September 25, 2022 8:50 PM EDT

Alia Bhatt has had a very big year. In February, she starred as the titular brothel owner Gangubai Kathiawadi in a Hindi biographical crime drama by the same name. In March, she held a smaller role as Sita in the Telugu action epic RRR, directed by Indian film giant S. S. Rajamouli. In August, she co-produced and acted in the star-studded Hindi Netflix drama Darlings as Badrunissa Shaikh. And in September, to top it all off, she starred as Isha Chatterjee in the first installment of a planned blockbuster trilogy, Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva.

“I’ve had some of my biggest releases this year,” Bhatt says. “And I’ve found myself behaving very, very differently with each release—something that I was very surprised by. Way more calm, way more collected, way more resigning to my destiny and to fate.”

This cornucopia of opportunities was not new for Bhatt. At 29, she has already acted in two dozen feature films—not counting two unreleased movies, one of which, Heart of Stone, will mark her American film debut. She had her debut at age five, when she acted in the Indian psychological horror Sangharsh, written and produced by her father, Mahesh Bhatt. (Bhatt is a British actress of Indian descent who works across Indian languages.)

Since then, she has carved her own path, often playing fiercely tenacious lead roles, from 2014’s Highway to 2017’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania to 2018’s Raazi. “Without ever falling into the clichés of spunky Bollywood heroine,” reads Rachel Saltz’s New York Times review of Bhatt’s performance in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, “she effortlessly embodies that admirable thing: a modern woman.”

Modern women, Bhatt thinks, still struggle with being wrong, selfish, or flawed. “We have a certain societal norm in which we have to be put together, we have to be right, we have to be quiet, we have to be simple, we have to be soft-spoken, we have to be well-dressed,” she says. “We have to be so many things. Just bringing everything: the vulnerability, the jealousy, the lows, the highs, the real things that we are afraid of even thinking. If you bring that to the forefront on the big screen, then the person watching you from the audience will feel like, ‘OK, I’m not the only one.’”

Over the span of her decade-long career—and especially in the past few years—Bhatt has learned a thing or two. When she chooses a role or a project now, she’s learned to mix things up and experiment, like she did with genre and tone in Darlings. “I instinctively feel a little bit more free with my choices,” Bhatt says. “I’m not so overcautious with going wrong. Just have a little bit of fun and surrender a bit to the process.”

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