It wouldn't seem too far-fetched to describe 2021 as the year of the underdog. The OTT revolution has led to a set of films that no longer require the weight of a star to get made and this has also led to some of the best performances of this year. Whoever thought an under-explored actor like Indrans would become the national sweetheart with his hard-relate as a father in #Home. This extends to the discovery of a little film like Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam as well, which managed to amass a set of fans even when we couldn't indent a single name from the cast. To an extent, this applies to legit suspertars as well with Suriya obviously playing a supporting role to Lijomol in this year's celebrated Jai Bhim. Add to this films like Garuda Gamana Vrishaba Vamana and a laugh riot like Jathi Ratnalu and we had a year that celebrated all kinds of roles and performances. Here are some of the best of them:
SJ Suryah in Maanaadu
How can a performer so eccentric and so idiosyncratic continue to blow you away with his characters? You think you've seen everything he has to offer by now but he's able to swallow every frame he's a part of. Apart from the writing, a huge reason behind the mad fun of Maanaadu is the way SJ Suryah believed in the film's inherent madness. When he gets into another loop, you feel his frustration in your skin and this makes the film so much more enjoyable. His dialogues are already pop culture material but what's truly infectious is the kind of fun he seems to be having, even when with the much risk of hamming it up.
Lijomol Jose in Jai Bhim
This year's best 'mass' scene did not belong to Rajinikanth, Vijay or Suriya. It has to be the scene where a defiant Sengeni gets a police officer to follow her after all that they've done to her and her family. It's a heartbreaking performance that stays with you months after the film and a large part of that is because of the kind of earnestness she's able to bring to Sengeni. Unlike the polished sweetness of the usual voice artists, there's a life in her unique voice too that goes a step further to make sure Sengeni's cries still ring in our ears.
Pasupathy in Sarpatta Parambarai
The celebrated actor got a role that deserved him in Pa.Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai. As Kabilan's coach and father figure, his performance dictated the mood of the film because Kabilan's dream is more of his coach rather than himself. In what's a near-perfect film, you sense yourself missing Pasupathy in scenes where his character goes to prison, making this sports film so much richer by also making it a relationship drama.
The Ensemble of Doctor
There's not one name you can pick from the team of Doctor, just as there's not one name you can leave out from the year's best comedy. Even characters that got only two scenes were able to create the kind of social media stardom that would take years to cultivate. A large part of this is the genius casting decisions made by the film's team. But it's also as much about every single performer rising to the occasion for a film where the hero is as intentionally emotionless as a robot. It required the whole cast to fire and it really is a film that got you to see the beauty in teamwork.
Lakshmipriya Chandramouli in Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum
Lakshmi Priya Chandramouli gets very few lines in Vasanth's anthology Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. But even her silence adds to the kind of claustrophobia she feels inside her suburban apartment, stuck within the confines of her everyday routine. From a community that values marriage over career, her parents never come across as evil people, which further adds to the weight of her silence. In one shot, you see years of anger finally breaking out of her defence mechanisms as she sits in one corner of a room full of abandoned trophies, which is as good as a graveyard of broken dreams. Even though the film is named after her, it's as though she's playing the supporting character. But when she gets her moment, even if it is short-lived, we feel her elation as though a dormant volcano has finally erupted.
Jayasuriya in Vellam and Sunny
We saw this actor play an alcoholic in Vellam earlier this year, but there's not a trace of that hangover when we meet him again as the similarly-disturbed Sunny. Given that almost the entire film is just him, we feel no fatigue and no expression feels out of place as he gets inside a hotel suite with nothing but his inner demons to keep him company. Despite these limitations, we feel the transformation of this man even without a change of scene or co-actors to react off of. Like a disturbed individual finally finding clarity, he slows down his body language, fixes his gait and brings a certain gentleness to his eyes as he starts winning his personal battles.
