Doff that hat to Alia

She has her Oscar speech ready and is the favourite to win a national award — Alia Bhatt is on a high with a career-best act in Udta Punjab

  • Published 24.06.16
IKK KUDI: Alia Bhatt as Mary Jane in Udta Punjab

The verdict is unanimous among everyone who’s trooped into the theatres to watch Udta Punjab — Alia Bhatt soars like no other. The 23-year-old, who has gone from flaky fashionista in Student of the Year to power-packed acts in Highway and Kapoor & Sons, turns in her career-best act as the spunky Bihari migrant — and aspiring hockey player — caught in the drug crossfire of Udta Punjab. With praise pouring in — and whispers of a National Award — t2 caught up with Alia on being Mary Jane, her Oscar speech and more.

Congratulations for Udta Punjab! The praise and the box-office returns must feel special after all that the film has had to go through these last few weeks...
It definitely does make you feel that the fight (against the censor board) was worth it and that all that stress that we went through all these weeks before release has paid off. I would hope, pray and wish that something like this doesn’t happen to any filmmaker, producer, actor, ever…. I think the last straw for me was the leak of the film. I really thought that was too much to handle at that time after all that we had gone through.

But now I feel so grateful that people have stepped out of their homes and made the effort to go to the theatre and watch the film instead of simply downloading it. Hats off to all those who had it on their phones and laptops and yet chose to watch the film the legal way. It really makes me believe that once you put your mind to something and make a fight your own, then it pays off.

And having the whole country on our side has been the biggest victory for us. 

What were the trigger points when the role of Mary Jane was offered to you? 
Okay, number one, it was the story. I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I was very surprised and quite alarmed that no one had attempted to make a film like this before. The other thing equally important was that when I thought of myself playing this character, it seemed very far-fetched. 

By “far-fetched” you mean no one could think of Alia Bhatt as a Bihari migrant labourer?
Exactly! No one! It was the idea of, ‘Oh my god! Will Alia be able to pull off this character?’ That there was a question like that on my mind in the first place and I am sure the same question was that on everybody else’s minds… I think that kind of made me want to do the film even more. You know, I am not someone who goes all out to prove a point. Even when there was all this talk about my so-called low IQ, I just made a fun video (Alia Bhatt: Genius of the Year) that everyone could laugh over… it was never made to prove a point. But with this film, this challenge of proving to myself whether I could pull this off was too much to resist. 

While shooting, were there any moments of self-doubt?
Yes, there were many, actually. I was very worried about how to get the way she speaks right. The look you can manage to perfect but when if she opened her mouth and it was wrong, then it wouldn’t have taken people any time to write me off. I didn’t want people to think the way I was talking was fake or put- on. Also, I didn’t want any of it to look rehearsed. Real and organic was what I was looking at. I really worked hard at it. I sat every day for one-and-a-half months with my language coach Pankaj Tripathi and my director Abhishek Chaubey and just went through the dialogues. I made it very clear and said: ‘I am not going to learn the language…  I am just going to learn my dialogues very well’ (laughs).

Whatever improvisation you see in my performance was all done in terms of body language… I couldn’t do anything vocally because I didn’t know the language. I hardly had any dialogues in Udta Punjab. And it was sooooo tough for me because I talk so much! (Laughs) 

At just 23 and with limited experience in life, how do you manage to play such complex characters?  
It may seem strange to you but unlike most actors, I don’t use anything of my personal life in the characters I play. Whenever I have been in front of the camera, there has been nothing of Alia in Mary Jane or Veera (Highway) or Tia (Kapoor & Sons)…. I am a very emotional person yes, but there isn’t any deep and dark recess of my mind that I really need to tap into. I think what works for me is that I don’t look at my characters as complex… I just break them down into simple girls. Simple girls with some issues in life! (Laughs)

You know, I just became Mary Jane. Right now as I speak about her, she almost seems like a stranger to me because she’s buried somewhere deep down within me. If I didn’t bury her, she would come in the way of my day-to-day life because it was so disturbing playing her. When I was playing her, I would constantly have sleepless nights and when I did manage to sleep, I would have nightmares. It was quite tough on me… playing this role. I would constantly think: ‘Why is this young girl being made to go through this and what if there really are Mary Janes like this in this world?’ I was so messed up in my head I can’t tell you. But actors are anyway messed up people, right? (Laughs) 
So much of Mary Jane seems like Highway’s Veera. What particularly leapt out was Mary Jane staring at that Goa tourism billboard day in and day out, much like Veera sitting on that rock and staring at the highway and into the future....
Veera was undoubtedly very tough because it was just my second film. There was an entire emotional graph I had to go through, but there were still some things I could relate to… she was a Delhi girl, city girl, rich house…. With Mary Jane, there was nothing I could relate to… I just had to use my imagination. And it’s uncanny that you mention these two scenes in the same sentence because even I felt that this is what binds Veera and Mary Jane in some way. That’s because they are both looking ahead at a future that they aren’t sure they will be able to make a reality. With Mary Jane and the billboard, it was only that one instance when Alia came into the forefront. Mary Jane wants to go to Goa the most in her life and I connected it to what I want the most in my life…

Which is?
An Oscar! (Laughs hysterically) 

Okay! Well, everyone’s been screaming ‘National Award’ for you for Udta Punjab, for sure. Your father Mahesh Bhatt feels this is your “career-best” performance…
Winning a National Award has been a huge dream. I keep having these dreams where I have first won a best actress award, then a best actress critics award, then a National Award and then an Oscar! And I have my Oscar speech ready ever since I started talking, I think. And at this point, my dad thinks I can do no wrong! (Laughs) But yes, I would say Udta Punjab has tested me as an actress more than any other role that I have ever done. 

Does the fact that you are being singled out for praise in a film that stars actors like Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan make it all the more special?
Praise is always welcome, whether it’s individual or for the film. Since last Friday, the kind of compliments I have got have been very overwhelming and I am very blessed that I was thought of for this film… I am thankful to Shahid, actually, because he thought of me for the role. And yesterday, I was doing some interviews with Kareena and just to hear her say such nice things about me really made me feel so grateful.     

You are now Bolly’s go-to actress for all roles hatke yet commercial. That must be a lot of pressure on you!
It is to some extent, but I have decided to negate it by making some fun choices now. Like I am planning on doing a comedy, which is something I have never done before. Every film has its audience, right? I want to reach out to the world with my films and so I can’t restrict myself to only one kind of cinema. The minute I do all kinds of films is when I will believe I am a good actress. That’s the plan. 

Talking of hatke, Shah Rukh Khan’s been saying that Gauri Shinde’s film — Dear Zindagi — that stars you and him will be one-of-a-kind and completely un-Bolly…
It will be very different, for sure. It’s a kind of story we haven’t ever seen in Hindi cinema. And working with Shah Rukh has been a childhood dream, literally! I was two when DDLJ released! (Laughs) I have so much more regard for him as a person and an actor after working with him. He’s been fantastic. I am totally in love with him!

Priyanka Roy
Alia Bhatt is/isn’t Bolly’s no 1. actress today because... Tell