I'd be lying if I said 2020 was one of the strongest years for Hindi cinema. But it's certainly been one of the toughest: a story of endurance and stamina over speed and skill. It's been spare. It's been strange. The theatres closed in March, but the movies kept coming. Life as we know it might never be the same, yet it's heartening that art still found a way to reach us. It's heartening to sense the hustle. It's heartening to see familiar faces embrace smaller screens to replicate the bygone spirit of strangers in a dark hall. The canvas may have been compressed, but the scale remains the same. The process may have changed, but the destination remains the same.
On that melancholic note, here are 10 of my favourite Hindi film performances – in a year that has effectively erased the conflict between escapism and reality:
It's tricky to play a progressive person in new-age Hindi cinema. Most roles tend to reflect the revisionist gaze of makers who use their characters as token mouthpieces for the sociocultural discourse of 2020. In Gunjan Saxena, Pankaj Tripathi has it three times as subversive – a girl's gentle father, a dignified family patriarch and a non-sexist armyman – and yet delivers a performance that reframes progressiveness as natural wisdom. Without hijacking the spotlight, ex-colonel Anup Saxena remains the silent fulcrum of the female protagonist's rousing journey. Tripathi never makes it seem like he's speaking for the writers; even his two film-defining "speeches" to Gunjan – about patriotism and womanhood – evoke the sort of understated rationalism that can only come from decades of adult experience. The tone of his voice is measured and tender, revealing a man whose parenthood put him at odds with the alpha-military notion of Indian masculinity. Between Kumud Mishra in Thappad and Tripathi here, perhaps the screen dad is being rewritten as its own beast: a thinking individual rather than a reductive theme.
In one of the year's most overlooked Hindi films, veteran Sachin Khedekar plays Dr. Shiv Shankar Sharma, a bereaved father desperate to find the truth behind his daughter's mysterious death. A common man unsoiled by the art of hustling, Shiv enlists the help of a corrupt local cop (Barun Sobti) to navigate the system. Halahal is set in Ghaziabad against the backdrop of the 2013 Vyapam Scam, so Shiv's arrival from Rohtak is a culture shock: an atmosphere of silent complicity and duplicity pushes the righteous doctor to the brink. Khedekar manages to physicalize the everyman-running-from-pillar-to-post template. He bypasses the bureaucratic stranglehold with a relatable lack of elegance; there are times we grin at his clumsiness and feel sorry for his nobility all at once. At no point does Khedekar overstate the meaning of loss, as a result of which the viewer is offered the privilege of locating emotion – grief, closure, coping, denial – in the urgent body language of his journey. Adding to this performance is the overriding feeling that Shiv doesn't know – or doesn't want to know – what he's looking for.
The "double life" narrative is overused and gimmicky, especially if one of them features a husky voice on a phone-sex app. In Alankrita Shrivastava's busy and bare-knuckled portrait of female desire, Bhumi Pednekar plays a rare character who is unable to distinguish between her two identities: the Bihari immigrant in Noida (Kajal Yadav) and the coy adult call-center executive (Kitty) are inextricably linked to each other. Everything about her is reactionary – her independence is a reaction to older cousin Dolly's sanctimonious middle-classness, and her romance is a reaction to her profession's playground of lust. Pednekar's volatile stillness triggers some of the year's most evocative movie moments: an awkward tryst with a tragic male caller, her first sexual experience in a seedy Agra motel, and her first orgasm triggered by heartbreak. Her disarming, non-manic-pixie performance smoothens the creases of a greedy film, and reiterates her status as perhaps the most curious actress working in Hindi film today.
As a wife, a sister, a mother and a lover, Konkona Sen Sharma's Dolly is a deceptively daring depiction of middle-Indian angst. Each of her roles within her larger role as a woman is marked with an asterisk: a blind-eyed wife, a patronizing sister, an impatient mother and a selfish lover. Her scenes with Kitty are peppered with not just maternal duress but peerless envy – envy for Kitty's spirit, her mistakes and her youth. Her actions in an inter-faith "affair" are loaded with retroactive sadness, almost as if Dolly has watched Ratna Pathak Shah's Buaji in Lipstick Under My Burkha and gotten frightened by the vacuum of sexlessness that awaits her. Konkana has long freed Hindi film acting from the indignity of heroism, but her talent is often untested by the monotony of mainstream writing. Most roles are too easy. But her Dolly is a testament to the fact that truly ambitious artists would rather organize the chaos of a risk than channelize the safety of a hit.
Up until Amrita Sabharwal is slapped by her husband at a party, Taapsee Pannu's is a mainstream turn in a commercial film: she is happy and pretty and satisfied and oblivious to the nuance of marriage, on the verge of punctuating it with a dreamy song or two. Post-slap, Pannu's turns into a performance that silently rebels against the airy tone of the film. She looks possessed, almost hypnotized with shame and then courage, and one can almost hear her snapping out of her reverie – only, she can't tell the dream from reality anymore. She becomes a masterful proponent of the vacant gaze, one that reveals more of a damaged image than a shattered heart. Amrita is also the culmination of the actor's separation trilogy: After near-divorces in Mulk and Manmarziyaan, she lunges ahead here with half the tears and theatricality at her disposal. Pannu's Amrita is a woman whose strength isn't a byproduct of her fragility. On the contrary, her restraint is a form of respectful resistance. She is far too conditioned in the art of selflessness to be a symbol of social liberation. Fairness, not feminism, drives her – and that in itself distinguishes the symphony of a slap from the applause of a clap.
