2023 Wrap: Best in Show, from Shah Rukh Khan to Tillotama Shome

From small screen to big screen, these were the best performances of the year.
2023 Wrap: Best in Show, from Shah Rukh Khan to Tillotama Shome
2023 Wrap: Best in Show, from Shah Rukh Khan to Tillotama Shome

In a year that can be best described as a Shah Rukh Khan sandwich — with Pathaan starting the year off and Dunki bringing it to an end — we saw some stellar and unexpected performances on both streaming platforms and in theatrical releases. Here are our favourite performances of 2023.

Amruta Subhash in Lust Stories 2 (The Mirror)

Subhash plays Seema, the househelp who uses her employer’s apartment to have sex with her husband. When Isheeta (Tillotama Shome) discovers them in (and on) her bed, too occupied in the throes of passion to notice they have an audience, Isheeta is initially horrified but then stops to watch from a vantage point. Seema goes from being the woman on the fringes of Isheeta’s life to someone who occupies the centre, and she soon realises she is being watched. Much like with Isheeta, her horror slowly gives way to pleasure. She enjoys being watched and we can’t look away from her either. Subhash plays Seema with vulnerability and dignity, she doesn’t let you judge her. 

Gagan Dev Riar in Scam 2003: The Telgi Story

Gagan Dev Riar is an uncut diamond. His presence seeps into every frame – a supporting character trying to trick the spotlight into focusing on him – thus turning Telgi into a larger-than-life kingpin who looks jarringly like life itself. It’s not just the fact that he’s a physical ‘counterfeit’ of the real Abdul Karim Telgi. Or that his voice sounds like he’s almost amused by our popular notions of a mastermind. Or that his everyman gait – untucked shirt, pot-bellied walk, sly grin, middle-class twitching – makes the scam feel strangely personal. It’s also the fact that Riar allows the viewer to detect the subtle grammar of Telgi’s ego. Riar keeps us hooked and waiting for the future, one in which Telgi is destined to pay the price for ‘daring’ too hard. Riar plays Telgi as a person whose flamboyance isn’t as cool as he imagines. The dad jokes, open gait and anti-heroic swag are cringey because they’re supposed to be cringey.

Gulshan Devaiah in Dahaad

Devaiah’s Devi Singh, whose name means “goddess”, champions a brand of beta masculinity that may not be as flashy as standard machismo, but it’s very much its own brand of cool. Devi is the good cop not only during intense interrogations, but also at home. He has lovely scenes with both his son and daughter – the kind that showcase just how perceptive an actor Devaiah is – where the woke policeman teaches them the value of independence and equality. He’s also the boss that you wish you had (until a blip of an unfortunate moment when Dahaad opts for a cop out to suggest he’s nursing a crush on Sonakshi Sinha’s Anjali). 

Amruta Subhash, Gagan Dev Riar and Gulshan Devaiah
Amruta Subhash, Gagan Dev Riar and Gulshan Devaiah

Harman Baweja in Scoop

Only the most keen-eyed Bollywood fan would have recognised the smooth-talking police officer Harshvardhan Shroff as the same actor who’d appeared as the blighted hero of Love Story 2050 (2008) and What’s Your Rashee? (2009). Decades after those films sealed his fate as a hero, Harman Baweja made a quiet but terrific comeback in Scoop. He plays the senior police officer Harshvardhan Shroff who is as charming as he is sinister. Menacing, cool and increasingly cornered as Scoop progresses, this joint commissioner of police was a minor role that packed a major punch thanks to Baweja’s nuanced performance.

Jackie Shroff in Mast Mein Rehne Ka

Shroff plays Kamath, a 75-year-old widower who spends his days feigning a sense of routine and purpose. He is a recluse, but not by choice. His loneliness is so crushing that when a burglar breaks into his home one night, Kamath begs to be killed. He begs to be relieved of his existence. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because here’s a man who has lost the courage to crumple on his own terms. Shroff is wonderful as Kamath, a man who is trying to conquer his fear of attachment in the twilight of his life. You can tell that his pride has been dismantled over the years, and all that’s left is a pensioner looking for a reason to keep going. The toll of living and losing shows in his gait – in the way he looks, speaks, walks and bashfully smiles. 

