2023 Wrap: Breakout Stars of the Year

These are the actors, directors and technicians from Hindi entertainment whose work deserved a standing ovation this year.
2023 Wrap: Breakout Stars of the Year
2023 Wrap: Breakout Stars of the Year

While 2023 did have its silver linings, much of Hindi entertainment this year has been a grey cloud of disappointment. Only a few shows like School of Lies, Trial By Fire and Kohrra stood out, while many prestige projects, like Jubilee, Farzi and Dahaad failed to come together despite flashes of brilliance. There were some shows that were good, but not entirely compelling, like Kaala Paani, or were undone by details, like Guns & Gulaabs. Scoop started well and gave actors like Karishma Tanna and Harman Baweja a new lease of life, but lost momentum after the halfway mark. Similarly, Khufiya had an incandescent Tabu, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the underwritten plot. 

In an effort to prolong the audience’s agony, sorry, interest, some platforms have started to break a season up into two parts, with a gap between the two instalments (Disney+ Hotstar was the first to do this with The Night Manager). JioCinema dropped shows and films at an alarming pace, but only the reality TV-style shows registered with audiences. The much-anticipated second season of Made in Heaven crumbled under the weight of its messaging, while The Archies came and went without making much of an impression. Shows like The Freelancer got the views, but had little else going for it. Class also scored the numbers and to its credit, the show introduced a promising cast of actors, like Chintan Rachchh and Chayan Chopra, but the storytelling left a lot to be desired.  

Still, there were some new names that disrupted the otherwise bland year. So here are the talents who stood out in the crowd of Hindi entertainment in 2023, arranged in alphabetical order. 

Alizeh Agnihotri in Farrey
Alizeh Agnihotri in Farrey

Alizeh Agnihotri, Acting 

Farrey stars Agnihotri – niece of Salman Khan and daughter of Atul Agnihotri – as a board-topping genius who gets lured into a cheating racket at an elite private school. Agnihotri does a fine job of playing someone whose academic brilliance is at odds with her emotional intelligence. To the actress’ credit, Niyati never comes across as sorted and confident. There are times when she isn’t even sure of her own motives. She is driven by a curious cocktail of empathy and social identity, when she agrees to help affluent friends like Chhavi (Prasanna Bisht) and Prateek (Zeyn Shaw, extending his elite-brat role from Class). She resents them for exploiting her weakness, but she also wants to belong. The emphasis is on the drama. The role requires acting and Agnihotri delivers. The storytelling falters but the young actress powers through the soft spots – especially in the second half.

Gagan Dev Riar, Acting

While it isn’t technically his debut — Riar has previously worked in small roles in Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy (2020) and Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019) — becoming Abdul Karim Telgi was Riar’s breakout role. Not only is this his first leading role in front of the camera (Riar has been working successfully as a theatre artist), it was also the way he transformed into this legendary scamster that made everyone sit up and take notice. In Scam 2003 - The Telgi Story, Riar plays the titular Telgi, a counterfeiter who made a fortune forging stamp papers. To prepare for the role, Riar, who is Punjabi, went to Khanapur in Karnataka to pick up the details of the dialect. The actor’s meticulous attention to detail lends a fantastic authenticity to the entire performance and even when the story flounders, Riar’s performance is what keeps you hooked to the show. 

Pratik Shah cinematographer for Jubilee
Pratik Shah cinematographer for Jubilee

Pratik Shah, Cinematography

For American cinematographer Pratik Shah, capturing the golden era of Hindi cinema in Jubilee meant focusing on spaces rather than faces, and ensuring the play of light and shadow gave the show’s locations a realistic visual texture. The net result is one of the most beautiful looking shows we’ve had in recent times. From riots to refugee camps, thugs to starlets, everything and everyone looks photogenic, thanks to Shah’s camerawork. For the young cinematographer — Jubilee is Shah’s first major, big-budget project — working with director Vikramaditya Motwane was a treat because Motwane had a very clear idea of how he wanted the show to look. From inventive use of elements like the rearview mirror of a car, silhouettes that recall classic scenes from vintage Hindi cinema, and a warm, golden palette that lends a striking depth to practically every frame, Shah’s cinematography is rich with romanticism and nostalgia — just as you’d want the visuals to be for a show like Jubilee.   

Randeep Jha, Direction

Two of this year's best shows were Kohrra and Trial by Fire, and both had Jha in the director’s chair. Kohrra is a police procedural with red herrings and dead ends, suspects and secrets, moral guilt and human complicity. Jha’s filmmaking treads the thin line between text and subtext. The commentary of Kohrra is stimulating, but it’s the craft that allows meaning to emerge like a truck piercing the morning mist. Every scene is staged with visual information and care, an effort to convince the viewer that the police are scrutinising people and lives in motion, not gimmicky characters. Trial By Fire, which shows how two grief-stricken parents campaigned for justice after their children were killed in the Uphaar cinema tragedy, is very different in tone, but shows Jha’s keen eye for being able to build character and plot slowly and subtly. 

Varin Roopani in School of Lies
Varin Roopani in School of Lies

Varin Roopani, Acting

In School of Lies, Roopani plays Vikram, a senior student at an elite boarding school who finds himself entangled in scandal after a 12-year-old disappears from the school. His friendship with a fellow student and his affection for his housemaster are both inflected by sexual desire — tender, complicated, and certainly problematic. Additionally, Vikram is also grappling with the burden of being the ‘man’ of his nuclear family, following the death of his father. Roopani’s performance has that quietness which masks an erupting interiority, which shows up in slits through the show. His eyes dart and sometimes fix someone in their gaze, his diction flows effortlessly between Hindi and English — without bringing attention to itself — and his Vikram is both a victim and perpetrator of violence, situating himself somewhere between your sympathy and apathy. It is a terrifically controlled performance of a complex character.

Wamiqa Gabbi, Acting

With four significant releases, Gabbi emerged as a breakout star this year despite almost 30 credits to her filmography prior to 2023. Her standout performance as Nilofer in Jubilee pays homage to a golden era of Bollywood. In the role of a courtesan with dreams of stardom, Gabbi infused Nilofer with old-world charm and beauty, but also the grit of a survivor and unwavering ambition. Aside from Jubilee, Gabbi was seen in two projects directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. In the film Khufiya, she played a homemaker turned spy and in the mystery series Charlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley, Gabbi played the eponymous protagonist. She also appeared in one of the stories in Modern Love: Chennai.

Special mention: Niraj Gera, Sound Design

The Golden Thread is not available on any streaming platform yet (we live in hope), but we’re including Niraj Gera in our list because the sound design of this documentary is phenomenal and unlike anything we’ve experienced in non-fiction films. This self-reflexive documentary follows workers in a jute factory and Gera uses sound to complement the narrative as well as guide the viewer’s attention to various perspectives. Isolating sounds and playing with levels, Gera’s sound design puts us in the middle of the factory floor, enveloped in noise and cross-conversation. Then we smoothly slip into the perspective of a worker as Gera pushes to the foreground the sound of jute scree being swept; the whoosh of jute being piled onto a container that is rattling along like a train, every wheel against every bump of the mill floor, clean and clear. Sound guides the viewer, helping focus attention upon the chosen subject in a crowd of machines and people. If jute were a person, she would be exhilarated by the attention paid to her sighs and screams — when she is flattened, when she is braided, when she is swallowed, when she is spat out; they are all different sounds of different densities of jute being pressed into different shapes by different pressures. 

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

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