This year’s performance list is, once again, bereft of borders. It’s a mix of everything Hindi: Theatrical, streaming, web shows, feature films, anthologies, male, female. I can pretend that this unified format – which we first used in 2021 – is a gallant attempt to democratise the art of acting. But to be honest, it was borne from necessity, not choice. The dearth of quality in Hindi cinema called for the last-ditch merging of mediums. I’m happy to report, however, that 2022 has posed no such problems. Box-office gloom and boycott hashtags aside, it’s been an infinitely better year for Hindi storytelling. I set out to compile a Top 10, before expanding it to 15, and now it’s finally a Top 20 – and it was still tough. Thirty would have been nice, but then you’d be reading this in 2024.
One must make peace with a few cruel ironies of year-ender exercises. For starters, singling out an actor in seamless ensemble dramas is almost unfair. Like fluid football teams that score goals without relying on individual brilliance, the cast of these shows thrive on a sense of plurality. Isolate any one of them, and the moment collapses. Take Faisal Malik in the second season of Panchayat. His character’s breakdown is inextricably tied to the reactions of Raghubir Yadav and Chandan Roy during the climax; they complete each other. Then there are the rankings, which are largely incidental – an excuse to streamline the discourse (and, at best, trigger toxic debates). Then there’s the subjectivity of it all. For instance, as much as I enjoyed Gulshan Devaiah’s cameo in Badhaai Do, Ayushmann Khurrana in An Action Hero, Abhishek Banerjee in Bhediya or Swastika Mukherjee in Qala, none made the list. If anything, it’s a testament to a year with the coveted problem of plenty.
With all disclaimers out of the way, here are 20 of my favourite Hindi-language performances of 2022.
Indian actors so often mistake integrity for blandness. But as humanitarian lawyer Kashaf Quaze in Shefali Bhushan’s thoroughly designed legal drama, Shriya Pilgaonkar infuses her moral idealism with a sense of emotional edginess. It’s a tightrope walk, and Pilgaonkar pulls it off across a sprawling narrative without staging it as a feminist journey. In her hands, Kashaf’s uprightness and uptightness become the glue that binds the show’s episodic beats. The young lawyer’s desire to fight for the downtrodden at once feels like a coping mechanism to blunt her own privilege as the daughter of a famous judge, and rectify her handicap as a woman in a man’s world. Pilgaonkar also ensures that Kashaf’s chemistry with her ex-classmate and rival Varun, the show’s co-protagonist, transcends the opposites-attract stereotype. It’s a skillful performance, one that cements Pilgaonkar as a definitive face of the digital storytelling age.
Watching Sikandar Kher playing a scornful heir inapparent – a nepo-kid sick of shrewd outsiders stealing his throne – is like watching a wealthy villain trolling his own rich-people-suck narrative. In no more than one-and-a-half rants, Kher creates comic gold with bemused eyes and slack-jawed curses. He gets that the cockiness of silver-spooned brats is unintentionally funny (cases in point: Rajesh Khanna’s son in Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999); Amrish Puri’s brother in Koyla 1997)). He ensures that his aptly-named Nishikant Adhikari comes across as someone who has no patience to be petty, staging his entitlement as the punchline of a joke that he’s dying to land. The scene in which Nishi cooks up a complicated murder plot in a shady hotel room with two unlikely accomplices also sets the tone of Vasan Bala’s film. Until then, the viewer is on the fence about how to receive the spoofy thriller; all it takes is Kher saying “Angola ka scum” like he’s a spoken-word poet gone rogue – and Monica, O My Darling is catapulted into the upper echelons of pop-cultural legend.
In Jugjugg Jeeyo, a punchy family drama that shares space with Zoya Akhtar’s dysfunctional-rich-Indians universe, Anil Kapoor upends the tone of his Dil Dhadakne Do character with eerie precision. Kapoor’s turn as Bheem Saini – a vain middle-aged man who decides to divorce his long-time wife – cuts deeper than expected. It’s a vibrant and self-aware performance; he uses cheap Nineties-Bollywood comedy as a ruse – where the viewer feels uncomfortable laughing at a cheating husband’s ‘antics’ – to hide a man who offsets culpability with crowd-pleasing charisma. Kapoor gets the smokescreen better than most, channelling his own image as an ageless star to reveal our conflicted relationship with the cinema of infidelity. His Bheem becomes a sharp rap on the knuckles of a culture that thrives on performative familyhood, one where parents are too often pigeonholed by the pressure of ‘setting an example’.
