In our mad rush to pay tribute to an entire decade of Indian cinema, it's easy to overlook the final chapter. Honestly, it hasn't been a standout year for Hindi cinema. Films-wise, it has been slim pickings. I can count the good ones on my fingers. The best of them – an inward outlaw Western – sank without a trace. The biggest box-office hits have not been the most appropriate indicators of quality. Critics' choices have not been unanimous either.
Having said that, most of these stories have been built around individual performances. Around charisma and even the charming lack of it. Risks have been taken, reputations have been challenged. Thanks to the digital boom, new faces have also emerged.
The common thread: The finest of them have reiterated that acting is, in its most primal form, the art of reacting. When the camera is on them, you get a whiff of what they were feeling and where they were when the camera was not on them. Their sense of emotional continuity is second to none.
Here are ten of my favourite Hindi film performances of 2019 – male and female, irrespective of their status as leads, supporting roles, cameos – in no particular order:
Most everything Bajpayee does these days is gold dust. But his extended cameo as leader of the misfiring Chambal baaghis in Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya is a performance so fleetingly profound that it drives the moral conflict of the entire film. His character Maan Singh is someone who, when alive, manages to appear world-weary and wise: a proud dacoit at the twilight of his career. The same face, the same scene, the same vacantly existential gaze – in retrospect, after a posthumous revelation – appears haunted, pained and tragically timid. It's hard to imagine any other Indian actor in a position to achieve this level of spiritual duality across a story torn between wrong and wrong. His ghost hovers over a valley of broken thugs, his absence informing a brilliant Sonchiriya as much as his presence.
Gully Boy opens with a young man walking with jacketed swagger, flanked by his two sidekicks, almost intentionally emulating Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The film goes on to chart the rise of his meek "sidekick," but this man – small-time crook Moeen – is the kind of grey leader that most friends strive to impress. He is loyal, but expects to be followed, and sardonically teases anyone who doesn't: His edginess often evokes Jeremy Renner's unhinged act in The Town. What makes Vijay Varma's performance simultaneously tender and menacing is that Moeen is both offended and relieved by Murad's righteousness – the final scene between them at the police station, where Moeen finally becomes a selfless older-brother figure, is one of the most moving on-screen moments of 2019.
The girl from Gully Boy is an explosive love – oscillating between bottle-breaking jealousy and lip-pecking affection in a matter of minutes. Alia Bhatt has made a career out of surprising audiences with her primal grasp of human language. Her accent and physicality may not always be on point, but her reading of – and artful curiosity about – spirit and emotional toughness is second to none. Like in Udta Punjab, she plays a girl far removed from her own socio-cultural reality. Yet, she infuses Safeena with the kind of mercurial hot-cold passion that forces Ranveer Singh's Murad to be flawed enough to reach for the stars. The way she fights, cusses, cries, even kisses – it all adds up to accentuate the portrait of an actor that promotes the power of instinct over authenticity.
My personal favourite this year has Sanya Malhotra playing the human equivalent of a photograph slowly acquiring the contours of a full-bodied image in a dark room. As the painfully shy but quietly rebellious Gujarati girl Miloni, she captures the essence of a sheltered rich girl without flaunting the stereotype. You can sense throughout Ritesh Batra's Photograph – in which an upper-class Mumbai girl must pretend-love a rustic boy – that Miloni's daring baby steps are aimed more towards discovering herself than servicing the whims of a strange man. Malhotra elegantly romanticizes Miloni's naivety while internalizing her lack of life exposure. A scene with her househelp – where she veers between genuine curiosity and crippling innocence – is the finest example of "voice acting" I've seen in years.
Old warhorse Manoj Pahwa was excellent in Anubhav Sinha's Mulk as the stricken father of a terrorist – a victim of the system – but he goes one better in the filmmaker's next as the system himself. As officer Brahmadutt Singh, Pahwa is both boisterous and shadowy, ominous and omnipresent, playing the kind of corrupted character we see far too often in the caste-heirarchal Indian hinterlands. At first he behaves like a minor middle-man in a major league – his transformation into the villain is subtle and grey, especially when juxtaposed against the urban hero's utopianism. This man is the manifestation of the menacing background score, a picture of shady self-preservation. Perhaps the darkest aspect of this hustler of a performance is that Brahmadutt is actually…a dog lover.
The most fascinating Hindi film of the year hinges on a disturbingly self-aware and fiendishly clever performance. Kangana Ranaut, as the "unstable" Bobby Grewal, drips from one vivid frame to the next – the actress weaponizes our perception of her to create a character whose serial brokenness is reimagined as a triumph. It's a transparent and daring decision, and Ranaut paints her soul on the walls of a visually gifted filmmaker. Bobby is jarring and joyous and everything in between, and it's impossible to turn a blind eye towards the intimate personality of her performance. She knows. The movie's fetishization of Bollywood's morbid idea of mental health was often, surprisingly, the last thing on my mind.
One has to be really nimble-witted to stand out in a genre movie that inherently hinges on the aesthetics of "over-the-top" acting. But Devaiah devours his double-role in Vasan Bala's whacky but strangely intimate Matunga martial arts comedy. He both parodies and personalizes two action-film tropes at once: The wounded mentor, the villainous twin brother. He turns sweaty sincerity into an artform as the one-legged Karate Mani (sir), but his jumpy Jimmy is the ultimate trash-talking entertainer. He is also the fictional manifestation of a nutty cinephile subculture – unafraid of Rajini-Kamal puns, tweet-style banter, with a penchant for reactive fluidity. He makes his lines sound unscripted, a trait crucial to a carefully choreographed and cartoonish combat-heavy narrative.
Shonali Bose's film about a marriage at the mercy of a terminally ill child leaves no stone unturned – at times, shamelessly – to extract our tears. But The Sky Is Pink is essentially a long-form relationship story told from the perspective of the daughter that defined them. In that sense, Priyanka Chopra's performance as Aditi Chaudhary, a woman and a mother and a wife (in that order), is singularly stoic and empathetic. She eschews her Bollywood roots to present a perky parent at odds with the concept of impending grief. Her meltdown, unlike those of the males in the family, isn't explicit and dramatic – it happens over time, in fits, in silence and in complex love. Chopra's role spans more than two decades, and it's fascinating to see an actress evolve in sync with the fading perspectives of her character.
Ivan Ayr's Soni is – beneath its mentor-mentee core and socioculturally bleak exterior – a zero-sum feeling. Equally hopeful and hopeless, equally philanthropic and nihilistic. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, as the titular Delhi cop with a necessary temper problem, essays this feeling. On one hand, Soni is going through a difficult divorce and on the other, she finds herself policing the streets of a city that makes her detest the idea of manhood. She appears both hapless and thankful that the optics of her job have indirectly killed her marriage. The actress' chemistry with her superintendent reveals an equation in which neither is sure about who is inspiring whom: She respects her superior, but resists her future. And it is to Geetika's enduring credit that Soni becomes a more immediate Newton of our times.
Under normal circumstances, it would be tempting to mention both the superb Soni performances together, as a twin act of sorts. But Saloni Batra's superintendent character, Kalpana, is an existential beast of its own. Her gait as a privileged yet perfectly self-aware boss – as both Soni's reflection and shadow – is uncanny. Notice her resentfully submissive tone at home as a wife to a bigshot officer; she behaves and walks differently, she even weaponizes her feminine side to extract favours from him. Compare this to her body language at work: assertive, strict, deliberately performative, a senior who is both envious and wary of Soni's violent idealism. Without condescending on her own upper-class Delhi-ness, she paints, through tiny drawls and withering glances, the portrait of a lady on silent fire.