Never mind her goof up in a general knowledge quiz — Alia Bhatt has proved she has the smarts to overhaul standard romcom stereotypes with persuasive ease.

The weight of cuteness is not to be borne lightly. Only a resolute actor with self-belief in her talent could have transited from the brainless bimbette of her debut — where she can’t decide who to love between two juvenile hunks caught in their own love-hate bromance — to the sex-slave junkie with a ferocious will to survive her victimhood in Udta Punjab, and then follow it up with Dear Zindagi, as the rebellious young cinematographer with a massive chip on her shoulder, holding her own in the charms stakes against our charmer-in-chief, SRK. In between came Highway, 2 States, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya and Kapoor and Sons. All of them, in their own way, underline the nuanced impact of an elfin with a transparent gaze and an infectious, dimpled smile. There was a spine that held up the petite frame; here was this girl of the fetching teenager look, with the nous to make fluff believable.

Alia Bhatt could have been crushed by the burden of being a reinvented Pooh (Kareena Kapoor of K3G) courtesy her fond mentor Karan Johar. He introduced the teenybopper as a dumb fashionista in his fantasy high school that glorified retarded adolescents for others similarly afflicted. In Student of the Year, Shanaya is the standard issue poor little rich girl who loves to shock her socialite mother, married to a rich man who perhaps can’t tell one step daughter from another. So, the poor lonely princess can’t recognize true love when she sees it. Designer bags dangling from a delicate arm, Shanaya pouts and pirouettes and is confused and bitchy while vying for the most popular girl tag on her own terms. In a film that celebrates retro music, Johar introduces her to a revamped Gulabi Ankhen and Bhatt struts to ‘I am the best’, oozing oodles of required attitude. To give Johar his due, he recasts petite Alia as Radha of the sexy body (making the item a teen favourite), getting her own back at the straying boyfriend. That is the extent of acting demanded of her.

The setting changes in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya to a downmarket Dilli mohalla. Her love interest is determinedly middleclass, whose middle name is chutzpah. He woos and wins the Punjabi lass, whose only ambition in life is to get married in a designer lehanga. It is as if Alia Bhatt is condemned to play the pretty dimwit, occasionally sparking into defiance. Pumped up music, sexually adventurous young lovers and a declared homage to DDLJ might have made the film a commercial success, but there was hardly a hint of what Bhatt was capable of. Luckily, directors who could see beyond the cuteness quotient backed her potential.

For that, you had to thank Imtiaz Ali, who ventured into experimental territory that is anathema to the box-office. Highway stamped Bhatt as the actor to watch out for. She also sounded a warning to established seniors. Here was a young actor, barely into her career, not afraid to bare not just an un-made up face but also her raw vulnerability, holding nothing back. It’s simplistic to dub Highway as a film about the Stockholm Syndrome. In spite of the deliberate artifice of the plot, Highway digs deep under the thriller-chase-road movie format to explore the encounter between two most unlikely people, who find the wounded, hurt child in each other. An old dictum goes that a film chooses its actor — and actors.

Alia finds both an inner fragility and tentative resilience to play Veera: the privileged, demure good girl breaking free to voice the trauma of the damaged, abused little girl hiding under imposed good manners, forced upon her by those who were supposed to protect her. Randeep Hooda as the abductor Mahdeep is tough, taciturn, anger always simmering under the mean look — a man to fear, instinctively.

While the confused and confusing kidnapping takes place and the petty hired crook discovers his hostage is the daughter of a tycoon with immense reach, Veera’s reactions run the expected gamut — fear, desperation to escape, the hopelessness of her situation and, finally, apathy. At times, she is disturbingly flaky, talking aloud to herself, wondering if it’s all really happening. Or it’s as if a movie is going on and she is watching herself, she ruminates, unable to get a grip on reality. Bhatt grasps the flaky unreality of the situation with astonishing surety and touching vulnerability, even as we question what makes this pampered daughter of privilege act in the strange, unsettling manner that gets under Mahdeep’s skin — and ours.

The responses to each other are instinctual, reading each other beyond words. He too is a hurt child, coping with the loss of his beloved Amma. The road, rolling through varied landscapes, is the obvious metaphor, complemented by A.R Rahman’s evocative music, redolent with Sufi and Manganiar songs — but what rescues the mundanely obvious is Veera’s revelling in the freedom of the outdoors, as if her inner self has finally been liberated from constraints that chained her hitherto.

