Alia Bhatt’s work schedule is relentless.On any given day, the 25-year-old actor is busy juggling meetings, film promotions, and shoots across different studios, cities, and time zones. Even when she’s in Mumbai, her hometown, she keeps 18-hour workdays either spent at studios or dubbing for films. The occasional break she takes is spent on two causes closest to her heart—animal and environmental welfare. “During the shooting of Brahmastra [slated to release this year], I injured my ankle. For a day, I was on bedrest. That’s the only day I remember sitting on my bed without doing anything,” she laughs. “I am not complaining. I have gotten used to this lifestyle; so much so that when I slow down, I feel something is not right.”
It is hardly surprising then that it was tough for us to pin her down. After months-long e-mail and WhatsApp exchanges with her team, she eventually agreed to a meeting.It is a relatively warm January afternoon when I meet Bhatt at Mehboob Studio in Mumbai’s suburban Bandra area. She is shooting for director Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra, a fantasy film produced by Karan Johar. Besides Bhatt, the film also stars Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor in lead roles.
I am waiting in her brightly lit, colourful, and cosy vanity van. She breezes in and greets me cheerily while apologising profusely for not being able to spend more time. I have to squeeze in as many questions I can in just half an hour so she can take a few minutes for lunch before the next shot. Also, the leading men of Brahmastra are waiting for her to finish up.
Having a hectic day is a way of life for Bhatt now. In a little over six years, she al-ready has an impressive range of films under her belt that have put her squarely in the league of A-listers in the Indian film industry. From a rural hockey player grappling with drugs in Udta Punjab (2016) to a complex urban woman seeking counselling in Dear Zindagi (2016) and a spy in Raazi (2018),her choice of roles has been daring and varied. “She is in a tremendous position right now. Among the leading ladies, you take the name of Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt in the same breath. Directors know that she is a talent and they need to offer her that kind of roles and respect that talent,” says film trade analyst and critic Taran Adarsh.
Bhatt’s choice of roles might be daring, but her instinct seems to be spot on as most of her films have been commercially successful.Her last film, Raazi, set against the backdrop of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, grossed over ₹123 crore at the domestic box office last year. She played an undercover RAW agent married into a Pakistani family of military officials. “Of course, a ₹100-crore film is not a big barometer of success today. But for a mid-size film, it is a big deal. To deliver a film like Raazi, which was riding completely on her shoulders, is a big achievement and a giant leap forward,” says Adarsh. Her 2017 release Badrinath Ki Dulhania, a Karan Johar production, also crossed the ₹100-crore mark in the domestic market.
By her own admission, Bhatt doesn’t have any fixed method of approaching things. “My film choices, the people I work with, the clothes I wear even, I go with my instinct always. I keep thinking, my instinct is the best, my instinct is the best,” she says. Bhatt has three major releases this year: Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy with Ranveer Singh; followed by Kalank, a big-budget multi-starrer period drama produced by Karan Johar, Sajid Nadiadwala, and Fox Star Studios; and Brahmastra. Vajir Singh, the editor of Bollywood website Box Office India, says she has always been “gutsy” about the selection of her films. In Gully Boy, for instance, Ranveer Singh plays the title role, but Alia still manages to hold her own.
Bhatt’s success isn’t limited to the movies: Her star power helped her earn over ₹60crore from her films and endorsements in 2018, according to industry sources. With close to 50 million followers on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, she had more than 20 endorsements till last year. Bhatt endorses products ranging fromNokia’s smartphones to Sunsilk shampoo, Cadbury’s Perk, MakeMyTrip, and online food delivery platform Uber Eats, giving her a combined brand valuation of $36.5 million in 2018, according to consulting firm Duff& Phelps. She is ahead of superstars AamirKhan with $28.6 million and Hrithik Roshan with $31 million, while her brand value has jumped more than 60% from $22.6 million in 2016. According to industry ex-perts, an actor like Alia Bhatt could charge anywhere between ₹1 crore and ₹2.5 crore a day, depending on the product; each brand shoot is normally for two to four days.
Brand experts say her youthful image resonates well with people. “The consumer insights that we wanted to put out through our brand narrative required what Alia represents: fun, effortless and engaging,” says Namita Katre, head of brand, strategy, and campaigns at Uber Eats India which roped in Bhatt last year. “Our brand narrative to connect with the youth was brought to life through her performance and her personality.When we first met her and spoke about what we wanted to do, she could personally relate to those moments of eating out with friends and deciding what to order. She is able to do it in a relatable way.”
But Bhatt feels all this happens by default to an actor when her films do well at the box office. “When the audience trusts you, the value goes up. That influence gets you endorsements. I am not delusional about my standing and I am also not overestimating or underestimating it,” she says candidly.
