alia, everybody’s going to sing like Alia,’ and I remember really enjoying that attention. I remember really liking being good at something creative and being a performer. That’s where the excitement started.” That excitement grew and Bhatt ultimately left school in her final year to pursue acting. Bhatt is candid that she was initially naive about her privileged position in getting into the industry. “I was aware that my family was in the movie industry,” she explains, “so I naturally was also more inclined towards it, but it’s not like my father ever spoke to me like, ‘Oh, the day you want to act, we will give you this movie.’ He never brought that up. Never. And, in fact, my mum struggled as an actor. Not many people know this. She was always looking for more work as an actor, she doesn’t feel like she got her acting due, and this is being married to a director and producer.”

Bhatt describes how her mother’s passion for the craft – travelling to London for work at any chance she got – but struggle to break through, meant that her focus was on enjoying acting, no matter where it led, or how much success it brought. “You know, I’ll find a way to just enjoy that passion, even if I don’t make it big as an actor,” she explains. “I always had that doubt. It was not like it was ever a sure thing.” It also resulted in a bit of prickliness when she was asked about nepotism early on in her career. “My initial response to it was very defensive because I just felt like, you know, I work hard, so why the question?” Bhatt says honestly. “But I think with time and with age, you realise that there’s a lot of struggle in the world and there is a case to be made in acknowledging the headstart and acknowledging I had an easier path to get into the room.”

But even if she had a leg-up, it didn’t make her immune from criticism. Bhatt’s first starring role in the 2012 romantic comedy Student of the Year was panned by critics, leaving the then-19-year- old determined to prove herself. When she talks about turning points in her career, she names her second film, Highway, as pivotal. “It really opened me up as an actor,” she says, reflecting on the experience of working on the 2014 Hindi movie, which encouraged her to pursue films that might not have been commercial hits but gave her something to work with as a performer. “I made quite a few interesting, and probably risky, choices early in my career because I think I was trying to prove myself. I was always looking for roles that felt like there was more to do than just be the second act.”

In the decade since her debut, Bhatt has averaged two to three films a year, and her work has been recognised by every major film body in India, winning her a National Film Award (India’s equivalent to the Oscars) earlier this year for her role in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Indian cinema is booming: between 1500 to 2000 Indian films are produced every year in more than 20 languages, making it – in terms of the sheer number of movies made – the largest film industry in the world. It also has a captive Australian audience (ranking second only to Hollywood in popularity), given India is the third largest country of birth for Australian residents. Bhatt stars in Hindi films and is particularly known for projects that get labelled as “female-driven” – by virtue of her playing main characters that are central to the plot. At this, Bhatt is exasperated. “I hate those tags,” she says matter-of-factly. “I find them ridiculous.”

She’s also something of a sartorial sensation on-screen. After her most recent rom-com, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, was released, her character’s wardrobe went viral; fans were going to tailors and dying saris to replicate the ones Bhatt wore in the movie. “They were very into this new sort of celebration of the colour that we put into the saris,” she explains. “And that was actually our intention; we wanted to make the sari cool and young, it shouldn’t be that you’re just wearing a sari for a wedding function or for an Indian function. To me, the sari is the most comfortable and stunning garment – better than any gown or any dress or any suit that I’ve ever worn.”

Beyond her work on-screen, Bhatt’s always been thoughtful about the larger repercussions of the film and fashion industries, which culminated in her being given the Time100 Impact Award in 2022. A few years ago, she started selling the clothes she wore on red carpets or in movies and donating the money to charity. “Initially I would try to donate some of the clothes, but I would wonder, ‘Where are they really going?’ And when I dug into it, they basically ended up as landfill,” she explains. “The fashion industry is the second-largest contributor to climate damage. So that’s where it came from, where I was just extremely aware and conscious of it.” She’s done the same with her saris from Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, with proceeds going to SNEHA, a non-profit that aims to make public health services in India more accessible for women and children.

With six films currently in pre-production, Bhatt is returning to set in October, although she can’t say anything about the project. Until then, she’s enjoying some much-needed time off, and walks in Central Park with Raha.

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