It's oddly fitting that one of the most unsparing performances of 2020 features a migrant worker who must look and sound like a monkey so that the capital's politicians can work in peace. In Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo!, Shardul Bhardwaj is Anjani, a newbie monkey repeller hired to protect Delhi's government buildings. The young actor nails the restless bewilderment of a drifter whose job is weighed down by the symbolism of his job. It's never easy to humanize a cultural satire, but Bhardwaj's gait makes it seem like he's being followed by a documentary crew. As a result, he is resisting a role just as much as playing it – a precarious balancing act that defines the verite-style of the narrative. It's a medium-melting turn in a film that projects the absurd primality of survival in the most literal form possible. At almost every point, his desperation doubles up as a damning revelation: the people living on the streets are also the people who build those streets. At some level, it's Bhardwaj's pursuit of visibility that reframes Anjani as a disappearing man.
Bhonsle is a bitter, angry film that infuses the superhero template with a sense of cultural fabric. Manoj Bajpayee plays the titular character, a retired police constable so engulfed by isolation that only the prospect of death (he is diagnosed with a brain tumour) lends him the purpose to live. With nothing left to lose, a frail Ganpath Bhonsle sets out to avenge the sexual assault of his migrant neighbour – doing battle with not just an unhinged opponent but also his own radicalist roots. The nihilistic tone isn't very different from director Devashish Makhija's previous film, Ajji, but Bajpayee's porous performance reveals both the hidden history and mythical future of the ageing protagonist. His crippling loneliness exposes the fear of perishing without making the slightest dent in this world. In what is largely a monosyllabic role, the actor manages to gradually rephrase the tragedy of wasting away as the triumph of finding closure. And if there's one thing we've learned in recent years, nobody dissipates on screen quite like Manoj Bajpayee.
A nostalgic ode to the cultural extinction of old-school Bollywood, Hardik Mehta's film hinges on the meta-ness of its form. Kaamyaab stars Sanjay Mishra as Sudheer, a veteran character actor who comes out of retirement in the hope of scoring a record 500th role. The new-age casting industry plays a prominent role in the film – incidentally the same setup responsible for weapozning Mishra's talent and turning him into a rare character actor that made the upward leap. It's easy to say that "late bloomer" Mishra was perhaps born for this role: Sudheer is essentially his alter-ego story. But there's something about watching artists who find within themselves the self-awareness, honesty and stark vulnerability to dramatize a personal essay at such an advanced stage of their life. It takes courage and artistic gumption, both of which are on display in Mishra's touching performance. The last shot of the film – with Sudheer "filling in" for a superstar – is a classic movie moment, not least because Sanjay Mishra does what old-timers like Scorsese, Tarantino and Fincher have been doing lately. He muses; art is merely the consequence.
It's easy to take Nawazuddin Siddiqui for granted. His default level is so high that when he simply meets our expectations, we seldom get blown away. Nawaz is Nawaz, we think. 2020 though has been a versatile reminder of his genius. Two of his lead roles feature men who think they're superior to their immediate surroundings – in one he's investigating a story, in the other he's creating a story. In Honey Trehan's noir thriller Raat Akeli Hai, he plays the law enforcement version of a film critic who loses objectivity after falling for the lead actress of an absurd movie he's writing about. He saunters into rooms, determined to be the suave detective on a crime scene before his inner masculinity pushes him towards the damsel in distress. Siddiqui's rendition is effortlessly smart – a coming-of-age heart beating in a suspenseful body. In Sudhir Mishra's Serious Men he plays Ayyan Mani, a cunning Dalit man who cons the social machinery of a nation into believing that his son is a maths prodigy. Siddiqui wears a great trollface both on and off the camera: he seems to share an invisible relationship with the audience, all winks and grins, urging us to judge the mediocrity around him. His two serious men this year are defined by this superpower.
Tillotama Shome has the uncanny knack of turning characters into a composition of transitional moments. Her performances lend acting the integrity of living: the camera seems to capture her between shots, scenes, dialogue and action rather than within them. This is most apparent in Rohena Gera's Sir, where she plays Ratna, a live-in housemaid nursing a dormant romance with her upper-class employer. Much of Ratna is found in the unsaid: in her caregiving routines, in her professional affection, in her urbane ambitions, in her peripheral haunting of Ashwin's upheavals. Ratna's recognition of her own reality – that she's in an orthodox Indian marriage without knowing it – is contained in her subservient gestures and her willingness to be discovered by him. Even the way she walks around the posh apartment – arranging the space without owning it, watching over Ashwin without watching him – reveals an origin story that movies rarely have the luxury of mining. Shome's is a tender, calibrated presence: assertive enough to punctuate an unlikely love story but unassuming enough to puncture this wishful bubble. Two years after its festival run, Sir played in post-lockdown cinema halls. Precious few have seen it. Maybe it's weirdly fitting that Shome's turn, like Ratna herself, now radiates from the fringes of everyday life.
Amruta Subhash (The Booth)
As a mall frisking officer stealing forbidden moments with her secret lover, the actress' silent language of longing drives the finest Indian short film of 2020.
Santosh Juvekar (Bhonsle)
Juvekar's villainous tics make for an unsettling portrait of dogmatism at the heart of Bhonsle's Maharashtra.
Vikrant Massey (Cargo)
The coolest Hindi film in recent memory sees a formidable Vikrant Massey somehow fusing a young body with the weathered scepticism of oldness.
Pavail Gulati (Thappad)
The actor plays the film's antagonist with striking empathy: his performance deconstructs the anatomy of male entitlement instead of demonizing it.