Guru Somasundaram in Minnal Murali
Guru Somasundaram gets the best-written character in Malayalam's first superhero movie but he goes on to do so much with it that it becomes impossible to hate him, even when he sets out to burn a village. He breaks our hearts when he's caught between happy tears and a half-smile when Usha finally comes home. Even earlier, he's able to create a little piece of magic just with the way he says 'Usha', as though the utterance of her name brings him joy. In another multiverse, he could be Ram from 96 but with a bit of a lightning issue. And that's why Minnal Murali will always remain a tragedy too even if we want to remember it as a fun superhero movie.
Shine Tom Chacko in Kurup
In Shibu, we got a supervillain with as much heart as angst. But with Shine Tom Chacko's Bhasi Pillai, we also got a superb villain who has nothing even resembling a soul. His performance as the reckless drunk makes Kurup's titular fugitive look like a fuzzy Golden Retriever. Such is the intensity of a performance that uses 'drunk' as a license for evil. Viewed closely, you notice how he's found the balance of a grounded performance and an over-the-top explosion reminiscent of the great villains of the 80's. He's at it with power in a long take where he's expected to be sly, nice, forceful, erratic, angry and violent in the course of a minute.
KU Manoj in Thinkalazhcha Nischayam
The father in the year's best-kept secret prefers monarchy to democracy but the actor who played him certainly takes the crown when it comes to the biggest discovery of the year. See how he's able to elevate a simple dinner by using a broken table leg as an intensifier or the way he goes berserk in the most natural way as he loses his powers as king. Be it in the funnier portions in the beginning or the really dark shades he gets in the middle, there's nothing he couldn't do in this amazing chamber comedy.
Indrans in #Home
His last great role was that of a psycho killer in last year's Anjaam Pathira, but as Oliver Twist in #Home, Indrans could create the kind of wholesome goodness that could fill up an entire library of Enid Blytons. Everyone could see a slice of their technologically-challenged parent in his performance and one could just as easily cry buckets seeing the pure innocence on his face. Even when he walks in casually into a superstar's trailer (played by Anoop Menon) you know why the star would humour him because no one can say no to Indrans in form.
Nimisha Sajayan in The Great Indian Kitchen and Malik
No other Indian actor was a part of as many great movies this year as Nimisha was. But her performances in each of them got us to feel for her character, even without relying on a moment of melodrama or reams of dialogue. In The Great Indian Kitchen, she marked the death of a hopeful romantic by replacing her with a pragmatic villain of patriarchy. And in Malik, we saw a strong woman slowly coming to terms with the end of an era both in her life and her town, as she slowly begins to lose her the strength that made her who she was.
Fahadh Faasil in Malik and Joji
The frequent flier on the best performances list had a middling year overall with two great roles (Malik and Joji) and two no-to-so great roles in Irul and Pushpa:The Rise. As Macbeth, he compressed entire soliloquies into a few helpless implosions, even as you see madness creeping up on a man you can only describe as a loser. But in Malik, he did one better. Weak on the outside but strong inside, his Alikka expressed a sort of bitterness that comes from decades of feeling misunderstood. But these are things we feel, not see or hear. It's impact is felt when the news of his death reaches his wife and there's no need to show his body or a montage of him smiling because we've experienced the tragedy of being Aliikka.
Special Mention: Mammukoya (Kuruthi), Basil Joseph (Jan E Man), Delhi Ganesh (Navarasa), Unnimaya Prasad (Joji)
Allu Arjun in Pushpa
Allu Arjun as Pushpa Raj said 'Thaggede Le!' and he meant it. He left no stone unturned in Pushpa, right from costumes and makeup to the accent to leave the audience with a top notch performance. As a star, for many films he has received whistles for his "hero entry" shots and "elevation dialogues." It was a breath of fresh air to see him receive that love not for himself but for his character. He plays ambition and anger with equal rigour and embodies the role, effortlessly. In 2020, he made the list of top performers as a star but this year, the actor in him shines through. However, one thing that remained by his side this year too was David Warner's ultra-cool off-field abilities.
