Pooja Bhatt opens up on her battle with the bottle and how she reclaimed herself.
Today is the 68th day and Pooja Bhatt hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since she pulled the plug on December 24. She’s gone through Christmas and New Year and even brought in her 45th birthday on February 24 without a drink. Talking about her battle with the bottle openly in the public space is part of her catharsis.
“I want to bust the stigma attached to alcoholism in our country. Women particularly are discouraged from seeking help because it’s a matter of shame for the family. We don’t share our pain or frailties, we cover our weaknesses and it becomes a cancer,” says Pooja, admitting that in her case it was a chat with her father that led to this decision.
On December 21, Mahesh Bhatt messaged her from Delhi and they got talking about the state of the country, about leaders who in their eagerness to imprint their footsteps in the sands of time create absolute mayhem. As he was ringing off, he told her, “I love you kid.” She responded, “I love you too pops. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing else worth loving in the world.” He replied, “If you love me then love yourself because I live in you.”
Her father had never alluded to her problem, but the text urging her to love herself, struck a chord. Pooja promised him that “from this moment I’m going to be the best ‘me’ I’m capable of being” and after putting down the phone wondered if going out with someone and polishing off a bottle of whisky was loving herself. The answer was a resounding ‘no’.
On Christmas I went to bed sober
On Christmas Day, the Bandra girl who is Christian by faith, put her phone on silent and sat in her apartment with her four cats listening to the strains of “Silent Night” wafting in from somebody’s home. “I ate dinner and went to bed at 11.40 pm, sober. At midnight I heard the bells of the four churches ring and felt rejuvenated,” she exults.
She took off for a holiday to Lahore, to Delhi, to several places. And while in the past she’d spent evenings alone, with a bottle of wine, in some café, watching the world go by, this time, she stayed away from the wine. Not just through Christmas but even the drunken revelry of New Year.
The public pressure escalated as her birthday neared. She toyed with the idea of taking one drink. “But then I asked myself if I needed it, and if I did, why stop with one glass? Why not drink the whole bottle of champagne because as somebody said, ‘One drink is had with the enemy.’ I called my friends to my farm, we swam at 2 am, we did many fun things, but I didn’t drink,” she smiles.
She’d smoked her first cigarette at 23 and has never done cocaine. But she was drinking by the time she was 16. Growing up in an Anglo-Indian environment, it was normal for wine to be passed around the table and beer opened on Sunday. Even in the film industry there were people drinking copiously.
“Alcohol is comforting, it colours your evening. It’s a socially accepted narcotic even at business lunches and in the boardroom. Also, living in a fast-paced city, being in a high-stress profession, it becomes a reason to celebrate and cope with failure. Your film is a hit, you bathe in champagne, it flops, a single malt lessens the pain,” she avers.
Two years ago, Pooja ended her marriage. Though the end of a 10-year relationship is akin to death, she did not give herself time to mourn. She moved on, and the world said cheers to her spirit and energy. “Before I knew it, it’s a whirlwind of hedonism,” sighs Pooja who can drink every man in the room under the table thanks to her Scottish genes and her father’s genes. “I was born to a man who has never done anything in half measures and I inherited that. So when I drank, I drank copiously. Your appetite increases even as the alcohol does terrible things to your body, clutters your mind and colours your judgement of the people you’re hanging out with.”
One evening, in the middle of another mindless conversation, she asked herself if she’d be sitting there without the alcohol. The answer was another ‘No’ and it was time for some soul searching!
She’d seen what alcohol did to her father, how it had killed her parents’ marriage. She’d been in relationship with an alcoholic and got her into the news. She’d lost a friend at 40 to alcohol and had a drink to mourn her. But all this while, it was someone else’s problem, she was in control. This time, as her father had urged, she looked into the mirror unflinchingly and acknowledged she had a problem too.
“I was 45 and if I wanted to give myself 10 years of living, I had to quit now before I drank myself to the grave. I had to reclaim the sharper, brighter me which had got watered down,” says Pooja.
She was in Delhi recently sharing the stage with Sanjay Dutt who admitted he’d been a shy kid and drinking had made it easier for him to talk to a girl. Pooja’s never been shy or short on confidence. For her drinking was a way of deflecting reality till she became a victim of what she calls mindless drinking.
Pulling the plug
“Luckily, I pulled the plug before it became impossible for me to stop. I’m in the pink of health except for the weight I put on because I’m now a stressful producer. But being the daughter of an alcoholic makes you four times more susceptible to becoming one,” she says.
She didn’t need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as she had strong support systems in her dad and her Cabaret director Kaustav (Narayan Niyogi). Years ago, Mahesh Bhatt had picked up his younger daughter, Shaheen and the child had moved her head away. That day he quit drinking and never went back even though as you see in the climax of Daddy, one night after returning from the shoot and pouring Anupam Kher a drink, he was tempted to take one too after everyone had left and Pooja was asleep. He asked himself who’d know and realised that he could lie to the world but not himself. He would know! “I didn’t think that the girl who’d counselled her father in Daddy would one day council herself,” Pooja says poignantly.
Kaustav quit drinking two years ago because if anything went wrong on the Cabaret sets, he didn’t want anyone to blame it on his drinking. “No one thought he could stay 24 hours without alcohol but he proved them wrong. “For me these two are shining examples, who understand without me telling them anything,” she says, but agrees for many others, institutions like AA are necessary. “There are many who want you to fail. Strangers are more supportive than some of your own because your battle makes them realise that they have failed,” she points out.
Today, Pooja herself has no problem being around anyone who drinks. She has a fully stocked bar at home and even pours out drinks for friends. “If I can’t be around alcohol and resist it, it means I’m not in control. Each day strengthens my resolve as I realise I have more hours to a day now. Even when I drank till 4 am, I’d be at work at 10 am but I was burning myself out. Today, I feel lighter with the excess water gone. All the drama alcohol brings is eliminated from your life,” she says.
Her biggest victory was waking up to the news of her baby sister Alia Bhatt winning the Filmfare Best Actress Award. “I messaged Alia saying normally this would have been an excuse for me to crack open a case of champagne first thing in the morning. But this time I celebrated by not drinking,” Pooja signs off.
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