It’s hard not to root for Pravin Tambe, an indefatigable middle-class Mumbaikar who made his debut in the Indian Premier League (IPL) at age 41 after two decades of persevering as a club-level cricketer. It’s also hard not to root for Shreyas Talpade, the indefatigable mid-rung actor who immortalises Tambe nearly two decades after winning hearts as a fictional deaf-mute cricketer in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2005). The synergy between underdog character and underdog actor elevates Jayprad Desai’s sports biopic – a rare Hindi film that isn’t afraid to weaponise the doggedness of its hero. Talpade is both physically and spiritually dialled in, delivering an oddly personal performance as a miracle trapped within a man. He plays Tambe with a tangible sense of truth, pulling on years of Bollywood wilderness to reveal – and celebrate – one of the most inspiring stories in modern-day sport. It’s only fitting: He went from generic medium pace (in those multi-starring comedies) to deceptive leg-spin (in the best cricket film since…Iqbal), in more ways than one.
There’s no such thing as a bland Jaideep Ahlawat performance – evident from even the way he elevates an Arnab Goswami caricature in The Broken News. It’s no surprise, then, that the year’s most perversely nonchalant turn in Hindi film comes from Ahlawat, in Anirudh Iyer’s gloriously meta An Action Hero. As a Haryanvi political goon who sets out to avenge the death of his brother, Ahlawat delivers a tragicomic lesson of genre awareness. He almost seems amused by the world around him, treating his rampaging chase of a Bollywood superstar across Britain as a pesky chore. All he wants to do is destroy. His blindly egoistic character, Bhoora Solanki, becomes the perfect trigger-happy surrogate for the fans’ fraught relationship with the celebrities they follow. Whether it’s staring at a roti while figuring out how to digest bad news or rolling his eyes at his prey escaping, nobody reacts to a moment like Ahlawat; he always seems to be in on the cruel vagaries of life.
The pandemic has irrevocably altered the meaning of coming home. It is no longer an act of resignation and defeat. Covid-19 isn’t a part of the premise of the lovely Ghar Waapsi (“homecoming”), but this change in psychology shapes the journey of its protagonist – who goes from retreating to his family home after being laid off to embracing a future there. In the hands of the unassuming but wonderfully stoic Vishal Vashishtha, this never feels like a backward step, even though modern generations are trained to measure ambition by the distance travelled from home. As Shekhar, Vashishtha delivers a curious and unobtrusive performance, seeping into the story and anchoring it at once, often reflecting his character’s self-doubt with a furrowed brow rather than a showy meltdown. Shekhar’s notions of masculinity are slowly broken down by the idiosyncrasies of a dysfunctional family; the actor is always there, even when he’s not, steering the modest show into the realms of a perfectly rooted one.
In Shonali Bose’s Raat Rani, Fatima Sana Shaikh plays Lalzari – a hijabi Kashmiri cook on a forbidden cycle-ride to self-realisation – with a flair for seriocomedy. The Dangal actress is charming, clumsy, spirited and shapeless in a role that might have easily come across as ‘extra’. Her Lalzari does not allow crowd-pleasing quirks – the musicality of her lilting accent (“Lutfiii”), her physical awkwardness, her dramatic tears – to consume the humanity of her coming-of-age journey. Her husband abandons her because he was ‘bored’, and the blow to her confidence is audible in the tiniest of her intonations – whether in her lesbian employer’s kitchen or during her tea-selling adventures. Shaikh’s flushed face never lets the viewer forget that Lalzari is striving to make new memories in a city she isn’t used to occupying as an independent person. She doesn’t know of a life without love. Shaikh’s knockout performance turns Raat Rani into a rare reckoning between person and place – and a romance between loneliness and urban solitude.