Sai Pallavi in Love Story
Love Story on the whole had amazing performances from every actor, Naga Chaitanya to the internet sensation, Gangavva. Amidst this brilliant cast, Sai Pallavi stood out. She is an ordinary girl next door for most parts in the film but does with a vulnerability that makes the audience say "neethoni aithadi" (you can do it) when everyone from her grandmother, father and an old friend tells her "neethoni kaadu" (you can't do it). Another performance of hers this year was in Shyam Singha Roy where she is called the film's biggest weapon.
Rajeev Kanakala in Love Story
Continuing the string of great performances in Love Story is Rajeev Kanakala as Sai Pallavi's uncle. (Spoiler ahead) Sai Pallavi is a survivor of child sexual violence perpetrated by her uncle. She grows up in close proximity to him and is uncomfortable in his presence ever since. The audience can feel that discomfort which Rajeev Kanakala makes you feel every time he is on screen. Even in a dialogue where he jokes, one is left creeped out. He understands that his character isn't to be glorified or redeemed but requires the audience to hate and he does just that.
Sunainaa in Raja Raja Chora
Raja Raja Chora has won accolades for its fun writing of both the story and the characters. Sunainaa's character is one such, full of secrets. A married woman with ambition might be the way to describe her character but she breaks out of every imagery you associate with that phrase. She is not meek or coy but rather plays to her strength with stern expressions. In a film about a man's quest with morality, Sunainaa gets away with the Hero shot.
Naveen Polishetty in Jathi Ratnalu
This list couldn't end without a mention of Naveen Polishetty in Jathi Ratnalu. He also featured in the list of FC Disruptors 2021 for showcasing that you don't always need big stars to pull in the crowd. His comic timing and improv-like performance leaves the audience rooting for Srikanth from Jogipet. Just like he holds together the trio from Jogipet, Naveen is also the glue that held together the rapport with Rahul Ramakrishna and Priyadarshi.
Sanchari Vijay in Puksatte Lifu
Puksatte Lifu was a comic thriller film that made a commentary on various things including the religious harmony of its milieu and gendered relationships. Sanchari Vijay plays Shahjahan, a keymaker who becomes an accomplice to a series of robberies. His performance is moving. Portraying the ideas of freedom, what it means to have the key to life (or not) and other such philosophical undertones, he fits the bill perfectly. The film is also one of his last after his unfortunate passing away this year.
Raj B Shetty in Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana
One of the best performances, not limited to the Kannada industry, came from the director Raj B Shetty who played the role of Shiva in Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana. Spinning a tale based on the mythological characters – Hari, Shiva and Brahma – it deals with brotherhood, morality and violence. Raj B Shetty plays the remorseless killer with poignance. A special mention goes to his pili vesha (tiger dance) that made sure the audience could simply not look away.
Shruthi in Rathnan Prapancha and Bhajarangi 2
Rathnan Prapancha stood out as a film with some of the best performances in Kannada. Clearly indicated also by the next two names on this list. Shruthi as Yellava is a mother unlike none other. She brandishes her gun and is worshipped by the locals. But, she also delivers an excellent performance when vulnerability is demanded. She manages to make the audience feel for her character thoroughly as we see less of Shruthi and more of Yellava. In Bhajarangi 2 as well, she leaves the audience with a bewitching performance as the foul-mouthed money-lender Alamelamma.
Dhananjaya in Rathnan Prapancha, Salaga and Badava Rascal
Dhananjaya has delivered a few knockout performances this year. From being a middle-class man in Rathnan Prapancha and Badava Rascal to being a cop in Salaga. Even in similar roles of an insurance agent and boy-next-door in the first two, he brings a unique flavour to both. With Rathnan Prapancha, even when the story wavers, the actor makes sure to never let go of the audience. In Salaga, we see him in an all new role, quite opposite to the roels he usually essays. Known for his darker, criminal-like roles, he gave a solid performance as he donned the Khaki as a police officer.
Umashri in Rathnan Prapancha
Umashri as Saroja is an absolute riot in Rathnan Prapancha. Her character is loud and her performance is to scream for. She is an adoptive mother who brings up Rathna, played by Dhananjaya but she is also much more than that. She isn't the ideal mother, is demanding, irritating and even bigoted in her own way. Umashri, however, inspires affection for the character.