This year's acting list is a combination of all mediums: shorts, web shows and films. And fittingly so. After 21 months of a pandemic that has blurred the lines of our engagement with art, it's only fair that our parameters of judging follow suit too. Acting is a craft that's rooted in a common truth – unlike writing, directing or even sports, which require different lenses for different formats. And to be honest, I'd be struggling to name even five contenders if this were a film-only list, such is the state of contemporary Hindi cinema. For instance, there used to be no way someone like Rajkummar Rao wouldn't make it to a year-ender. But in 2021, he's had two theatrical releases and one OTT film, all equally forgettable. Yet, some of the names below are the 'usual suspects,' which is comforting. The gender disparity, too, has ceased to exist. It's almost unfair to rank them all, but what's a bit of listicle sweetness without some spice?
Here then are 10 of my favourite Hindi-language performances of 2021, ranked:
In one of the most interesting roles of the year, Sanya Malhotra plays a young widow at odds with the procedural nature of death. As a woman coming to terms with the ability to love herself over the inability to grieve for a husband she barely knew, Malhotra doesn't overdo the irreverence – there's a dignity to the way Sandhya behaves, and unravels, in a household full of circling vultures. It's a character that could have gone hopelessly wrong in the hands of a lesser artist. But Malhotra circumvents the crowd-pleasing trappings, and frames a coming-of-age journey within the walls of traditional closure. In the process, she becomes both bigger and smaller than the story she occupies, going where very few Hindi film actresses dare to in pursuit of feminine complexity.
Given the history of 'pensive doctors' in Bollywood movies, it's a miracle that a series set in a hospital is one of the better things we've seen this year. Hindi cinema has certain go-to tropes while depicting maverick professionals – lawyers, scientists, athletes, industrialists. But Mohit Raina's 'maverick' surgeon, Kaushik Oberoi, has no time to be eccentric. Though it's established that he's a living legend in Mumbai's medical community, there's a sense of nihilism about his face; he's tired of being too good for a system that's failed him once too often. His arrogance is then part of his armour – he's working against the clock, against the Indian state and bureaucracy, during the longest night of his life. The most impressive aspect of Raina's performance is his balance of authenticity and urgency: he's too busy going with the flow to actually sell Oberoi's chutzpah to the viewers. He's the reluctant protagonist who blends into the hospital walls and becomes the cement in its cracks.
From the moment she brutally murders an eve teaser in the bylanes of Chennai, Samantha's Tamil rebel operative Raji stalks the screen like a leopard wearing human skin. She doesn't move, she prowls, her eyes burning a hole into the show's protagonist, Manoj Bajpayee's Sri, even as he suppresses his envy for her unyielding ideology. The actress plays the 'villain' of Season 2 with feral focus, subverting all the easy femme-fatale tropes so many action narratives have fetishized over the decades. With a handful of words and the cacophony of militant glares, Samantha turns the unfeeling assassin into a sinking feeling; even her few moments of vulnerability don't involve a dropping of guard so much as a venting of victimhood. Given the actress' established credentials in the South, it'd have been simple to amplify Raji with a prefixed image. But this is a deceptively skillful performance – one that thrives on anonymity of both character and star.
It may not seem so, but Amit Masurkar's Sherni was going to be a very important film for Vidya Balan. I was worried about the path-breaking actress' career trajectory after the author-backed excesses of Shakuntala Devi, Mission Mangal and Begum Jaan. To use a popular cricketing analogy: when a batsman is too talented, shot selection becomes an issue. But all is well. Balan's superbly realized performance as forest officer Vidya Vincent is a testament to her unadorned reading of our surroundings. She is three things here: a human in an animal's backyard, a woman in a man's world and a cityslicker in a rural ecosystem. Yet, Balan eschews all the over-the-top templates of Hindi film heroism to deliver a profoundly restrained turn – one that straddles the thin line between sweaty underdog and systemic victim. She observes a world that's too busy observing her, and the result is a gut-punch of an environmental drama whose statement is as silent as the screams stifled by Indian bureaucracy.
It's not easy to follow up the saffron physicality of Uri with the personal patriotism of Sardar Udham. But Vicky Kaushal seems to be a man for all national seasons. For much of Shoojit Sircar's freedom-fighter biopic, you wonder why Kaushal's Udham Singh is so stoic that he's almost inert. He's almost always in transition, between places; the mundanity of his journey is filmed over the ambiguity of his destination. But the intellectual non-linearity of the film slowly supplies Kaushal's performance with an emotional linearity – it's hard to spot until hindsight becomes the leveller. That it ends with the beginning, where Kaushal's rendition finds life in an arena of death, says a lot about the harmony between writing and performance. Kaushal's three-act arc during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – where he goes from shock to sadness to numbing humanity in a single sequence – is the epitome of body acting; he convinces the viewer with motion alone that here's a teenager who is too busy reacting to act. He's too busy being present to grasp the enormity of both his private grief and India's history being carved into bleeding books.
