Ms. Representation: An ode to Alia
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week we take a look at Alia Bhatt and her character choices in her cinematic journey so far
A look at Alia Bhatt’s Instagram page will tell you she loves cats, hangs with gal pals, reports to work by 7.30 am on days of shoot, works out regularly, does pilates, promotes her movies… Her feed exudes a sort of casual vibe, a millennial just doing her thing. And this vibe Alia brings to the screens as well. But there is nothing casual about her acting itself. Her casualness, in fact, is her big advantage because she catches you off guard. When you are least expecting it. This casual vibe allows Alia to wear any role convincingly and then couch within it something unanticipated.
Like in Highway, when Veera who seems to be oddly enough living out a dream road trip, after having been kidnapped, narrates an episode of child abuse – for a minute there it feels like there is nothing between Alia and the audience, no camera, no walls. It’s a raw moment. She bares it all, in one monologue, and then the weight of it rings through the entire film from thereon.
Indeed, the credit for that powerful scene must be shared between the actor and the director-writer (Imtiaz Ali) and Alia knows how important writers are. A few days ago, in an interaction, when asked about the short span of women’s careers in cinema, she said she hoped to be around until 90 in front of the camera, but also pointed out that writers had to write for women of various ages, only then could actors play them. In that same interaction, she was asked about nepotism and her answer was among the most convincing one has heard from a star kid in recent times. She said was aware of her privilege and that perhaps that is why she got the chance she did at the beginning. She also added that she worked hard and that she was not going to apologise for being her father’s daughter. Which sounded fair enough because Alia Bhatt is among the few in Bollywood that have emerged from the shells of being a ‘star kid’ and vaulted far ahead.
It may be true that Student of the Year came to her only because she was an insider, but Alia’s choice of roles thereafter shows us that she’s building up towards something serious though beguilingly, much like her own self, it all looks casual from afar. Indeed, she endeared herself to a lot of us with her AIB Video, the one where she tries to become ‘smart’ in the aftermath of that goof-up in answering a question Karan Johar posed to her in his chat show. One does not know if it started as a well-thought-out PR campaign, but that video, which showed a star kid not taking herself too seriously, with the ability to laugh at herself, came out of the blue and blew audiences away. In hindsight, it was a masterclass in taking control of the narrative.
Alia’s biggest asset is that right at the beginning of the film, she has convinced you that she is the right person for the role; she becomes that person. Like her role, though limited, in Kapoor & Sons. It is that of a cool young woman. Everything seems fine from afar. But as always, there’s something brewing underneath. A bit of pathos, some sort of scepticism, a rebellious streak, if you will, couched within that frame. Alia’s charismatic screen presence in 2 States carries the film (though her Tamil was far from being convincing). And in Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania and the sequel Badrinath ki Dulhania, she captures the aspirations of women who are restless in the face of society’s advances and all that the big world has to offer to them, to perfection. But is she being typecast? One wonders if she thought the same to herself, and out of the blue came Udta Punjab, with a difficult performance in a film about drugs, addiction and abduction.
Finally, my personal favourite from Alia’s impressive arsenal, is Dear Zindagi. It is in no way a perfect film. But the sheer fact that Dear Zindagi ‘allowed’ the lead woman to be self-indulgent, something that is exclusively a male forte in our cinemas was thoroughly refreshing. At the shrink’s couch, when Kaira breaks down and then gets her own flashback when she’s a little girl, heartbroken at being separated from her parents, is when I realised that she was the hero of the film. How often is a woman actor playing this in Bollywood? A role with a full-fledged flashback only about her? That it was written/directed by a woman (Gauri Shinde) must be read in light of Bhatt’s recent statement.
Better representation for women on screen has much to do with women making it big in other fields of the filmmaking process, especially writing and directing.