Her confession — in heartbreaking halfsentences, devoid of overt emotion — comes after she chooses not to escape when the opportunity comes. It is an uncle who brought her imported chocolates and abused her in the bathroom, stifling her cries with hands clamped tight on her mouth. And since then, she is almost robotic, submitting to family strictures. A mute doll on whom jewellery and clothes are hung for a forthcoming wedding. The difference between sheltered and suffocated is what ails Veera. It is on the road to nowhere in particular and finding a kindred soul in suffering that Veera finally overcomes her trauma. Highway is perhaps the first Indian film — I am not sure — that is so open about the sexual abuse of a girl child. Kahaani 2 had the adult onlooker recognize what she herself went through, and she thus kidnaps the young child to rescue her from her own family.

Bhatt’s growth from repressed victim to finally accuse her abuser before the whole family — and her fiance’s too — is organic. She proves that she is not a one-tone actor. She suggests an immense reservoir of emotions that she can tap into and bring to the surface, without the usual tricks of the trade. Her eyes are infinitely expressive, and so is the freedom of her body language. A hug can be many things. When Veera hugs the stiff, unresponsive Mahdeep the first time, she suggests the seeking of comfort, the giving of affection, the recognition of a fellow victim. The credit for imbuing a simple act with so many layers goes the director and the two actors, who play off against each other with consummate ease. Bhatt won a couple of awards for Highway, and deservedly so.

2 States had a lot going for it, and Alia Bhatt’s Ananya Swaminathan makes up much of the lot. She is comfortable as not the usual IIM geek, taking the initiative with the rather morose, hesitant Arjun Kapoor, setting the pace for the relationship — be it having sex, or berating him for getting cold feet later on, and putting them to test against parental opposition. She easily dons the TamBram traditional look when required and holds her own when the two sets of parents get into the North- South culture war. The combination of spunk and demure decorum works in making 2 States a fun film. Bhatt proves that she is as good with a formidable ensemble cast as she is in the two actor, multi-layered narrative.

She has the uncanny ability to leave her mark in an almost cameo. Kapoor and Sons, a path-breaker (for Bollywood) delves deep into the insecurities and simmering resentments of a dysfunctional family and its sons locked in sibling rivalry. Once again, her Tia Malik is a poor little rich loner, who bears her loss with equanimity most of the time, a hostess with the mostest, throwing impromptu parties at her heritage home. Her regret, of not telling her parents she loved them before they died, breaks through almost casually and yet, rings true and deep. She seems to own the space before the camera, however little screen time she gets.

As for Udta Punjab, the unnamed Bihari migrant sears our minds and conscience, if we have a collective one. She seeps under the skin like the dust swirling in the rural landscape. The young girl’s fight is never futile, because as she gazes at the hoarding of a sunny Goa beach, she keeps her spirit somehow alive. Survival is victory, and Bhatt makes us care for her with aching sadness. Abhishek Chaubey uses her like a subdued tragic note in the dramatic excess of the other horrific events. The acting calls for a balance between expressive emotion and eloquent stillness. Her spirit resurfaces when she wakes from a zombie state, despite the repeated forced injections, sexual degradation and physical violence. Like grit under her nails, the will to escape lies smouldering, like un-doused coals in a chulah. Her gritty, moving portrayal makes us fear for her and cheer her when she finally does manage the escape from living hell. The bleak despair of the film needed her innocence to survive the carnage.

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Dear Zindagi is a high octane performance, where Bhatt’s Kaira veers from confident professional to teenage tantrums, quick mood changes and waspish ill-temper. Gauri Shinde’s obvious dip into autobiographical elements — the unresolved mother-daughter conflict she has explored in English Vinglish, seeking forgiveness from a disrespected mother — is now told from the young, ambitious woman’s point of view. You don’t have to be Freud to guess that a deep childhood trauma is central to Kaira’s walking away from relationships — however fulfilling potentially — before the other person does so.

Bhatt doesn’t just represent the urban professional woman afraid of, or walking away from romantic commitment, but lives the highs and lows of a life lived communally and yet, hiding the essential loneliness under the compulsive partying. She is moody and skittish, charming and rude, confused and yet, certain of her professional goals. SRK’s Jehangir Khan might be disbarred for unprofessional conduct, for meeting his patient in unconventional places. But what the heck — cinematic license is for the taking in the interests of good storytelling, and Shinde does tell a good story. The chemistry between Bhatt and Khan is electric, in a nonconventionally conventional way.

As my film-maker friend Vinay Shukla observed, Bhatt makes no references to earlier actors and their methods in her performances. Actually, there are no precedents for Udta Punjab, Highway and Dear Zindagi in Hindi cinema. Alia Bhatt seems to be inventing her own grammar of acting, refining it as she goes along. More power to her. We are watching.