It’s an encouraging sign that a “Top 10” list struggles to squeeze in all of the season’s finest contenders (a tie for fifth place – why not?).
Are we spoilt for choice? Perhaps. Are the actors better than the films they occupy? Mostly. Either way, there is little to complain about. A year in which not more than a handful of people might recognize the name at the top can only be a decent one.
This year’s acting list is a story of good boys and bad girls. Make of that what you will. Here, then, are the 10 best performances – male or female – of Hindi cinema in 2018, ranked in ascending order of quality:
[Note: Rajkumar Hirani’s “Sanju” is excluded from consideration]
10. NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI (Manto)
Given his filmography so far, it’s tough to imagine Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a man of celebrated prose. But Nandita Das’ biopic delves not so much into the famous Indo-Pakistani author’s words as the tortured psychology behind those words. Which is why it isn’t surprising to see Siddiqui –Hindi cinema’s most subversive actor today – excel as a writer frustrated with, yet driven by, the failings of the world around him. Rarely has there been such elegance to his disenchantment.
9. VARUN DHAWAN (October)
It’s a miracle that Shoojit Sircar’s October, a meditative portrait of a directionless boy rescued by a dying girl, actually exists. Dhawan’s purported flaws – of wanting to be accepted as a serious actor – reflect well in the personality of his character, Dan, who wants to be accepted as a serious man. The limitations of Dhawan and Dan collide to create a protagonist unsure of his heroism. Dan, too, tries to do the right thing, and doesn’t always succeed because of his obvious boyishness: a “look” that the makers use to elevate the uneasy solitude of this film.
8. GAJRAJ RAO (Badhaai Ho)
It says something about the current character-driven landscape of middle-Indian cinema that almost 25 years into his career, the ever-affable Gajraj Rao has finally “broken through” – if only in public view. In the tenderly observed family drama about a 50-something couple saddled with the ‘stigma’ of sexuality and a late pregnancy, Rao embodies no less than four shades of one gentleman: a loyal son, doting husband, caring father and, significantly, an unabashed lover. He does so without the showy trappings of an “old uncle trying to act young,” making for the season’s most unassuming and endearing rejoinder to alpha masculinity.
7. VICKY KAUSHAL (Manmarziyaan)
Speaking of masculinity and multiple personas, Vicky Kaushal has excelled across four different roles, too – as a son (Love Per Square Foot), husband (Raazi), best friend (Sanju) and most of all, as the flashy Punjabi lover in Manmarziyaan. The Mercury to Taapsee Pannu’s Mars, his is an unusually vulnerable rendition – notice his puppy-dog eyes when she condemns his madness-sans-method ways – of what could have easily become a loud caricature in a lesser actor’s hands. While Rao’s ilk allows love to bloom once the ‘arrangement’ of partnership matures, Vicky’s love is burdened by a complete lack of arrangement.
6. AVINASH TIWARY (Laila Majnu)
Same old story, Laila swoons, Majnu goes mad, Imtiaz Ali finds cinema in hero’s insanity. Brother Sajid Ali’s Laila Majnu seems to have acquired an afterlife of its own – the first half is as bland as its second half grand. But it’s Avinash Tiwary’s balls-out brilliant performance as Majnu – a character of literature that he manages to distinguish from Ranbir Kapoor’s identically layered characters of cinema – that raises the question Tamasha had once asked: Is the narrative simplification of “falling in love” now the only way to amplify the (cinematically inclined) agony of longing? Is pain truly more entertaining than joy?
5. AYUSHMANN KHURRANA (Andhadhun)
Despite starring in two of the three best Hindi films of 2018, it’s easy to overlook Khurrana’s contribution in a year he has made his own. And in a film that Tabu makes her own. As a sly small-time musician who ‘acts’ blind to further his career, the actor flinches but never blinks. A healthy combination of shocked and sensitive, rat and rabbit, it’s almost as if he were reacting to the cruel irony of not just his character’s situation but also the plot twists of a Sriram Raghavan thriller. He accomplishes this without using his eyes – a Bollywood performer’s favourite device – and by restraining his reflexes in a way that urges us to applaud his vision (of not having any vision).
5. TABU (Andhadhun)
In a film about a blind man’s bluff, an inimitably self-aware Tabu modernizes the ‘70s Hindi movie vamp in ways we might have never imagined. Her character, Simi, gleefully switches between being a gold-digging housewife, devious seductress, bullish mistress and cold-blooded murderess. She is essentially a director’s dream villain – unpredictable, unreliable and shamelessly brave. If not for Andhadhun’s chosen point of “view” – that of a flawed artist landing in a hot soup – this lady might have been the ruthless heroine of a film filled with predatory males. After all, eliminating men these days is quite the superpower.
4. ANUSHKA SHARMA (Pari)
But of course a dog-killing, man-eating, lovesick female demon that watches Akshay Kumar songs and spews ‘poison’ once a month defines this list. Anushka Sharma, the producer, brings out the best in Anushka, the hit-or-miss actress. As tortured djinn-lady Rukhsana in Prosit Roy’s superbly textured sociopolitical supernatural drama, Pari, Sharma is almost Mowgli-esque: simultaneously fearless and fragile, daring and docile. She continues to make audacious fables out of feminist fantasy in her home productions – the djinn that loves, for instance, is in the same mythical bracket as a friendly writer-ghost (Phillauri) and a Delhi woman who avenges the murder of her partner (NH10).
3. ALIA BHATT (Raazi)
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Alia Bhatt’s talent is the fact that she makes a solo-starring role – of a young Indian undercover spy living a risky double life in Pakistan – look like just another brick in her resounding career wall. Sehmat Khan is the year’s most complicated movie character: one that enables the country’s perception of patriotism to collide, thrillingly, with the actual ugliness of jingoism. As a reluctant soldier more prone to human panic attacks than robotic missions, Bhatt combines with a remarkable Jaideep Ahlawat to remind us that blind nationalism creates more victims than heroes. In 1970, as much as 2018.
2. TAAPSEE PANNU (Manmarziyaan)
One of Hindi cinema’s most important actresses today, Pannu channelizes the unique territoriality of a Bollywood outsider – one that fuels the adrenaline-rushing physicality of Naam Shabana, Baby, Soorma and the short Nitishastra – to create Rumi, a lover whose poetry lies in the violence of her body language. Rumi storms into bedrooms, lives and streets with a hockey stick and motor mouth, unable to acknowledge the truth that she is inherently not the “manic pixie” heroine she had hoped to be. As a result, we see both Pannu and Rumi grow (up) through Manmarziyaan; the mind tames the heart. Her turn in Mulk, as a fierce lawyer mobilizing the war against religious bigotry, is equally worthy.
1. VINEET KUMAR SINGH (Mukkabaaz)
Anurag Kashyap’s notable strength as a filmmaker has been his ability to harness the raw desire of struggling/underutilized outsiders. Before “exploiting” Taapsee in Manmarziyaan, he managed to create a heavy-breathing, angry and beautiful mess of an underdog sports drama out of actor-writer Vineet Kumar Singh’s soul. Mukkabaaz might be a split-decision verdict, but the central act is a unanimous winner. Singh, who has been around and back, delivers what is quite simply the finest, and the hungriest, performance this year. As the ‘struggling’ boxer fighting to balance the politics of love with that of a system designed to dilute his punch-drunk career, he is a beastly force of man-made nature.
Radhika Apte (Lust Stories)
Ratna Pathak Shah (Love Per Square Foot)
Neena Gupta (Badhaai Ho)
Mrunal Thakur (Love Sonia)
Radhika Madan (Pataakha)
Manoj Pahwa (Mulk)