It is late at night in a fictional Punjabi town and a few streets away from a huge anti-drugs music concert, two dramatically different types of junkies, both on the run, are hiding out in the same ruins. The boy is the show’s cocky headliner, the girl a Bihari migrant who has just saved his life armed with rage and a hockey stick. He’s stupefied by this knight in raggedy armour, but he—like so many of us in the audience—is a sheltered fool who knows little, and she, wailing about the nightmares she’s lived through is telling him just how horrible she’s had it.
That scene is the dramatic peak of Udta Punjab, a tense emotive crescendo where Shahid Kapoor watches as Alia Bhatt speaks of gang rape and devastation and then, because words can’t convey enough, she bends down and kisses him. It is an abrupt, startling kiss, a kiss that has the dual effect of leaving Kapoor stunned and—at least in the theatre I was at—of making the audience laugh, more out of relief, I suspect, at getting away from an unsavoury diatribe, than at something funny. She follows up by saying that a kiss is the only thing that hasn’t been done to her, and the stark, dynamite delivery hits us all. The audience falls deathly silent.
That moment is a revelatory one, as is the performance preceding it—a put-upon performance that never once threatens to rise up and overpower the story, a victim having left her screen presence behind on camera to fully inhabit the character of a pinpricked prisoner taken forcefully from hockey to heroin. It is a high point in a film that contains more than its fair share of them, certainly, but a week after watching the film twice, I remain taken aback by what turned out to be the most phenomenal casting decision: Alia Bhatt is 23 years old, and she has no business being in this film.
We first met Bhatt in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year four years ago, where she played an unashamedly plastic part in an unashamedly plastic film. It is the kind of thing you expect pretty Bollywood children with loaded last-names to do, preen and pose and pout as if a movie is merely a bigger selfie-stick. On its heels, rather unpredictably, came the diametrically different Highway, an Imtiaz Ali film that demanded a strong, memorable performance. Playing an entitled young woman who falls for her rustic kidnapper, Bhatt isn’t flawless in the part—though one can argue it is a messily written and developed character with abrupt shifts in behaviour—but she was undoubtedly impressive. A girl we needed to take seriously.
Yet, at the very same time, a girl we needed to laugh at. Slammed and meme-d for her lack of general knowledge awareness on a talk show, Bhatt starred in an online video about an airheaded actress going to a gymnasium for the mind. The way she wholeheartedly mocked her perceived persona—learning math via calculating the VAT on a freshly-imported Dior handbag—was remarkable not because it was clever (it was) but because Bollywood and the people in it take themselves far too seriously. With one giggly, graceful video, Bhatt suddenly made it cool for actors and actresses to step off their invisible pedestals and actually laugh at themselves.
Watching Bhatt’s first few features, I’d felt the actress possessed a sort of effervescent charm, a casual likability that she was playing up in cutesy fashion—I was convinced she was modelling herself on Madhuri Dixit and the plucky sauciness that characterised Dixit’s early, fresh-faced work. I still believe she has a Dixit switch inside her that amplifies the tone of her performance instantly, but now there’s more than the obvious, from a girl who appears to be constantly pushing—even from between her cheesiest films—for more. In Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, for example, she is basically playing the leading man—complete with welcoming her lover, arms-outstretched a la Shah Rukh Khan.
In the bewildering Shaandaar, a children’s film that pretended it wasn’t a children’s film, Bhatt embraced the goofball role gamely, striking even when wearing a moustache for a mediocre film. She can pull it off, sure, but this obvious and hard to ignore vivacity is not always a good thing. In this year’s finely acted hit Kapoor & Sons for instance, Bhatt’s character should have been a minor supporting role but, because of the actress, it was upgraded to a ‘heroine’ part which weighed down the film. Still, it was another film where she saw what she wanted and went for it. In Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, this was an (imitation) designer lehenga, and in Kapoor & Sons, it was Fawad Khan.
I’m fascinated by just how closely Bhatt resembles the blueprint of the Bollywood star-kid—entitled, glamorous, safely ensconced in cover shoots and candied movie roles—and how determinedly she keeps moving away from this and subverting our expectations. She straddles both worlds with a casual effortlessness. Her choices are spectacular and appear recklessly bold, and it is thoroughly encouraging to see someone like her take these chances. Varun Dhawan doing a Badlapur alongside an ABCD 2 is a strong sign, but what Bhatt does in Udta Punjab, with her darkened face and her thick accent, could have gone so, so catastrophically wrong.
I repeat: Alia Bhatt is 23. In an industry of young women who take a while to find their groove, she’s a girly girl delivering captivating performances relatively out of the box. Udta Punjab is her seventh film. I don’t want to jinx the actress by saying she’ll turn out to be one of the finest performers of her time—she has a long way to go—but we, the audience, have reason to be thrilled. If Bhatt signals the future, we’re in for a tomorrow that can surprise us.