Jaideep Ahlawat in Three of Us

There’s no such thing as an average Jaideep Ahlawat performance, and Pradeep Kamat in this film is another example of how the actor blends into an environment rather than a role. Even though Pradeep is moved by Shailaja’s return after 28 years, his soul is rooted in the gentle attachment with his wife. It’s the kind of companionship that’s secure enough to withstand the possibility of an old story and a new ending. Ahlawat infuses Pradeep with a subtle femininity, too, which doesn’t come across as a trait so much as a brave consequence of boyhood trauma. 

Jackie Shroff, Harman Baweja, and Jaideep Ahlawat
Jackie Shroff, Harman Baweja, and Jaideep Ahlawat

Kay Kay Menon in Farzi

The terrific Menon, as villain Mansoor, uses English for different reasons – to sound rich and powerful – except he isn’t as fluent in its profanities. Mansoor’s trademark is that he randomly employs the F-word as an epilogue to his thoughts, a symptom of someone who imitates a language without actually getting it. Kay Kay Menon has long been one of Hindi cinema’s most reliable character actors and as Mansoor, he reminds us why he’s had that reputation. 

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in Scoop

In a show teeming with guilty consciences and abandoned ideals, journalist Imran Siddiqui is its conscience. Imran is the editor of the newspaper Eastern Age and (one of the few people on whom Jagruti, Scoop’s protagonist, can lean on without hesitation. Idealistic and eloquent, he’s the kind of editor who becomes the pole star of idealism for his newsroom, nudging them in the right direction and supporting them when their journalism ruffles the feathers of the powerful. Imran is a role written to inspire courage, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub does him justice.

Mona Singh in Made in Heaven

While we got to see too little of Mrs Bulbul Johri (it’s still better than the Mona-baiting of Kaala Paani), Mona Singh was one of the few highlights of the second season of Made in Heaven. Bulbul is a crabby accountant who helps keep the company afloat, but she’s also revealed to be a domestic abuse survivor. The scene in which she realises from the bills submitted for the bride that there is a cover-up, is unforgettable. Singh makes it a point to play Bulbul as unlikeable initially, making her both unpredictable but also adding  nuance and underlining the importance of not sticking to first impressions. 

Mona Singh, Rajshri Deshpande, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Mona Singh, Rajshri Deshpande, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub

Rajshri Deshpande in Trial by Fire

Rajshri Deshpande as the grieving Neelam is the furious conscience of Trial By Fire, refusing to be subdued or forgotten. She becomes the face of the tragedy of the Uphaar Fire, in which 59 people lost their lives. Inconsolable and unshakeable in her determination to ensure her children's tragic deaths are not forgotten, Neelam's silences are as powerful as her outbursts — all because of the multitudes she conveys with one unblinking stare, a cutting one-liner. This was a performance that seemed to reach out of the screen to pull the viewer into the world of Trial By Fire.

Ranveer Singh in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani

Rocky Randhawa was the year’s favourite gym-bro.This film is buoyant because of the irresistible energy of Ranveer Singh. The actor is back in form as court jester, flamboyant lover and closet feminist. He combines the charm offensive with moments of vulnerability and tears with great aplomb. It’s also a nice excuse for Karan Johar to cut Ranveer Singh loose as Ranveer Singh. The eccentricity of the role thrives on the audience’s anticipation of what he will say or do next. It helps that Singh can switch from humour to earnest emotion – without diluting either – in the blink of an eye. 

Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan

The older Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan, Vikram Rathore (or Zaddy as we like to call him), was one of the most appreciated men on our screens this year. And why not? While Jawan must have spent big bucks de-ageing Khan as Azad, it’s as Azad’s father that he really made everyone’s pulse flutter. Khan at 58 leaned into the idea of the silver fox, complete with a cigar that refuses to be extinguished, much like the fandom for Khan. As Vikram Rathore, Khan walks with swagger, fights with panache, and brings us a man who isn’t daunted by his age, but rather amused that anyone would think being older could be a drawback. 

Shah Rukh Kahn, Kay Kay Menon, and Ranveer Singh
Shah Rukh Kahn, Kay Kay Menon, and Ranveer Singh

Shefali Shah in Three of Us

Shailaja Patankar, played wonderfully by Shefali Shah, is a middle-aged woman at the onset of dementia, overcome by the urge to revisit a small Konkan town from her past. It is a return to her beginning, but also a pilgrimage to a time she worked hard to forget. Shah somehow manages to embody a tricky phase between being lost and found, between forgetting and forsaking. When she listens, for instance, her face suggests that she's pretending to understand. You can tell that she is battling to preserve her intellectual agency. When she smiles, she is only imitating an expression of familiarity. 

