2020 has been a triumph for the craft of casting. Almost every standout series is driven by a spectacular ensemble bereft of weak links. The writers, too, have ensured that even the most fleeting of roles can’t afford to be overlooked anymore. There is no appearance too small. As a result, the list of top web-series performances tends to look very different from a list of film performances. For instance, a majority of the web’s best this year features familiar faces who’ve long been at the periphery of mainstream Hindi cinema, both literally and otherwise. For several reasons, the shorter mediums have failed to optimize their talent. But the technical nature of the OTT beast has meant that only seasoned veterans and strivers can handle the artistic demands of long-form narratives. It’s for the better, because two of the finest performances across mediums in recent memory have come in this year’s web shows. Hopefully, the streak continues well into the new normal.
Here then are 8 of the top Hindi web series performances in 2020, ranked:
8. Sushmita Sen (Aarya)
Womanhood is no hashtag for Sushmita Sen, in her comeback role as a character torn between grieving as a wife and guarding as a mother. The crisis of being Aarya Sareen – a reluctant heiress to an illegal family business after the murder of her husband – is not an ordinary one. It requires her to also flit between being sister and daughter at a time her eyes are learning to adjust to the blinding darkness of privilege. Freed from the constraints of having to ooze a starry big-screen legacy, Sen looks (re)born for the cameras. She humanizes the chaos of survival instinct, at once disappearing into and discovering the shadows of her upper-class Jaipur ecosystem. Her panther-like physical agility adds to the primality of her conflict: extracting her cubs out of an environment that broke her heart. Some of the most affecting moments of the screen year feature Aarya watching videos of her late husband into the night, shedding an untheatrical tear before steeling herself for the surprises of sunrise. There’s a crippling loneliness about her uprising, which isn’t so much a cat-and-mouse morality thriller as an urgent coping-mechanism drama. The late Srivedi in English Vinglish aside, I can’t think of a more compelling return to acting in recent memory.
7. Divyenndu Sharma (Mirzapur 2)
The mercurial Munna Tripathi is not the narrative fulcrum of Season 2, but his growing disillusionment with his father – as well as his marriage to a powerful woman – allows Divyenndu Sharma to be more than a trigger-happy sociopath. It allows his restless spirit to haunt the frames he isn’t in. He can’t afford to be as unpredictable (and therefore cinematic) this time around. Owing to a crowded plot that hinges on revenge against him, even his violence becomes measured. The others – Rasika Dugal’s Beena, Shweta Tripathi Sharma’s Golu and Ali Fazal’s Guddu – have redemptive and meaty resolutions, yet Munna remains the human equivalent of the Chucky doll. His ambition – to become the King of Mirzapur and succeed his domineering father – runs the risk of being repetitive and whiny, but Sharma lends it an extra dimension through his first real relationship. While most actors might have interpreted marriage as a tamer of body language and manhood, Sharma’s Munna redrafts it as empowerment. Going forward, it’s hard to imagine Mirzapur without him. It’s also hard to imagine him without Mirzapur.
6. Dibyendu Bhattacharya (Undekhi)
There’s a murder in the Sunderbans and DSP Barun Ghosh is afoot. The Bengali police officer is thoughtful, calm, patient, weathered, almost so slow that the restless narrative drags him to Manali before he can finish humming his next Hemant Kumar song. Undekhi is an inconsistent crime thriller that tries hard to offset narrative voids with theatricality, but Dibyendu Bhattacharya’s Ghosh is marvelously at odds with these loud surroundings. He (literally) marches to his own beat, his mind swimming in retro music to compensate for the modern madness he finds himself in. It’s a wonderfully measured performance, wry and wretched at once, subverting the tired-detective stereotype with his passively intellectual pursuit of the truth. Bhattacharya has been around for years, mostly relegated to the background of busy movie plots (Dev.D remains his only memorable role). It’s worth noting that the OTT universe seems to have resuscitated his career; he has appeared in no less than 13 web shows since 2018. While it’s nice to see him finally get his due, it’s also worth noting that all the big-ticket shows – from Sacred Games to Selection Day to Delhi Crime to Mirzapur 2 – have wasted him in fleeting cameos. Ironically, Undekhi (Unseen) put him in plain sight, and Indian storytelling is far richer for that.
5. Neeraj Kabi (Paatal Lok)
At a time Indian broadcast journalism has reached the crossroads, and in a year where the most notorious of its practitioners turned his own brief arrest into a political circus and primetime entertainment, Neeraj Kabi’s performance as self-important news anchor Sanjeev Mehra assumes heightened status. Mehra’s arc is one of the best-written in the series: he starts off as a melancholic icon who is fast losing relevance, and stumbles into the limelight once a failed assassination attempt on him triggers a police investigation. He’s a left-liberal victim in the beginning – of an “unstable” wife, a wary right-wing administration and a fickle media landscape – until he gradually morphs into the TRP monster in search of a second coming. He gets addicted to the attention, to the rebirth of his legend, and Kabi reveals his changing shades with calculative South-Delhi arrogance. It’s a sharp, controlled turn: one that’s defined by his ‘affair’ with a junior producer and her increasing disappointment in him. Often, a girl is judged by the story for sleeping with her boss, but this show instead judges his fading conscience through her eyes. In one of the final scenes, the policeman informs Mehra that it was never about him – that he was just a pawn in a larger game – and Kabi’s reaction is subtly calibrated to suit her presence in the office. The moment is therapeutic for any viewer who has lived through the “coverage” of this historic year.