As a grieving lady who sets out to investigate the ‘accidental’ death of her daughter, Sakshi Tanwar transcends every rage-and-revenge cliche in the book. The woman she plays, Sheel, strives to overcome her own innate kindness, a restless narrative arc as well as the shackles of a patriarchal setting. It’s almost like she’s trying to find the courage to be visible in a sea of subservient motherhood. Tanwar delivers a loaded performance – one that bleeds into the series without hijacking it through loud girl-boss tropes. It has a very specific frequency, like a silent scream that morphs into a fever pitch of agency and closure. Her transformation is invisible to the naked eye, a testament to Tanwar’s unique grasp of domestic tension. When she explodes, it’s scary because she sounds like a parent who understands her mute child only after she’s gone. Tanwar is the only reason Mai finds a sense of direction, one that’s difficult to follow but easy to admire.
No praise is enough for Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann’s bittersweet turn as Sui Mei, a Chinese immigrant in Mumbai whose desire to preserve the fading roots of her culture is threatened by the arrival of her son’s vegetarian girlfriend. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Mumbai Dragon is exquisitely felt and conceived, shaped largely by an Asian mother’s inability to let go. Yeo Yann Yann finds that sweet spot between performative melodrama and toxic warmth. Her character is somehow territorial and tender at once; her tantrums are tempered by the concerns of an ageing immigrant who is wary of her son’s place in a ‘New India’. That his new girlfriend is Gujarati only adds to her agony, even as Sui falls prey to the very prejudice she thinks she’s protecting him from. The actress doesn’t overplay the ‘cuteness’ of it all, pitching her use of Hindi, Cantonese and cooking as languages that are both personal and universal. Her showdown with her son – where she behaves like the child and he, the pained adult – is a milestone in modern umbilical-cord cinema.
Just when we were wondering where Boman Irani had gone, the inimitable actor sucker-punched 2022 with a commercial hit in Uunchai – but more importantly, a powerhouse performance in the psychological thriller, Masoom. The essence of his turn here lies not just in his character’s moral ambiguity, but also in his meta ability to tease our notions about Bollywood-parent cliches. As a seemingly toxic North Indian patriarch whose daughter refuses to trust him, he toys with our perception of an archetypical Boman Irani ‘villain’. For much of the slow-burning series, he is suspicious and sinister, milking his own on-screen image, fueling his estranged daughter’s belief that he may have been behind the death of his wife. He is distinctly aware of how he is being observed and filmed, melting into the shadows as a manipulative parent. Irani plays along, keeping viewers in the dark about his true character, until he upends this illusion during an awkwardly staged – but superbly acted – finale. That’s when his magic trick is complete.
At first glance, this Netflix romantic thriller looks ordinary. A rakish boy with modest ambitions attracts the fancy of a deadly politician’s daughter. The harder he resists, the deeper he slides into their inescapable clutches. Yet, it’s precisely this ordinariness – defined by the frustrations of the hapless protagonist – that turns the series into a subversive ode to the shaggy-haired Shah Rukh Khan of yore. Tahir Raj Bhasin’s performance is the heart of this meta takedown of Bollywood masculinity. His character, Vicky, likes to imagine that he’s as slick as the Baazigar (1993) or Darr (1993) antiheroes, but the real world keeps cutting him down to size. To Bhasin’s credit, he stays slyly serious about this predicament, becoming the sort of bumbling lover who looks up Youtube tutorials on how to procure a gun or fake grief. Given that the actor broke out as a villain in Mardaani (2014), it’s poetic that Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein stages him as a man incapable of milking his inner manliness.
As the small-town mother of a policeman who’s struggling to exit the closet, most actresses might have focused on the quirkiness of this role. But not Sheeba Chadha. She shapes the soul of this sensitive film by playing the protagonist of her own story. Chadha delivers a beautifully textured performance, crafting a widow whose empathy towards her son is rooted in her own identity as a social outcast. From the very first scene, she nails the cultural awkwardness of this character – she suspects that her son is ‘different,’ but remains under constant pressure to behave prejudiced as a parent in a patriarchal family. In Chadha’s hands, the woman stays wary of society; she understands her boy better than anyone else, but spends the film gathering the courage to display this understanding. A gesture as simple as the caressing of his face, then, becomes the act of not a mother ‘accepting’ her gay son so much as one outsider finding – and acknowledging – another.
