New Delhi: For someone only hours into the release of a new film—and one she’s single-handedly spearheading—Alia Bhatt is surprisingly calm.
“I usually like to get up late (on a release day),” the 23-year old said over the phone from Mumbai. “Getting up early means waiting for answers until later. So I got up around 12 today and so far so good. For me, any film is the same, irrespective of who’s heading it. Even if it’s a Kapoor& Sons where the central focus was not me, my emotions were pretty much the same. Maybe there’s external pressure (this time) and people are talking and all of that. But I think my emotions and excitement remain pretty consistent,” she said when her film Dear Zindagi released on 25 November. The film has been produced by Dharma Productions, Red Chillies Entertainment and Hope Productions.
Not too long after, much love poured in for Bhatt’s latest effort directed by Gauri Shinde that also starred Shah Rukh Khan and netted Rs.32.5 crore during the weekend. Critics lauded her ‘raw, earnest vulnerability’ and ‘knockout performance’ in the film.
Bhatt is not new to such effusive praise though. From the seven films she has done in four years, which have together made more than Rs. 450 crore, only one has failed to work. But even her harshest critics would agree that the current appeal, is based not just on statistics. The young actor, in spite of her limited experience in life and films, has delivered consistently remarkable performances, beginning with Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014), a tale of searching and self-discovery that self-admittedly changed her life and helped her win multiple awards and nominations. Her last release, director Abhishek Chaubey’s controversial drugs drama Udta Punjab where she played a Bihari migrant embroiled in a fatal addiction scam, also won accolades.
The journey, film critic Raja Sen said, has ensured Bhatt went from being this pretty, doll-faced young girl to a talent that has hunted, taken chances and moved away from safe-fit box-office films. “There is no conscious strategy (to not get typecast),” Bhatt said. “It’s not a conscious decision but feeling that comes from me, I feel like mixing it up. But that doesn’t mean I won’t do the glamorous kind of stuff. That’s also a part of who I am and what I love about this cinema. Sometimes it’s nice when you have that bank of emotions to draw from, but I have more fun creating it from a blank slate when there’s nothing there,” she added.
To be sure, nobody, not even Karan Johar himself could have foreseen this leap after Bhatt’s ‘blonde’ debut in his young romance Student Of The Year (2012), Sen emphasized. There was no great acting talent to speak of then. But as you noticed her in the films ahead, you’d realize a couple of things-one, a very strong screen presence and two, a really confident and commanding air.
“In the climax of a goofy film like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, when she spreads her arms like Shah Rukh Khan, you feel like the torch is somehow being passed. She’s the hero of that film, not the heroine,” Sen pointed out. “And we’ve seen her take chances with films like Highway before. But now I think we are at a point where she’s really up there—if you were to talk about the most exciting actresses in the country, you would name Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma and Alia Bhatt, in no particular order,” he said. “I think Alia in Udta Punjab is quite a blueprint—if this is what the star kids of today can do then nepotism may not be all bad,” he added.
Secondly, even beyond the critically acclaimed performances and box office hits, Bhatt has carved a niche for herself, thanks to her strategic positioning in the brand endorsement and social media circuit. The actor who currently endorses a clutch of high-profile brands including Coca Cola, Philips, Cornetto, Garnier, Maybelline, Caprese, Cadbury Perk, Hero MotoCorp and MakeMyTrip, charges between Rs1-1.5 crore per deal that typically lasts a year, a category that brand experts refer to as tier one and attribute to her being young, vivacious and approachable.
“The one thing that comes to mind when you think of Alia Bhatt as a brand, and she may not have planned it that way, is that she comes across as a very authentic person,” said Saurabh Uboweja, chief executive and chief brand strategist, Brands of Desire.
Except for Student of the Year (a relatively glamorous debut), if there was a strategy at all—and it was probably an instinct—it was that Bhatt went on to appear real and relatable in all her off-screen engagements.
“When you do real stuff, you always become more attractive for brands which also want to project a very real, authentic image,” Uboweja said. “And she’s got another edge—she’s someone who relates to younger audiences. So it becomes a very interesting mix. There is no pretence or hypocrisy, it’s that kind of appeal that she brings to the table. Right now any brand that looks at young teenagers (like fashion excluding luxury fashion), with an upper limit of 25-26 is a very good fit for her,” he added.
The rise of public figures like Bhatt also has to do with the big shift in how youngsters view icons today. The era of the unreachable superstar is gone and social media helps merge on and off-screen personas, said Kiran Khalap, co-founder and managing director at brand and communications consultancy Chlorophyll about the actor who has over 9 and 10 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, respectively.
Social media following helps in more ways than one. It reinforces her role as a brand ambassador and makes her an influencer. “What happens is if I’m an actor and I have a following, what you as a brand would do, is give me content which appears authentic and gets consumed on social media,” Uboweja said.
Saujanya Shrivastava, chief marketing officer, MakeMyTrip, agreed, mentioning that Bhatt and Ranveer Singh (who features in the ads with her) make for huge stars who are open, accessible, irreverent, not bound by a particular image, willing to experiment and laugh at themselves. The multi-year endorsement contract negotiated with Bhatt since March 2016 has played a huge part in helping the company meet its larger objective of driving the shift from offline to online hotel bookings yielding a 63% year-on-year growth in new users acquired, a 59% increase in total users and the highest ever hotel transactions in any given quarter in Q1 FY2017.
Shalini Raghavan, chief marketing officer, Consumer Products Division, L’Oréal India also emphasized that Bhatt commands huge following among the digital audience, a ready base to tap into and the company has seen that they get an average engagement of 12-15% versus an industry benchmark of 9% when they have Bhatt’s image on Instagram posts.
Incidentally, along with unconventional, slice-of-life movie choices, Bhatt is remembered for a hugely popular video called Genius of the Year mocking her intellectual abilities conceptualized by comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) that came in the wake of her infamous faux pas on Karan Johar’s popular chat show Koffee With Karan in 2014.
“It managed to set her apart as a girl who is not just ditsy but also willing to laugh at herself,” Sen said. He said that in the period between her faux pas and the AIB Roast, she got incredible cache and “now all the stars are trying to appear on these comedy shows and make fun of themselves and seem self-effacing when they aren’t. In that way she did something clutter-breaking and refreshing that worked.”
But none of this, at least for the young actor herself, is a conscious strategy.
“I don’t try (to project a specific image off-screen),” she said. “That would be so much work, it’s like you’re acting in front of the camera and behind it as well. So I am myself and it’s not a clinical approach. Whatever is happening is happening organically, and even if it’s not, it’s okay. That works for me and it’s not exhausting because I’m not trying. I’m just me.”
The actor has never regretted joining the movies straight out of school and missing out on the kind of life most people her age enjoy and take for granted. “This is my regular life. And this is the way it should be. There is no destination. I just want to keep going. I just want to stay on the road,” she said signing off to catch up on some more glowing reviews.