It says a lot about an evolving medium when we find the need to design an entirely separate category for it. Acting in Hindi-language web shows in 2018 has been at par with the traditionally recognized practice of acting in Hindi cinema. Show-runners and creators have built their vast worlds around familiar industry faces, challenging them in a way very few filmmakers have dared to.
The small screen does that. You can sense the shackles coming off, and you can see them recognize why they took up the art of acting – as opposed to “entertainment” – to begin with. To be fair, this is a different kind of language. Becoming a character within a space across 8-10 episodes demands a unique grasp of story-making – one where the performers must outlive the plot rather than inhabit it. ODI cricket might have all the prestigious tournaments and titles, but it’s long-format Test cricket, after all, that holds the halos of prestige and skill. Naturally, a list like this then largely lends itself to thrillers and dramas – genres that attract the heavyweights and enable a wide bandwidth of expression the skit-like comedies tend to eschew.
That’s not to say we are sorted on this front. A few recurring themes: the gender disparity is obvious, the big-ticket shows aren’t so big on full-fledged female characters, the cat-mouse narrative themes lack diversity, and a chunk of representation comes from two to three of the giant-platform ensemble vehicles.
With that note of caution, here are the top 5 Hindi web-show performances of 2018, in no particular order:
SUMUKHI SURESH (Better Life Foundation S02)
It’s easy to dismiss the “mockumentary” as a frivolous format more interested in the craft of performing for the camera instead of acting for the story. More so, when the fourth-wall-breaking style primarily enables the comedy – a genre mistakenly equated with a lack of ‘serious’ acting talent. But in this cleverly designed mock-doc series about a bumbling Mumbai-based NGO, standup comic Sumukhi Suresh reminds us why some of the finest acting in television has in fact occurred in unrealistic “sit-com” setups. As entrepreneurial workaholic Sumukhi Chawla, she stands out with her wide-eyed piece-to-camera expressions, and her tortured chemistry with frequent collaborator Naveen Richard (as ‘boss’ Neil Menon). Some of the show’s best moments – including her humbling showdown with snooty SoBo rival Anu (Preetika Chawla) – have Sumukhi treating the camera as her sole companion, while effortlessly switching genres with just the look on her face. She might have perhaps topped this category if it had existed last year, for her lead role in the ‘criminally’ overlooked stalker dramedy, Pushpavalli.
ALI FAZAL (Mirzapur)
Ali Fazal has been an enigma of sorts. In a short span, he has managed to hold Hollywood’s gaze as a rare crossover celebrity (starring opposite Judi Dench is no mean feat), but he has failed to find meaty opportunity in the commercial dustbowls of Hindi cinema. With Mirzapur, Fazal proves himself to be a hungry, genuinely gifted artist who was simply yet to choose his roles better. He plays small-town bodybuilder Guddu Pandit, the wayward son of a righteous lawyer and hotheaded brawn to his tactician brother’s (Vikrant Massey) brains. Fazal is frighteningly evocative in his gait – the hunched gentle-giant manner when he is around his love interest (Shriya Pilgaonkar), the assertive subservience around the menacing boss (Pankaj Tripathi), and the raging masculinity when squared off against the dark heir (Divyendu Sharma, as Munna) to the don’s throne. Fazal convinces us that Guddu is just a Munna operating at the opposite end of the power spectrum, and a moody monster of steroids – a villain who the narrative presents as a hero because of the legacy he is up against.
Read Rahul Desai’s review of Mirzapur here
R. MADHAVAN (Breathe)
Madhavan plays a single father named Danny Mascarenhas in Breathe. His Mascarenhas-ness – the culture, dialect and body language – is shaky, but his desperate fatherhood is what defines the twisted show. The football-coach protagonist finds himself in the position of having to ‘murder’ inherently noble people (organ donors) in order to bump his own child up the list. It’s a brave role, one that requires him to alternate between villain and hero, sometimes even within the same scene. The actor depicts Danny as an everyman who is forced to become an exceptional movie character. Madhavan owns the moments where he invokes some of Shah Rukh Khan’s Baazigar persona: a guy at odds with his own character, yet somewhat conflicted about why he starts to almost enjoy the perversity of his homicidal mission. At some point, you begin to wonder the impossible: Is this a dad having to sacrifice his personality to save his dying kid, or is this a man finally discovering that he is in fact a bloodthirsty monster?
Read Rahul Desai’s full review of Breathe here
SAIF ALI KHAN (Sacred Games)
One would argue it’s always the freewheeling psychopath that makes the year’s acting lists. As a result, you see the heroes “acting” more flawed to seem more interesting – like, say, Amit Sadh’s grieving-cop turn in Breathe opposite Madhavan’s more colourful palette. But Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s baddies are now almost predictable in their pursuit of being unpredictable. Which is why Saif Ali Khan, as brooding Sikh inspector Sartaj Singh, breaks ground by internalizing the restrained uneasiness of a man/actor stuck in a situation/zone he is unfamiliar with. This fear brings out the best in Khan, at least in terms of his character’s isolated mindscape. When Singh keeps losing colleagues while defying an administration that has constantly undervalued him, you can virtually sense the Bollywood star, who has never quite felt a sense of belonging in mainstream cinema, defying the system by embracing the new medium. Khan isn’t sensational or eye-catching in Sacred Games. But he stands out precisely because of this, the way an honest man would in a sea of bombastic jokers.
DIVYENDU SHARMA (Mirzapur)
As the mercurial, masochistic Munna Tripathi in Mirzapur, Divyendu Sharma finally capitalizes on the promise he had shown years ago in Pyaar Ka Panchnama. He plays a boyish brute torn between disappointing his powerful father and winning over a town that keeps eluding his forceful grasp. The character is admittedly the most extravagant and ‘performative’ in the series, but there’s something strangely fragile, in a tragic-hero sense, about the way Sharma pitches the morality of Munna. You almost feel sorry for how lost he is, for how even his “lashing out” is so ugly that it feels bereft of genuine villainy. There’s also the bratty look of peer-pressure anxiety on his face, thanks to the two brothers that threaten to take over the empire he yearns to inherit. Yet, despite his needy, trigger-happy temperament, it’s to Sharma’s credit that Munna still comes across as perhaps the ‘purest’ member of the shadowy Tripathi household. At least he behaves in line with his thinking. The one scene in which he stops doing so – Munna is forced to lie and kill his childhood friend to ‘preserve’ his family honour – is the one that irreversibly turns him into the Clown Prince of Mirzapur.
Kunaal Roy Kapur (Side Hero)
Jitendra Joshi (Sacred Games)
Radhika Apte (Ghoul)