Alia Bhatt: The Shahenshah of Our Generation

Pop Culture

Alia Bhatt: The Shahenshah of Our Generation

Illustration: Akshita Monga

On The Ringer’s Sports Movie Podcast, Chris Ryan talked about the phenomenon of inexplicable magnetism while discussing the harmless opening sequence in Moneyball. “Some movie stars possess an inexplicable magnetism, one that makes us watching them switch a radio on and off enthralling.” Ryan was talking about Brad Pitt, but my mind raced to Alia Bhatt.

There’s a scene in Kapoor & Sons where “cool, funny, party boy” Sidharth Malhotra goes down the trope of “cool, funny, vulnerable boy”. He looks at Alia Bhatt and his shoulders drop a little as he tells her how his brother, a perfect son to his parents, actually became famous by plagiarising his first novel. The scene is not particularly well-written or well-delivered by a usually decent Sidharth Malhotra, but this is before the camera shifts to Alia Bhatt. Her reaction to such a half-assed performance and a rather dumb movie trope is magnetic – hands impishly between her legs and a wide transfixed gaze interspersed with perfectly timed nods. While watching, I suddenly cared about what was transpiring on screen; in that moment her reaction to Sidharth Malhotra’s vulnerability surpassed his actual vulnerability. Alia Bhatt had stolen the scene, wrestled it away from Sidharth Malhotra with a mere gaze.

In Indian cinema dominated by charismatic men, Alia Bhatt’s charisma isn’t based on a real-world emotional connection forged in time like Salman Khan’s. Nor is it like falling in sickly sweet love with Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul. Alia Bhatt is too young to have history with us and too fresh-faced to be tagged a legend. But there is something in this actor that leaps out at us from Student of The Year to Highway to Kapoor & Sons to Udta Punjab to Dear Zindagi, faster than she can correctly name the President of India – her physicality. From meekishly telling Sidharth Malhotra in Student of The Year about how she had to buy a suit because she didn’t have “hospital wear” to the captivating scene in Highway when she tells her parents that she’s never coming back from the mountains, the quirkiness in Alia’s physical presence, has shifted. Over a short four and a half years, her body language has become fluid, eventually approaching something almost malleable. The culmination of this transformation materialises in the now legendary deleted scene from Dear Zindagi, where Alia Bhatt, at the peak of her powers, became an underground millennial icon.

The Queen may have arrived on Karan’s couch, but with eight hits in a 31-movie career, laced with one banger performance every 18 months, is a long way off from being a bankable star.

Shah Rukh Khan famously said of Alia on Koffee with Karan, “She’s too good too soon”, which naturally poses the question, how good is she?  Let’s do some math.

Her nine movies have made nearly ₹750 crore at the box office (excluding Badrinath ki Dulhaniya’s box-office success), which includes surprisingly strong performances in Highway, Kapoor & Sons, and 2 States. For comparison, here are Aamir Khan’s first nine films: Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Raakh, Love Love Love, Tum Mere Ho, Dil, Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin, Jawani Zindabad (yes, indeed!), Awwal Number, and Afsana Pyar Ka. There are two, three if you’re a secret Afsana Pyar Ka fan, decent performances in there and a string of movies he’s desperate for us to forget. SRK’s first nine films (Deewana, Chamatkar, Dil Aashna Hai, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, King Uncle, Maya Memsaab, Baazigar, Darr, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) fared better than Aamir’s, but were still far from the rapture of Alia’s. Most of the films tanked at the box office and became retrospective classics in view of Shah Rukh’s meteoric rise.

Alia Bhatt, then, has come out swinging with the hottest opening streak in modern Indian film history, beating the Khans, by a mile-long margin. Her lineage bears no bearing post her debut, for we can find a failed star kid easier in Bollywood than finding a struggler in Lokhandwala. (Abhishekh Bachchan and Twinkle Khanna, take a bow). Comparisons with the biggies of her time, Kangana Ranaut or Deepika Padukone, are futile. The Queen may have arrived on Karan’s couch, but with eight hits in a 31-movie career, laced with one banger performance every 18 months, is a long way off from being a bankable star. And Deepika, barring Piku, has yet to carry a movie alone on her graceful long neck.

This brings us to the question Axl Rose asked all those years ago, “Where do we go now?”

As Alia Bhatt’s opening run is unmatched by her current peers and even the Khans, it’s time we turn to history. At the risk of sounding anti-national and receiving an open letter, Amitabh Bachchan delivered seven forgettable films before Bombay to Goa, and six more before Zanjeer rolled in. The Shahenshah of Bollywood took his sweet time to find a groove, while Alia Bhatt steamrolled through her formative years with the ease of her costume changes in Student of the Year. If Alia Bhatt were to keep at her hit rate and deliver a total of 217 films in a 48-year career which she hopefully will, unmarked by the “marriage bias”, we may have upon our hands the future Shahenshah of Bollywood – one who is not a Kapoor or a Khan or even a man. Alia may not be our Queen, and Khan may still be our King, but the throne of Shahenshah awaits her.

Someone gift the birthday girl a metallic, silver arm already.