4. Sumukhi Suresh (Pushpavalli S2)
As the baby-faced stalker that nobody (not even the tone of the series) takes seriously, Sumukhi Suresh’s is a creeper of a performance. Pushpavalli isn’t your garden-variety sociopath. Her struggles to be evil are marked by a tinge of wayward innocence: A lack of remorse emerges in tandem with her reputation as a doormat that everyone – landlady, roommates, boss, mother – likes to walk over. Pushpavalli is chastised and yelled at so often that the slightest attention from a good-looking man turns her into a wolf that has tasted blood. She “looks” harmless not just due to the way the world perceives her gender, and perhaps that’s the most disarming aspect of Sumukhi Suresh’s turn. Despite being a professional stand-up comic, she refuses to trivialize the moral anatomy of Pushpavalli’s mind, instead wearing a constant deer-in-headlights face: a perpetual portrait of shame that forces the viewer to become a concerned parent watching their child lose control. Season 2 upends this feeling with serious consequences, making for one of the most unlikely psychological thrillers in the Indian web space.
3. Raghubir Yadav (Panchayat)
With age, Raghubir Yadav has developed a great movie face, one whose emotional bandwidth he has the unique ability to reveal in sync with other filmmaking elements of a frame. As Brij Bhushan Dubey, the affable pradhan-pati of a remote UP village in Panchayat, this language of this face is on full display. The furrowing of his brow, the falling of his eyes, his easy silences and serene chuckles free the episodic script from the obligation to manufacture drama. He lets Dubey remain an unflinching product of his environment, a beta male insecure about his status as a leader but also paternally protective of the young outsider in their midst. The rare balance – of being both petty patriarch and tender crowd-pleaser at once – is a testament to Yadav’s decades-in-the-making performance. Most importantly, it’s his relaxed, reflexive turn that allows Panchayat’s easy narrative to locate meaning in the mundane.
2. Jaideep Ahlawat (Paatal Lok)
Paatal Lok is such a dense, busy series – ripe with mythological metaphors, sociopolitical faultlines and parallel narratives – that it’s easy for its weathered protagonists to morph into urgent action-movie prototypes. Most of their time is spent following the premise instead of defining it; it’s often about reacting rather than acting. But Jaideep Ahlawat’s Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary of Outer Jamna Paar police station is unique for how his personal arc pierces through his growing curiosity: he becomes a cog rebelling against the wheels of fate. Ahlawat’s is a career-defining performance. Whether it’s his subtle hesitation while putting on a xenophobic front to intimidate a Muslim convict in front of his Muslim sub-inspector, or swearing his heart out on a rickshaw ride to his son’s bullies, or even quietly resisting temptation with a “black widow” in a hotel room, Ahlawat’s acting is striking for how invisible it is. It edits the packed narrative – as both eyes and ears – whilst still managing to retain its own identity. Al Pacino may want to borrow a thing of two for his own beaten-cop characters.
1. Pratik Gandhi (Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story)
Delivering a performance of a performance is deceptively difficult. Pratik Gandhi’s Harshad Mehta is a human trapped within a brand. And ever so often, a brand trapped by humans. He grins and he growls, poses and prowls: his swag and silver tongue are a front for his business, for the image of an outsider conquering big bad Bombay. But Gandhi’s transformation once the system begins to close in on him – his gait weakens, his lopsided grin disappears, his tone softens even in defiance – evokes the wide-eyed fear of a classroom rascal being silenced by the school. He wears his language as a feeling, becoming a blueprint for how a regional character can speak in Hindi without betraying the spirit of his mother-tongue: Mehta thinks, acts and walks in Gujarati. Over ten episodes, Gandhi plays one of India’s most infamous public figures like an addict who relapses, again and again, till he dies alone, foaming at his mouth in his rehabilitation facility. It’s a pathbreaking turn – equal parts simple and complex, equal parts pure and provocative. There’s no running, no hiding for ten long and detailed episodes, but Pratik Gandhi makes sure his own wisdom and hunger stays synonymous with the sparkling notoriety of Harshad Mehta.
Swastika Mukherjee (Paatal Lok)
The purest character in a series of dark greys, the Bengali actress is tragically affecting as the dog-loving, neglected and fragile wife of a famous news anchor.
Shreya Dhanwanthary (Scam 1992)
As financial reporter Sucheta Dalal, Shreya really nails the brisk, impatient and persuasive gait of the fourth estate’s (almost-extinct) old guard.
Rajat Kapoor (Scam 1992)The CBI joint-director appears for barely two episodes, but Kapoor’s bold and brash turn makes a huge impact in how it exposes the rotten moral core of the Mehta investigation.
Naveen Richard (Pushpavalli 2)The abusive, potty-mouthed but soft-hearted boss-cum-only-friend of Pushpavalli will eventually go down as a cult figure in the OTT marriage between standup comedy and long-form storytelling.
Gulshan Devaiah (Afsos)
As a failed writer who is such a loser that he fails to kill himself only to get pulled into a comedy-of-terrors narrative, Devaiah is his usual wry, morbid and supremely assured self.
Vikas Kumar (Aarya)
As ACP Khan, the hero of life but villain of the protagonist’s desperate predicament, Kumar is wonderfully studied, humane and dense for a law enforcer.