Type the name of Bollywood’s next big thing, Alia Bhatt, into Google and the auto-complete adds ‘in bikini’. This is all because of a scene from her debut film, Student Of The Year (2012), in which she plays the most fancied girl at a glamorous high school. Fast-forward to 2014 and it feels like the 20-year-old has arrived.

Her second film, Highway, couldn’t be further removed from her pretty and pouty debut. It’s a coming-of-age road movie centred on Veera, the cotton wool-wrapped daughter of a moneybags industrialist who is sleepwalking into marriage and luxurious domesticity when she is kidnapped.

As Veera is dragged around North India’s hinterlands, she bonds with her captors and, free from the stifling overprotectiveness of her family, blossoms. What attracted Bhatt – daughter of prominent Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt – to the vulnerable, unkempt and steely role?

‘After Student Of The Year, when I played that baby-doll, diva character, I knew I would be stereotyped and I wanted to break that image of me,’ she says the day after its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. ‘I loved that role but I don’t want to be attached to one particular genre, so Highway was a blessing in disguise.’

In Highway, Alia Bhatt plays Veera, whose conventional life is interrupted when she’s kidnapped (Picture: Aman Dhillon)

‘When I read the script, I was really attracted to Veera’s character because she seems like she has everything and is happy but something is missing – that’s something I can relate to. We’ve both led very protected, secure lives and have not seen or done much – I felt this film and the journey, a road trip through six states, could excite my life and challenge me.’

Highway could double as a striking tourism promo, showcasing ‘Incredible India’. As the plot unfolds against the backdrop of a bleak salt mine in a Rajasthan desert and the snowcapped Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir, the ‘I want to go there’ urge is palpable. Double Oscar-winner AR Rahman’s effervescent soundtrack, exhibiting the varied sounds of off-the-beaten-track India, adds to the wanderlust.

What was the road trip like? ‘I’ve been to some of the places before but I stayed in posh hotels so you don’t really see the place,’ says Bhatt. ‘When we were shooting, we took the non-tourist route, so we were utterly isolated and we saw so much beauty and character. The exciting part for me was living out of a suitcase, sleeping in a car and battling the elements. It was raining in the desert when it never rains in the desert but we worked with it and that scene is in the film.

‘I’m a window-seat girl and wherever we went I would see women working – in fields, by the roadside and on the mountains. When we reached the mountains in Himachal Pradesh I saw a group of local women looking amazing in colourful clothes and went to take a picture with them and they just embraced me, they were so strong – internally – and so warm.’

The treatment of women in India is a key theme in Highway – it’s a #girlpower film that packs a punch – and couldn’t be more timely. The brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in New Delhi in December 2012 has been called India’s ‘Stephen Lawrence moment’, when politicians, police and public finally woke up to everyday sexual violence against women.

Does Bhatt make this connection? ‘I’m a woman so I feel strongly about this,’ she says. ‘I’m almost a feminist and believe if a girl wants to do something she should be able to do it in the same way that a man is able to, which is sometimes a problem in our country. It’s about having power over women but, at the same time, there is a side to our culture that respects women with all its might – people pray to women idols, so generalising doesn’t help.’

But things are changing, says Bhatt. ‘The law has been amended and girls are coming out and saying: “I will not tolerate this,” whereas before women were told to be quiet and have been oppressed through not having a voice. So incidents are being reported more and social media has become a platform where women can speak out, create change and it brings people together.’

Highway subtly raises questions about the control of women through gripping powerhouse performances by Bhatt and co-star Randeep Hooda, who plays simmering, strong-jawed kidnapper Mahabir. Ultimately it’s the collision between two anguished souls, Mahabir and Veera, that proves so compelling. Director Imtiaz Ali looks inwards to India for themes and locations – Bollywood has a tradition of shooting in spectacular locations abroad (the Swiss Alps have signs in Hindi for droves of Bollywood pilgrims) and framing these in a style of storytelling that appeals to international audiences. It must make for an exciting time to be working in Bollywood.

‘There is scope for different, interesting films but there is also scope for the typical Bollywood masala movie – I’m unapologetically in love with that genre,’ says Bhatt. ‘Our films are changing so people across the world can see them – when Highway premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, a Polish lady said to me: “It has a strong message for women.” So it’s good to know our films are connecting universally.’

Bhatt surely won’t be known as the girl in the bikini for much longer.

Highway is out in cinemas tomorrow.