I’ve been a bit worried about Rajkummar Rao since the success of Stree (2018). But as it turns out, form is temporary…you know how it goes. It’s been his year. As enamoured as I am by his playfully elastic performance in Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling – the levity of which can deflate the self-seriousness of such lists – it’s his Badhaai Do turn that stands the test of time. He out-Khurrana’s Ayushmann Khurrana in this deceptively tender social dramedy. As Shardul Thakur, a closeted policeman in a lavender marriage with a lesbian PE teacher, Rao conveys internal conflict with an eye on the confines of small-town society. His Shardul is bitter, but also evolved enough to be pragmatic about his arrangement. His expression of queer masculinity – the tight police uniform, the bond with female colleagues, the drunken breakdowns – defies labels, revealing a man merely at odds with his heart. Rao shapes two of the nicest Hindi film moments of the year – one features the super-heroic donning of a Pride Parade mask, and the other features a brave confession to a single parent.
Is any Hindi acting list complete without a Vidya Balan performance? In Suresh Triveni’s intricately written Jalsa, Balan plays a woman torn between being a person and a personality. Her character, Maya Menon, is a famous TV journalist whose career is based on speaking truth to power. Until a murky hit-and-run accident – which involves her cook’s daughter – hurls Maya into a life-altering crisis. Balan is remarkable as someone staring into the void, while struggling to practise what she preaches. It’s a deeply complicated character, but the actress manages to radiate the conflict of a mother who has convinced herself that she is ‘sacrificing’ her integrity to care for her differently-abled son. The moral tension of being Maya turns Jalsa into a whodunit that’s more concerned with the makings of a sociocultural tragedy. If you look closely, you might even notice shades of Kahaani’s mother battling to remain a mother.
In Ayappa KM’s War Room – the best short of Amazon Prime’s Unpaused anthology – Geetanjali Kulkarni masters the grammar of grief as Sangeeta Waghmare, a teacher faced with a moral dilemma while volunteering as a Covid war room coordinator. Waghmare’s day is disrupted by a call from the man who was once responsible for the suicide of her son; memories flood back, even as she struggles to deal with the demands of her ‘job’. Kulkarni becomes one with her makeshift BMC setting – her face half-concealed by a mask, her mind wounded, her stricken eyes seeing a world desensitised by the bureaucracy of loss. Her simmering performance suggests that Waghmare chose this work to feel closer to those grappling with the prospect of tragedy – to find company in her misery – only to be confronted with the conflict she hoped to escape. Watching the short today hurls us right back into the middle of the deadly second wave in 2021, not least due to a protagonist who learns that closure comes in all shapes and sounds.
Shefali Shah is the sort of actress who’s so perennially good – so present, so cognisant – that it’s often easy to forget how good she is. This year alone, her supporting characters in Jalsa, Doctor G and Darlings – and even her over-the-top turn in Human – merit a film festival of their own. But it’s her iconic DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in Delhi Crime 2 that fully brings her talent to the fore. In the second season of the Netflix crime drama, Shah raises the bar in terms of how she expresses Vartika as a performance within a performance. Being a powerful woman in a male-dominated field, and a person of privilege in a merit-based setting, Vartika always seems to be playing a ‘role’ of authority. That she’s now faced with the challenge of nabbing a female criminal – one who, sans privilege and education, becomes a cautionary version of Vartika herself – makes Shah’s journey even sharper. The way she uses language – Hindi to accept, English to assert – is one of several touches that keeps Delhi Crime 2 grounded, despite its decision to go the commercial-anthology way.