I'll say it again: Viewers today don't realize how difficult it is for '90s Bollywood stars to renovate the entire grammar of their craft – and understanding of the industry – to make comebacks on new-age platforms. Unlike Raveena Tandon, though, Sushmita Sen isn't burdened by an elaborate 'heroine' legacy; she has less to unlearn, and therefore her performance as a wounded widow crossing swords with a sinister drug empire across two seasons of Aarya is less of a revelation and more of a perfectly calibrated portrait of desperate motherhood. It's both culturally specific (an upper-class Rajasthani setting engulfs the show's anti-exotic atmosphere) and universal (the gradual Godmother-esque tone) at once. There's something inherently unpretentious about the way Sen breathes life into Aarya: no posturing, no flaunting or boss-girling. Just a woman slowly starting to "enjoy" a sense of agency and power. Even when Aarya becomes the hunter, Sen makes sure we know that the character is emulating the fiction she's grown up on. Season 2 furthers the Sushmita Sen story, doubling up as both reinvention and remake.
As a North Indian truck driver named Ghalib, Suvinder Vicky is all lyrics sans sound, embodying an India relegated to the rearview mirror of endless highways. His deadpan face, grieving beard and sparse voice convey volumes of history – an against-all-odds love story, an adoring wife, a marriage gone sour, a tragedy – without so much as the crutch of music and flashbacks. Or language, for that matter. Meel Patthar is listed as a Hindi film but primarily features Punjabi, though such stories aren't about the words so much as the pauses that separate them. Suvinder's performance – inert and eloquent at once – ensures that the central allegory of Meel Patthar is no gimmick. At some level, human life is no different from a long-distance truck journey. Our spines creak under the pressure of society, as we transfer the burden of being from one phase to another.
Over two solid seasons, Bajpayee has owned the bridge between satire and dramedy as TASC agent Srikant Tiwari. He plays a middle-class husband with the radar of a superspy, and a superspy with the angst of a middle-class husband; one seems to be a rehearsal for the other. In Season 2, Bajpayee furthers Sri's talent as a professional liar even in the face of a scene-stealing enemy. It's a performance so physical and versatile – straddling so many different genres at once – that I've started to take it for granted. I'm not sure there's an actor with a better understanding of everyman existence; his uncanny ability to locate irony in the ordinary (with his forehead alone) is weaponized by a franchise that reveals its sociopolitical identity through him. Not to mention his remarkable agility – and his ability to look both trained and untrained – in the single-take action scenes.
The finest Hindi film performance of 2021 belongs to a striking short from a middling anthology. Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi is by far the most accomplished of the four Ajeeb Daastaans segments, largely because Konkona Sen Sharma delivers a deceptively layered performance as Bharti Mandal: a queer Dalit factory worker weaponizing the intersectionality of caste, class, gender and sexuality at once. Rarely has an Indian actor conveyed so much with so little – agency, voice, expression, privilege – at her disposal. She circumvents the aura of cinema's 'butch' prototype to reveal her masculinity as a wounded survival instinct – allowing the film to frame Bharti as a driver of fate and not a victim of hate.
Pavan Malhotra's Omkar Singh – an ex-police constable undercutting a corrupt system to protect his family – is an accumulation of a consistently excellent but criminally underrated career. As a husband and father, but more importantly as an everyman getting disillusioned with the concept of justice, Malhotra is the beating heart of the Jalandhar-based morality drama. You can sense the actor composing his role rather than playing it, veering between survival instinct and middle-class guilt, masculinity and history, acting and reacting – and switching between victim, villain and hero in a matter of seconds. Over the course of the series, Malhotra turns Omkar into a man torn between preserving his family and protecting the idea of familyhood. It's a performance for the ages, decades in the making.
Ashutosh Rana (Pagglait)
The veteran actor is immensely moving as a grieving father, a lump-in-throat and broken-voiced presence in a houseful of post-death reactions.
Vikrant Massey (Haseen Dillruba)
I'm not sure anyone does 'unhinged lover' better than Massey. Here, he drives a weirdly pulpy film to the edge of the cliff with middle-class, toxic everyman rage.
Paramvir Cheema (Tabbar)
It's difficult to play the good guy in a series that treats you as one of the antagonists, but Paramvir Cheema delivers a superbly understated performance as the sincere cop chasing the demons of his own family.
Parineeti Chopra (Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar)
In a year that underlined the gap between her potential and problems, Chopra fashions the most startling cinematic moments – a sexual assault, a gut-wrenching meltdown – in Dibakar Banerjee's long-delayed road thriller.
Ranveer Singh (83)
Despite starring in a movie that simplifies his talent, Singh infuses his physical mimicry of Kapil Dev with a sense of emotional intelligence – where even a broken language sounds like a symbol of cultural intent.
Adarsh Gourav (The White Tiger)
Restricted by the film's lack of self-awareness, Gourav nails the sweaty ambiguity of a 'slumdog' who is bullied into disillusionment by a rigged system.