Despite this, she has a business acumen that belies her ready smile and chirpy disposition. Clear about the limited shelf life of a Bollywood career, the young actor has already started building her business portfolio with her first investment in StyleCracker, a fashion-tech startup founded by former Vogue India fashion editor Archana Walavalkar and former investment banker Dhimaan Shah. The Mumbai-based online styling platform uses data and technology to provide personalised fashion boxes curated by celebrity stylists to customers. Bhatt picked up a minority stake in the company for an undisclosed amount in November 2017. “It is just the beginning. I wanted to start and started off small. Take it as it comes. I would be very open to investing in startups,” says Bhatt. Walavalkar styled Bhatt in her first film Student of the Year (2012).
The actor is also keen to explore her entrepreneurial side. She is set to launch an entertainment venture for children that will be a mix of charity and for profit in the next few months. While the business plan is still a work in progress, she shares some aspects of the concept with Fortune India. “The intention is to create something around children’s entertainment focussing on stories through the audio and video medium and fashion. I am still working out the minute details of the project,” she says.
She doesn’t mind trying her hand at the hospitality business even though she has been warned it’s a tricky business. Something like Nobu Hospitality—the hotel and restaurant chain founded by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro, and film producer Meir Teper—she admits. “I love food, so if I can put two of my passions together, then why not. I am open to an HRX kind of model, but it has to be something that I believe in.” Lifestyle brand HRX was started by Hrithik Roshan in 2012 along with Afsar Zaidi, founder of celebrity management firm Exceed Entertainment.
Investing in startups or exploring business ventures comprises just a fraction of Bhatt’s overall responsibilities. She also runs and supervises projects dedicated to social causes such as Coexist, an animal and ecological welfare platform started in 2017 to support and educate people on environmental issues. She is also a regular at Adoptathons—stray animal adoption camps. Last year she started a charity platform, ‘Mi Wardrobe is Su Wardrobe’, where she auctions her clothes and donates the money to various causes. Her clothes are also available on SaltScout.com, a charity auction platform that sells celebrity clothes and memorabilia to raise funds for NGOs.“There’s this feeling within me right now to do much more than just acting. And that’s not just for selfish reasons,” she says.
She is unaffected by her meteoric rise as an actor so early in her career. “To be honest, the focus was always towards the creative side of things. I was not looking so much into the other peripherals that come with being an actor,” says Bhatt, who could easily pass off as an affable college student.
There is nothing about her that screams she is one of India’s most sought-after actors. Certainly not her casual blue floral dress teamed with a pair of brown boots or her casual manner of speaking. Despite the long working hours, she is disciplined about her diet and workout. “The only thing that I plan is my diet.I am obsessed with my diet and I keep changing it. I don’t stick to one thing. I get bored and tired easily,” she says.
In the last few years, Bhatt has proved that there’s often a mismatch between who you are and how others interpret you. She was the butt of social media jokes about her lack of general knowledge in her debut in talk show Koffee With Karan in 2013, but she took it in her stride. And she’s gone about pursuing her own goals with a laser-like focus. After her schooling at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School, Bhatt started acting at the age of 19 and didn’t get a college degree. She is the daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actor Soni Razdan and grew up in Mumbai’s upmarket western suburb of Juhu.“I say this with complete modesty and don’t want to sound pompous at all, but as a kid, I always thought I was a little special, not in a privileged manner—but I always felt like I was meant to do a lot in life,” she says contently. “Her range is like a rainbow. She has so many colours in her. I don’t know when and how she acquired it,” her father adds.
The Bhatts are a closely-knit family. Alia Bhatt is very close to her elder sister, Shaheen, but the biggest influence is her father, who is directing her in his comeback film, Sadak 2, after nearly two decades.Shooting is expected to start in July. “I have gone on my mother. I have ants in my pants. I am not somebody who will sit at home and rest. My father is 70 and he has no sign of slowing down,” she says. “Of late, my father has become a very active adviser in my life.He has always been advising, but now he has taken it to a point to message me every day in the morning with some new inspirational quotes... I used to reply by sending heart emojis, but now he knows I am taking it in and I don’t need to reply.”
Though she assumes many roles, her main focus is acting. And she is in no mood to slow down. But she is also acutely aware of the fact that stardom is short-lived.
“I say this to my managing team all the time that use me right now. It is not always going to be this way. I will try to sustain it for long. But I am aware that these years are probably the golden years,” says Bhatt.
(The story was originally published in Fortune India’s special collector’s edition - Business of Entertainment.)