Sidhant Gupta in Jubilee

There have been few breakout, show-making performances on streaming quite as exciting and endearing as Sidhant Gupta’s in Jubilee. So invigorating and immediate is his charm and presence as theatre veteran-turned-struggling filmmaker-turned-overnight sensation and rising movie star, that we’ll take a front-row seat to everything he does next. It's the kind of screen-stealing performance that can and does light up an entire show. As Jay Khanna, a rank outsider who goes on to become the fictional Hindi cinema’s next big thing, Gupta lived up to the spirit of his character and mirrored Jay’s arc, leaving audiences wondering if he could well be Hindi cinema’s next big thing for real. 

Survinder Vicky in Kohrra

In Kohrra, Suvinder Vicky is incredibly lean in his reading of a Sikh man blind to his own shapelessness. As the grizzled and seemingly unflappable sub-inspector Balbir Singh, who ties his turban with neat precision and whose personal life is unravelling, the actor is a revelation. His turn is so intuitive that it’s hard to tell whether Balbir is venting at who he is or making amends for who he was. It’s the bent body language that evokes the mirage of an enforcer at odds with his own failures. Look out for the scene in which Balbir blanks out while dancing at a wedding — you’ll be hard pressed to find a better portrait of a functioning depressive. Special mention: Vicky gets fantastic support from Barun Sobti, who plays Garundi, Balbir’s deputy. 

Survinder Vicky, Sidhant Gupta, and Shefali Shah
Survinder Vicky, Sidhant Gupta, and Shefali Shah

Tabu in Khufiya

Only an actor of Tabu’s calibre can pull off such a poised performance in an otherwise shaky film. There’s a thairaav (gravitas, for the lack of a better translation) in Krishna Mehra, or KM, that is something she brings to the role with her performance, which teases out possibilities in the silences and unwritten moments. Tabu shows how artistry can lift the text to become more than it is on paper. We’re encouraged to read deeper into KM because Tabu plays her as a woman with possibilities and secrets, rather than the basic workaholic who ignores her family and seeks emotional fulfilment through her work instead. 

Tillotama Shome in The Night Manager

It’s a show with big-ticket actors, but the reason to stay with this adaptation of the British show of the same name is Shome’s Lipika. As a spy who is juggling pregnancy, a brooding agent whom others think has gone rogue, and the minor detail of bad guys coming to kill her and her husband, Shome is an absolute delight. She gives dissent a sense of personality as a woman at odds with the male-dominated vagaries of the system she occupies. Sick of jumping procedural hoops, she crosses lines and gathers herself when she stumbles. And she also manages to weave some humour in this otherwise joyless show. Shome as Lipika is witty, determined and steadfastly demolishes stereotypes surrounding women characters. 

Vijay Varma in Dahaad

As teacher and serial killer Anand Swarnakar — it’s not a spoiler since Dahaad lets you in on Anand’s ‘secret’ early on — Vijay Varma is the manifestation of patriarchal power. Preying on a cocktail of complicity and shame, he chooses his victims with care and carefully corners them into positions from where they reach out to him, thinking he is their saviour. Varma plays Anand as a man who has read the news, studied his setting, stayed abreast with its politics, and perfected his pattern over time. What comes across is an Irrfan-style calm and Nawazuddin-like edge. We’ve seen him play the bad guy before — notably in Darlings (2022) — but the reptilian deceit feels like the next step in the evolution of a villain and anchors Dahaad.

Vikrant Massey, Vijay Varma, Tabu and Tillotama Shome
Vikrant Massey, Vijay Varma, Tabu and Tillotama Shome

Vikrant Massey in 12th Fail (Disclaimer: Conflict of Interest)

We didn’t review 12th Fail because of some serious conflict of interest, but there’s no denying that Vikrant Massey’s performance in this classic underdog-rising-through-adversity plot is a highlight of the year. Massey seems to be born to play this role, transforming himself into police officer Manoj Sharma who began his inspiring journey in a small village in Chambal with big aspirations. What makes Massey’s performance special is how natural and unmannered he seems. There are no tics or mannerisms, just the everyday rhythms of a man growing into his own, sculpted by his experiences and held together by his grit.

With inputs from Rahul Desai, Deepanjana Pal and Prathyush Parasuraman.

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