It’s one word, a single term of endearment. But somehow, it contains a lifetime of pain and yearning. It’s just the way Naseeruddin Shah says “beta” in the final act of Gehraiyaan – his voice wavering just a little, the intonation losing steam, like a lingering emotion reduced to the absolution of language. His character – a man who has, until then, existed on the periphery of frames, plot and his family – is consoling his broken daughter. His voice is the reason she has just stopped short of killing herself; it soothes her, but it also conveys the magnanimity of a father who has silently been her villain to protect memories of her mother. She is frustrated and humbled by his legacy of suffering. Most Indian men might have felt vindicated enough to steal this moment, but Shah’s wise reading of life – and his brilliant subversion of his own on-screen image as a distant father – links the scene to the tears of a child who finds herself through a single parent. His “beta” is both an intense hug and a belated confession.
As a lost daughter, a flawed sister, a tormented girlfriend and a reckless lover, Deepika Padukone delivers the most perceptive Hindi performance of 2022. Her Alisha is a masterclass in misguided morality; Padukone’s reading of generational trauma is so restrained that you can almost touch the toll of living in the way Alisha walks, talks, cries and broods. There’s something to be said about the way her body crumples, her voice hollows and her chest heaves under pressure: A violently physical turn in a story of psychological edges. There are moments when she’s almost willing the movie to protect her and keep her secrets; there are others when she’s hoping to be punished and liberated by the truth of her chaos. It’s a character that feels like both an escape – from her past, from an ominous future, from herself – and a reckoning at once. It’s to Padukone’s enduring credit that she normalises the role of an Indian woman weighed down by the cost of independence. There are no acting tricks; just an emotionally continuous arc defined by a descent into living hell.
We feared a trainwreck. The trailers of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest revealed a girl pretending to be a woman; a modern actress at odds with the historical setting. But one can only marvel at how Alia Bhatt turns these perceived weaknesses – a petite presence, a furnished voice, an urbane spirit – into a strength as Gangubai Kathiawadi, a 1960s’ brothel madam and social activist who thrives on being underestimated by audiences and characters alike. Bhatt infuses Gangubai with the sort of babyfaced bravado that perfectly befits a girl who once aspired to be a Bollywood actress. She orates, moves and behaves like someone who enjoys entertaining her admirers and detractors; as an artist who summons the camera to be on her; and as a dreamer who merges political ambition with deep-rooted art. It’s why her love story unfurls over a montage of tender power-play and music, as if she’s dropping her guard and deriving her sense of feeling from paintings and literature. Most of all, Bhatt transcends the flawed biopic to become the only Bollywood superstar to elicit whistles and claps from packed halls this year. Thanks to her, masala acting is alive and kicking.
Hamza Shaikh is a wife beater and an alcoholic, but trust Vijay Varma to reframe this villain as more of a supernatural-horror presence. His toxicity is unpredictable, suspenseful even; he’s scarier when he’s not in a scene. He doesn’t terrorise his wife with overt displays of rage; it’s creepier because of how he gaslights her and toys with her sense of fear. It’s almost as though Varma models Hamza on a man who has ‘studied’ how to be more manipulative from the movies he watches. This self-awareness is what lends him a sinister edge – and a porous presence that signals his arrival much before he enters a frame, like an ominous fin cutting through water. Even his alcoholism is subdued; he drinks on the sly, getting more devious and disgruntled with every sip. And he drinks so that he has something to blame for the ‘monster’ within him – a trait that Varma conveys with great genre-fluidity. It’s a tense, creature-like performance that keeps Darlings on track as a clutter-breaking dramedy. Without him, Jasmeet K. Reen’s daring debut might have struggled to bridge its disparate tones.
Who better than an on-song Jim Sarbh to present the legacy of Homi Bhabha as a cocktail of free-flowing science and lippy flamboyance?
Playing a poker-faced, canine-loving agent of mayhem comes most naturally to Deol, who manages to be menacing and tragic within the same performance.
Qureshi owns the screen as an unapologetic, strangely feminist ‘vamp’ who dances, seduces, pretends and wrestles with musical vigour.
If there was any doubt about the new-age love story between the camera and Roshan, his gleeful villainy in Vikram Vedha – a masterclass in mainstream rhythm, where he glides through frames with water-walking sexiness – dispels it.
As a girl trapped in a freezer, Kapoor turns in a desperately feral performance, where both actress and character seem to be simultaneously coming of age.