A shorter version of this essay was published in Vogue India
Alia Bhatt knows she runs the risk of losing her mind. By her mid-twenties, when our minds fully develop rationality, she was a household name, the world filtered for her through a swarm of publicists and managers, her face on billboards, her private decisions under public scrutiny. Imagine coming to full cognitive clarity in those conditions. It’s enough to make a newly rational mind fall apart. I arrive to interview her primarily wondering how she stays intact. Let’s say… I’m asking for a friend.
My first glimpses don’t paint a helpful picture.
She’s in the pool at Juhu’s JW Marriott Hotel, in a gold zip-up swimsuit, a rainbow-sequinned drape billowing off her shoulders. Eight people are doggy-paddling around her. A makeup artist, a producer, stylists, all in swimwear. Vogue’s fashion director Anaita Shroff Adajania is in the pool directing Bhatt: arch your back, float higher off the floor, bend this knee like so. She obeys.
Bhatt arrived at the hotel at 7am, had hair, makeup, and outfit trials, and has been posing in the pool for hours since. Bombay’s October noon sun, shining off water and tile, has everyone’s faces scrunched to scowls and squints, including Alia Bhatt’s. Except, as soon as the cameras come on, she switches On too: all smizes and pouts, eyes somehow wide now, immune to what’s blinding the rest of us. I listen to the nearby sea roar and to Rihanna’s instruction blaring off a speaker, to “work, work, work, work, work,” and I wonder what Alia Bhatt is thinking.
“I was thinking about the shot,” she tells me later, in her vanity van. But her mind isn’t always so focussed. In fact, it’s unruly.
“The worst thing my mind does is that it doesn’t stop,” she says. “It goes left, it goes right, it goes under me, it goes above and beyond. It’s always going in five hundred different directions and that’s my biggest drawback as a person.That’s why I like the camera so much. Because I’m only thinking about that moment.” Focus is holy respite to a jittery mind.
When she was four, baby Bhatt sang with a group at school and a teacher pulled her to the front to say, “Look at the way Alia is singing. Everybody is going to sing like Alia.” It’s a prized memory. “I remember being the centre of attention and I loved it. That was the day I decided: something similar to this for the rest of my life would be nice.” Not acting necessarily. Just being watched. Being On.
Since, she’s spent much more than the requisite 10,000 hours honing her genius at holding attention. As a child, she’d dance for her grandparents every Sunday. Her game of choice with her best friend was “actress-actress”, in which they played at being in movies. Left to herself, she would conjure an imaginary audience to dance and act for. “I would do it anywhere. In the car, in my bathroom, in my room.”
“I’ve put in a lot of attention to this aspect of my life,” she says. “Performing and being made to perform and being made to just come On. To put on your button.”
But when that work pays off, when you’ve managed to get everyone paying attention to you all the time, it can be crazy-making. She knows this. “Being successful is a weird place,” she says. “It can make you think very differently about yourself.”
Most families try to equip a child for extraordinary success, few prepare for its heavy accoutrements: the anxieties of attention, the easy inflating and easier bruising of ego, the pressures of people to please. But the Bhatts knew. They had spoilers.
“Our emotional quotient in the family is so high,” she says. “We have real emotional conversations… That’s a building block for a person to grow.”
Her author sister Shaheen, whose debut book traces her own depression, taught the younger Bhatt to prioritise alone-time. “She used to say, ‘Alia when you come home, go straight to your room. You don’t have to sit with anybody. Just with yourself. It’s very important.’” So Alia Bhatt prioritises alone time.
Her mother, she says, is a healing quiet. “She understands that I need space… She understands when I don’t really want to chat. She understands when I need help. She just understands me in a very holistic way.” So Alia Bhatt knows where to open up to be understood.
And her father, who battled an alcohol addiction and, she thinks, possible bouts of undiagnosed depression, has been telling her since she was young that successful people need to be treated like battle survivors – “with care and attention,” she explains. “Success actually wounds you, according to him.” When her seventh film, Shaandaar, tanked at the box office, she was heartbroken. The golden child’s first flop. Meanwhile, her father was thrilled that “the bandaid had been ripped off,” she says. “He was really happy. He was the only one who celebrated.” So Alia Bhatt is circumspect about success, and okay with failure.
When a new movie is raking in crores and her phone is a hum-buzz of relentless congrats, her friends close in with good advice. “Stay grounded, stay grounded, just stay grounded… The concern in their voices makes me feel like, okay, yeah, stay grounded.” So Alia Bhatt tries to stay grounded.
The cumulative self-knowledge is striking. “If I give [my mind] peace and time, some quiet, it can move to the next thought or the next feeling,” she says. “I’m somebody who moves on from my success very fast and I also, in my recent past, moved on from my failure very fast.”
When a movie is releasing, she gives in to five days of anxiety – of checking reviews and box office numbers, letting herself get swept into the joys of grand success or the self-loathing of having failed. This is her least favourite part. (“Sometimes I joke that why can’t we shoot films and not release them? That would be so much fun. Just send them to another planet.”) But when the five days are up, so is, she says, her attachment. “No matter what the result, I just move on. It’s strange.” Yes. A little monk-like.
“I’m so objective about my own mind that I’m constantly zooming out to a wide shot,” she explains. Her hands, in two in-turned Ls, pull an imaginary movie frame wider. When she pans out, she sees the extent of her good fortune, and she returns to calm gratitude.
The thing with being 26 is: there are surprises yet to be had. There will be bigger flops, achier heartaches. Dreams we hadn’t dared utter will come true. Tragedies we thought only befall other people will make their marks, somehow, in our own softening skin. Life will not spare us the suffering that rears wisdom though we may be spared the wisdom itself. It is in this new knowing and not-knowing that some of the toughest work of being alive kicks in.
And it’s work that even A-listers with 38 million Instagram followers aren’t exempt from. The work of holding a mind together. Tempering its bad, nourishing its good.
Like us all, Bhatt is still working on it. She’s cartographing her mind. She knows some high points – her discipline, willpower, ability to not hold grudges. And she’s spotted some lows – getting thrown off when plans change, the bone-deep tendency to be harsh on oneself. (“In my family we don’t consider ourselves to be amazing,” she says. “We’re the first person to doubt ourselves.”)
Befriending oneself, self-destructive tendencies and all, is a long journey and she is on it. Most days, Alia Bhatt is kind to her mind. So most days, it is kind to her back.
If there is any public service justification for chronicling the mental workings of a privileged, beautiful, talented, successful, wealthy, prodigiously blessed star-child, it is this: in screen feeds where attempts at openness about mental health come sandwiched between hyper-curated, impossibly positive celebrity personas, there is some comfort to me in hearing a megastar catalogue the same emotional disciplines we each need to hold. Gentle, patient self-examination; effort put into nurturing friendships; the will and courage to detach from external validation and external censure both. These are the conditions for contentment. Money, beauty, and fame are not.
This is a lesson we may only fully trust when it comes directly from people who have all three in astounding excess.
When I ask what she’s most excited about, I expect a long list. Gully Boy is on its way to the Oscars, her father is directing her in Sadak 2, Brahmastra is frantically awaited, she’s about to be on the cover of Vogue. Again. But the most exciting thing in Bhatt’s life, she says, is that she’s about to go home and nap.
As she walks me to the door of her vanity, her publicist tells her that some people outside have been promised a photo with her. For a second, she looks as tired as someone who’s been wearing couture in a swimming pool in blazing sunlight for hours should. Then she blinks slowly and I watch it all happen live. The zoom out to a wide shot. The return to gratitude. The well-honed performance button switching On.
When she opens her eyes, they are sequins-in-a-swimming-pool bright.