With the total number of releases in India in 2020 being fewer than what even a single major industry puts out during normal times, we can safely say that we were robbed of at least a dozen great performances and characters this year. Yet with what we got, here are a few examples of some fine acting that will outlive the times we’re in, playing characters who helped us forget what’s happening, at least for a time while.
Allu Arjun In Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo
2020 may not have been the year for big masala blockbusters but January’s Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, starring an in-form Allu Arjun, is easily the best of the year. His charisma shines through, even in the film’s most outrageous moments. Like the bit where his sister’s dupatta becomes a weapon of mass destruction in his hands, or that charmingly OTT ambush towards the end where a full-grown chicken becomes his tag-team partner. He doesn’t even flex a muscle…he doesn’t have to, because his star power is doing all the heavy lifting. David Warner himself would vouch for the man’s dancing abilities in the film’s ultra-successful songs, making it one of the last remnants of a pre-Covid era when films were celebrations.
Suriya in Soorai Pottru
His performance in Sudha Kongara’s Soorarai Pottru makes him the strongest contender to become India’s first ‘OTT superstar’. After a series of disappointments, the film gave us the Suriya we love, bringing back the pre-Singam actor whose single expression carried more weight than his 1.5 tonne forearm. He tore us apart in the film’s airport scene when he tries to get home to see his father, one last time. His undying determination in the film borders on the obsessive, especially when Maaran follows a sparrow up to the roof, which is equally the desperation of a man who is slowly losing it. Paired opposite an excellent Aparna Balamurali, the film also gave us the year’s best love story.
Pritham K Chakravarthy in Psycho
Before Sister Rachel, the image of a nun in Tamil cinema would be that of the lovely Sister Vanessa, who nurses Nalasivam back to life in Anbe Sivam. Yet with just a couple of scenes in Mysskin’s Psycho, Pritham takes that image, turns it on its head, and then chops off that head to create the most sinister Sister ever. Using her unique diction and strong, accented dialogue delivery, she tames even the psycho killer who collects severed heads like trophies.
Gautham Vasudev Menon In Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadhithal/Trance
As the voice of the brutal Pandya (Jeevan) in Khaakha Khaakha, we always knew that there was something more to this filmmaker than voiceovers, writing and directing alone. This year, with Paava Kadhaigal too, was as much about his acting prowess as it was about his many short films. He was the highlight of Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadhithal, where he played a satirised version of the template GVM cop. In his Malayalam debut, he was just as good playing the ruthless corporate God-maker, whose true intentions are hidden deep inside layers and layers of sophistication.
Kushi Ravi in Dia
In the almost Amelie-esque first half hour of Dia, Kushi takes us straight into the mind of an introvert who needs to practise a million times before she can speak to her crush for the first time. She hardly gets any dialogues here but her expressions are in perfect harmony with her voiceovers, tackling the many shades of awkwardness that’s a part of Dia’s everyday life. Later, we grow up along with her and her transitions through the many ups and downs of her life is just as consistent with that of a loner. Heartbreak just hits very differently when you feel it through her.
Urvashi in Varane Avshyamund
Though her Tamil films from the second half of the year were celebrated, it is her role as the dentist in Varane Avshyamund that really charmed the seasoned followers of this great actor. Playing the mother of the protagonist’s fiancé, cliches would usually make her the evil mother in-law who encourages her son to reject a girl because of her family. But her character subverts those doubts and gives us a beautiful friendship between her and her future daughter-in-law. The scene where the both of them take a nap together, with Urvashi taking care of her, is genuinely heartfelt, as is the scene where she ends up apologising for her son and his father.
Aparna Balamurali in Soorarai Pottru
Arguably the darling of the year is Aparna Balamurali, playing Bommi the baker, who has come to redefine the millennial man’s fantasy for the perfect partner. In a world populated by variations of the ‘loosu ponnu’, she gave Bommi courage, a brain and a heart, making her the 50 percent shareholder of what you thought was going to the hero’s soul proprietorship. The scene where a shy Maaran asks her for money and the way she reacts, with as much vulnerability as strength, hints at an actress thats going to continue to surprise us.
Goparaju Ramana in Middle Class Melodies
In a film filled with a dozen lovely characters, Goparaju Rama’s Kondal Rao, stands on its own with some of the film’s best moments. Take for instance the scene early on when he asks his wife to massage his feet. At that point, siding with the film’s protagonist Raghava (Anand Deverakonda), we see him merely as the strict patriarch who finds no worth in his son. But slowly, the tough exterior makes way for the man he really is. Later, in the scene where his wife convinces him to part with his chit fund to help their son, we see how he really is. He’s massaging her feet now and it’s not even a big deal. Kondal Rao agrees with his wife, but only partly. His annoyance is hilarious when he stops massaging mid-way. He’s a good guy but he’s also an familiar kind of selfish. All that conveyed through one scene.
