Best Performances Of January 2023

From Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan to Rajshri Deshpande in Trial By Fire, here are this month’s standout performances
Best Performances Of January 2023

This is a monthly series where we highlight performances from the film and streaming universe that caught our eye. Since Film Companion watches widely, we decided to curate this list to foreground exceptional work, even if these actors did not have the proverbial spotlight on them.

Ashish Vidyarthi, Trial By Fire

Streaming Platform: Netflix

Trial By Fire is the second Prashant Nair project (after Tryst With Destiny) where Ashish Vidyarthi is trying to shed his 'dark' skin. Playing an arm-twister under the guise of a vague 'import-export' businessman involved in dry fruits, named Niraj Suri, Vidyarthi is given the dignity of a backstory. After establishing Suri as a toughie on behalf of the Ansals to negotiate unsavoury deals with the next-of-kin of the victims of the Uphaar tragedy, Nair masterfully weaves the character’s origin story. Vidyarthi flashes his toothy white grin, in contrast with his skin colour, in front of a member of the ‘gentrified class' selling their up-market residence. He later confesses: “He wasn’t fond of my complexion” with a hint of shame. Nair finds the bandwidth to showcase a henchman trying to transcend his own class barriers.

In here, Vidyarthi also gets the scene of an actor’s dreams, where he's trying to ‘apologise’ to people he has inadvertently hurt. And yet, the common folks interpret his apology as another intimidation tactic. Vidyarthi’s character wishes they would stop equating his complexion with ‘scary’. He can’t convince them that he means no harm, so he steps away. Except he finds his car’s tail lights on the road, thanks to a reckless driver behind his car. He takes out a cricket bat from his car and bashes up the windshield of the car behind him. When the driver of the car behind him tries to stop him, he bashes him too. The dark-complexioned villain is out again. Vidyarthi’s fit of anger is a throwback to the actor’s glorious run as a ‘baddie’ in Bollywood through the '90s and '00s. The reel/real amalgamation of Vidyarthi’s character make it memorable.

Biju Menon, Thankam

Theatrical release

It’s easy to reduce a complex film like Thankam using words like 'procedural', 'character study' or 'crime drama'. One of the reasons that make this one of the most original movies about (toxic?) male friendships is because we see the film through Biju Menon’s character Muthu. He is phenomenal as a best friend so blinded by his love for Kannan (Vineeth Sreenivasan who is just as good) that he fails to understand what was going on. His cluelessness hits you a like a tonne of bricks, adding an additional layer of betrayal to a film that’s about Muthu and Kannan. Their relationship is so well written that it’s as good as a marriage movie with both characters taking up the role of husband and wife. It would take multiple viewings to decipher what Menon does to sell that scene where Kannan’s wife (played by Aparna Balamurali) simply tells Muthu that her husband was a liar.

Deepika Padukone, Pathaan

Theatrical release

Even though she had given us glimpses of her penchant for action in the past, it took 15 years before we got to see Deepika Padukone in a bonafide action avtaar here in Pathaan, and Padukone takes on the role like a pro. No doubt Pathaan was staged as a massive comeback vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan, but the film equally belongs to its other two leads — Padukone and John Abraham. Padukone, playing Rubina, brings a certain vulnerability to her part while embodying the suave edginess of what’s essentially a classic femme fatale part. She also owns two of the most whistle-worthy moments of the film, one of which has Rubina springing a surprise on her own accomplices and kicking their asses (quite literally) as the hero stands aside in pure awe. There couldn’t be a better way to remind us of Padukone’s stardom and hold in the industry, in a testosterone-driven spectacle like this.

Lovelyn Chandrasekhar, Ayali

Streaming Platform: Zee5

Ayali is centred around a village that restricts girl children from studying after puberty. While the story is more about Tamilselvi pursuing her dreams to become a doctor, Lovelyn Chandrasekar as Mythili stands out. Mythili is a ninth-grade student who becomes a victim of this custom. Initially, she is elated by the amount of care and gifts she receives. But a few days later, she is made to sweep, mop, take care of the cattle and go to the fields. In the guise of preparing her for marriage, she is stopped from playing with her friends and is made to learn the chores.

She gets married to a drunkard, gives birth to a child, becomes pregnant again and loses her husband, all in a span of two years. From portraying innocence and succumbing to the unknown pressures until her husband dies to picking up the courage and fighting back when everyone told her “it’s over”, Lovelyn gives a compelling performance as someone who is struggling to understand life.

Mammootty, Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam

Theatrical release

With director Lijo Jose Pellissery creating such a vibrant milieu and a delightfully absurdist premise, it might be easy to forget that so much of Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam relies on its protagonist’s act — and Mammooty, playing a man who literally changes into someone else in the blink of an eye, essentially drives the film with a knockout performance, fully reeling us in about his vagaries.

In the first 20-odd minutes, we see Mammootty as a cynical, stand-offish James, before he seamlessly disappears and becomes the jovial, rooted Sundaram, regaling people with personal woes and drunken movie scene reenactments with such an endearing enthusiasm that one can’t help but wish for his surroundings to fall in sync with his metamorphosis. Even though Sundaram is the odd man out in that village now, it's eventually him we start empathizing with. Just like Sundaram’s blind mother, we never question him and quietly embrace the transformation — and it’s all because of the pathos Mammootty brings to the part.

Rajshri Deshpande, Trial By Fire

Streaming Platform: Netflix

The performance of a mother who lost her two children to a tragic fire, a mother who, for a decade lives her life only from one court hearing to the next, one conjured evidence to the next, whose pallour left her face long ago, whose facial muscles have probably forgotten what it means to flex a smile — this can all seem a bit textbook-like, a bit gimmicky, a bit dry, a bit asphysixiating in a show that has turned grief into a grunge, high-contrast, low brightness aesthetic. And yet, Deshpande brings something electric to this character. Her gait and forthrigthness show she has no need to explain herself. If that is arrogance, so be it. If it takes being arrogant to bring justice, it is the least she can do. Through this steadfast, tornado-like grief, Deshpande's performance never makes us ask, who these parents were before their children died. And that is the mark of a great performance. To be so compelling, so scalding, you never take your eyes off of her, nor your attention off of what is served, to ask questions beyond the scope of the writing.

Shah Rukh Khan, Pathaan

Theatrical release

Shah Rukh Khan had said he came to Hindi cinema to become an action hero but he missed the boat. Thirty two years later, he has emerged with a full fledged action film. Despite the reservations many of us had about what Shah Rukh Khan the action hero might look like, he seems utterly at ease and born for the role as the R&AW super-agent. In a cinematic universe of testosterone-fuelled Tigers and screen-scorchingly suave Kabirs, Khan crafts a softer, more compassionate saviour. And he has never looked cooler or flowed smoother within the action genre. There isn’t a hint of the Don-like tough-to-stomach flamboyance in sight. SRK 3.0 indeed.

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