Why a separate list for Bengali films, you may ask? Like it or not, contemporary Bengali cinema exists in its own bubble. It's true for every regional industry in India, but seems truer for Bengal, which has remained so under-watched despite the advent of streaming that it's astonishing to think that films made by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen once spoke the language of international cinema.
Today, Bengali films are watched a lot less than South Indian language, or even Marathi films, by people from other states and its insularity has partly to do with how stubbornly it has decided to remain parochial. I don't mean it as a compliment: rootedness is one thing and being parochial is another; but one way or the other it's best that the different language cinemas are looked at in their own contexts. The differentiating factors are too many: exposure, cultural context, general standard of the output.
This list of the year's best performances, therefore, exists in its own bubble: 6 performances from films (and a web series), in the order of their releases.
Jeet as an eccentric bohemian artist? Superstar of the rural masses as a sculptor in a film that's supposed to be a tribute to Ramkinkar Baij? Anyone would have laughed at the idea: the well-groomed, metrosexual Jeet couldn't be farther from the uncouth folk hero Kigan Mandi, the protagonist in Pavel's Asur. But there's something about ageing and washed-up stars in the way they are able to convey a lot more with less. Sure, he uses the beard and the long hair as a crutch, to hide his deficiencies and the accent slips on several occasions — it's not perfect; but Jeet is an enormous presence in Asur, a film that misses the mark on almost every other department. There is a restraint, and suddenly, the eyes and the smile carry years of depth.
It seems almost preordained that Borunbabur Bondhu, which stars him in the titular role, had to be Soumitra Chatterjee's last film before his death. Borunbabu is one of the last of his kind, a bhadralok intellectual who has lived a middle-class life in tune with his political beliefs. Even at 80, he writes a fiery oped in response to a dicey, pro-government article about a new economic policy, or goes to Presidency college to give a pep talk to student party members. Borunbabu, in many ways, is Chatterjee himself. He represents a certain kind of individual, and that's why, the director, Anik Dutta, doesn't bother to give us much of a backstory, as if the Bengali audience will fill in the gaps with the image Chatterjee holds in their collective consciousness. If his life and work is the iceberg, we see the tip: an old man, pained, disturbed, and mildly irritated, with what it has all come to: the state of the nation, present-day Bengal, his sons and his grandchildren, all of whom have turned out to be disappointments. Chatterjee was 84 when he shot the film and you can see that age had slowed him down. It's a performance not so much about physical movement as it's about lines: he makes every word sing and sting.
In Nirontor, one glimpse of Ankita Majhi is enough to tell you that her character, Jonaki, is clinically depressed. She wears it like an invisible cloak, as if waking up on the wrong side of the bed is part of everyday life. It informs everything, from the tone of her voice to the look on her face. She plays the main character's wife, who enters the film late and nearly walks away with it. It helps that we haven't seen much of Majhi as an actor — IMDB says it's her second feature film; but she is able to give her a distinct personality despite little screen time.
Anirban Bhattacharya has already established himself as an actor with a strong screen presence and a gift for dialogue delivery. In Detective, he shows us that he can play a buffoon. His Mahim Chandra is based on a spoofy detective story written by Tagore in 1898 — a testimony to Bengal's long standing obsession with detective fiction — who is Sherlock Holmes in his head but in reality a spy working for the British police in pre-partition Bengal, frustrated with the lack of complex cases in the city.
It's a role that requires broad comedy as well as a subtle self-awareness, and the actor owns it like it was written for him. He adopts a culturally stereotypical manner of speech that could have gone either way — he pronounces 'case' as 'kesh' — but Bhattacharya's enunciation is spot on. His misadventures, along with his more level-headed sidekick Hutashon (a very good Ambarish Bhattacharya), are entertaining and endearing. But Mahim Chandra is more than a bumbling detective; he is an unconventional male hero who is more interested in nerding out on challenging crimes than romance with his wife, and Bhattacharya lends him an air of tragedy.
Madness is like gravity, all you need is a little push. Watching Swastika Mukherjee's performance in Tasher Ghawr, I was reminded of this quote by the Joker from The Dark Knight. The 43 minute film captures her character on the edge, in moments leading up to her committing something extreme. Sujata is a woman stuck in a terrible marriage. The frustration of being stuck indoors with a monster husband in the lockdown gives the final push. All through the film's fourth-wall-breaking stream-of-consciousness narration, she's wearing a smile while doing her chores, but there's something unsettling about it. Mukherjee has an innate ambiguity — she can be both the homemaker and the flirt, as in Asamapta, another film about being stuck in a terrible marriage. In Tasher Ghawr it reaches a kind of apotheosis. The entire thing is from Sujata's point of view to the extent that we don't even see the husband's face. Instead, Mukherjee shows you her wounds, both psychological and physical.
Ghosh plays Adi, a slacker who gets dumped by his girlfriend at the beginning of this indie rom-com web series, so casually that you don't want to call it a 'performance'. He smokes up, finds a new place for himself, and then smokes up some more, before he meets his girlfriend to-be: the ghost of a girl who had died by suicide two years ago. Not for a moment does the outlandishness of the premise come off as false; Ghosh, who plays the central character in this surreal set-up, makes it relatable with little improvisations. He seems to be a fine comic actor, but also someone who can shift gears in emotional scenes. A popular RJ who has ventured into acting, he left a strong impression with his turn in last year's Rajlokhi O Srikanto. Rest in Prem confirms that it's the right career move.