Grace in Halal Love Story
As Suhra, Grace gets the best character in the highly polarising Halal Love Story. When we meet her first, we never see the pain she’s hiding in what appears to be THE perfect family. But as we learn more about her marriage, we see the cracks starting to develop and the secrets she’s been withholding for years. As Suhra starts to act in the tele-film, she knows deep down that she’s better than her husband, but she feels the need to still protect his male ego in the most subtlest of ways. During Suhra’s emotional breakthrough, which Grace performs with great restraint, we discover the root cause of her issues with her husband just as she discovers it herself. There are no blowups or outbursts, but she manages to make us feel her plight with nothing more than her silences and broken smiles.
Biju Menon in Ayyapanum Koshiyum
One could argue that his role as Ayyappan Nair in Sachy’s last film is his best so far. Menon is an actor that started off playing villain roles, moved onto supporting roles, which culminated in a series of very successful comedies he starred in. Yet he seldom got the complexity in these characters to test the variations of his range. That’s what he got with this blockbuster. It’s as good as two different spirits taking over the same body. The change in Ayyapan we see after his suspension is one for the ages. With several brutal fights scenes and a grand duel at the end, the physicality of the character is in contrast to the blankness in his face. He doesn’t get the big showy punch dialogues nor does he get any moments of heightened melodrama. Yet when he says something, however silently, we fear the Mundoor Maadan lying dormant within him.
Sreenath Bhasi In Kappela
The cleverly deceptive Kappela knows what the audience thinks of its lead actors, so when Sreejith Bhasi walks into the screen, we’ve already written a back story for his character. But to see the real craft of his performance, you need to watch the film a second time. The silences, the doubts, the stares…they do more than just hide one big secret, on later viewings. His conundrum is complex and it’s not easy to convey that without the use of dialogues or voiceovers. But he does.
Darshana Rajendran In C U Soon
As one of the first Indian screen-based films, C U Soon could have easily been dismissed as a gimmick if not for Darshana’s performance. Despite the limitations of the format, she generates genuine empathy for her character—a housemaid forced into prostitution through a shady racket. There’s genuine warmth and lightness when things seem rosy in the beginning between Jimmy and Anu, but when it gets sour, all that desperation and hopelessness is conveyed merely through the phone screen with the screen itself doubling up as the walls of her prison. More than anything, she has that magic gift to make the audience cry when she’s crying.
Suhas In Colour Photo
Suhas, in his debut script as protagonist, gets to do a little bit of everything. From comic fights, to massy speeches, from crying in front of his lover to crushing heartbreaks, he aces everything with the skill of a decathlon athlete. We see the film through the eyes of its heroine, but the love we feel for Krishna is mostly his doing. Because, as the audience, our affection for him is never coloured by sympathy, despite all the factors stacked against him. Like Deepu, we too fall for his charm and that’s why the ending works so strongly. He’s an actor who can do loud just as well as he can do subtle. He’s someone we should watch out for because…“engineers are our future”.
Aiswarya Rajesh In Ka Pae Ranasingam
Despite her acting abilities, it’s not often that Aishwarya Rajesh gets a role that deserves her. She first got Kaaka Muttai, and years later she got Kanaa. But it’s with Ariyanachi in Ka Pae Ranasingam that we got to see what she can really do with a well-written role. Like Maaran in Soorarai Pottru, her story too is about steely revolve. Even here, it’s all about a ‘flight’ at the end of the tunnel. Yet the circumstances are very different. She’s not hoping for dreams to come true. It’s more closure after her husband passes away in Dubai. Trapped in a web of red tape, we feel every inch of her painstaking journey. Like her character in Kakka Muttai, we see the same tired face of a mother/wife who is close to giving up, yet she fights on, even when there’s little to fight for. The film’s ending feels like a hammer blow and that’s when we realise how it’s a luxury for this widow to just wail. Given how much we invest in their love story early on, thanks to a lovely exchange between her and Vijay Sethupathi, we get a character whose whereabouts we will worry about long after the film’s duration.
Fahadh Faasil in Trance
Between motivational speaker Viju Prasad and godman Joshua Carlton, there’s no shade of grey Fahadh Faasil doesn’t use to paint this glorious (get it) portrait. The loss of innocence of a hopeful man, depression, a meteoric rise and the eventual fall, he keeps us glued to his journey through the many chapters that make this fascinating life. Surrounded by people he cannot trust, he only has the mirror to look inwards to catch a glimpse of who he was. When he’s on stage, the power of his performance is such that his words pops out of the screen, making us instant believers of whatever God or religion he wants to peddle. In certain scenes, he believes he is God. We do too, thanks to this incredible performance. Praise be unto him.
Kalidas Jayaram in Paava Kadhaigal
As Sathaar, in Sudha Kongara’s Thangam, we get another fine performance of a cis actor playing a trans woman after Vijay Sethupathi in Super Deluxe. Even in the comical scenes in the beginning, there’s not even a trace of the portrayal ever crossing over to caricature. After her thangam confesses his love for her sister, she walks away holding back tears with her voice cracking. Instead of looking towards the camera (for sympathy) or completely away from it (in thought) in the long shot, Kalidas chooses to roll his eyes, because that will help him control his tears for a second longer without Saravanan noticing him wiping it off. Micro-expressions like these are many in this dexterous, sensitive performance of a character we instantly fall in love with. Where was this Kalidas all this while?
Special Mentions: Satya Dev in Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya, Sunil in Colour Photo and the entire cast of Andhagaaram.