I'd be hard-pressed to name at least one outstanding mainstream Hindi film in 2017. In stark contrast, there has been a landfall of excellent independent films, debut breakthroughs and festival favourites.
As a result, a majority of the year's top performances – male and female – have occurred within the confines of superb ensemble designs controlled by newer, fearless directors.
10. AKSHAYE KHANNA (Ittefaq)
Twice this year, the suave Khanna (Mom, Ittefaq) plays an investigating inspector who learns to relish the whodunit he occupies. In both, he is clearly the outlier – an educated, smart, sarcastic and patronizing detective – in the notoriously political Indian law-enforcement system. As Dev in Abhay Chopra's contemporary "update" of the 1969 Rajesh Khanna starrer, he initially looks like he'd rather be running a corporate company. He is disillusioned with his contemporaries, but never quite out of the "game". As the case unravels, Dev has to serve as both, the audience and the professional, which is where Khanna walks the tightrope with a perpetually patronizing grin. One can sense he has finally found a puzzle worthy of his intellect – and there's nobody better than Khanna to flash that desi-Sherlock "Challenge accepted!" attitude. Despite some outlandish script devices, Khanna single-handedly livens up Ittefaq with an elusive brand of humanism he lends to a traditionally single-toned character. We have a new cop in movie town.
9. SUSHAMA DESHPANDE (Ajji)
Hindi cinema has seen blind husbands, resourceful mothers and disillusioned fathers wreck havoc to avenge the sexual assault of traumatized survivors. But Devashish Makhija's deeply uncomfortable and divisive film presents us with the most unlikely of them all – a weak, arthritis-afflicted grandmother. Deshpande, a Marathi stage veteran, makes her screen debut in a way that makes us realize: of course, an old lady makes for the most obvious real-life vigilante. She has nothing to lose; she can afford to be messy and angry. The brave actress makes her rage assume the silence of a hapless observer riling herself up to emulate her traditionally fresher cinematic counterparts. The final scene, in which she cakes her face up to pass off as a "mature" sex worker, is haunting and iconic – and a tragic metaphor of our times.
8. ADIL HUSSAIN (Mukti Bhawan)
Torn between resenting his father and understanding the concept of "fatherhood," Adil Hussain, as everyman Rajiv, gives one of the year's most affecting performances in 25-year-old Shubhashish Bhutiani's poignant debut. Rajiv oscillates between reluctant son and conflicted patriarch, and embodies "age" in the coming-of-age journey. He is torn between roles and responsibility – away from his wife and daughter, forced to fulfill "their" duties by indulging his ailing father at a Varanasi hotel designed to welcome death. Hussain is perceptive and patient, as if he were truly learning the ways of a man tired of being one. His awakening is propelled by the politics of grief; it takes a special talent to attach empathy with a predominantly unremarkable character.
7. AYUSHMANN KHURRANA (Meri Pyaari Bindu)
I've never been to Kolkata, but the city came to me through Khurrana's writerly "Bubla" in Akshay Roy's underappreciated debut. This was a performance that grew on me as the year passed, despite an equally complex and angsty turn as a lover with erectile dysfunction in the cultural comedy, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Khurrana has often excelled as the emasculated young man compromised by his own thinking. Here, in a film named after the female protagonist (an annoying Parineeti Chopra), his Bengali Bhadrolok-ish Bubla remains an endearing and understated victim of the manic-pixie syndrome. For once, instead of a situation, it's the unpredictability of a character that forces heartbreak and feelings onto him – a boyish condition that allows him to be more than just the selfish coming-of-age jerk stereotype.
6. VIDYA BALAN (Tumhari Sulu)
It's been ages since I've had the opportunity to put an actress of Balan's caliber on a list like this. After headlining some middling-to-awful films, as the middle-class housewife-turned-RJ in Suresh Triveni's debut she circles in on just the right amount of domestic wiring between rooted self-doubt and burgeoning self-confidence. It's not easy for her to live up to the well-earned responsibility of carrying female-driven sagas time and again; some directors get too excitable with an artist of her abilities. But in this one, Triveni seems to have trusted the experience of his "heroine" during the smaller moments – in the quiet cutaways that can't be scripted, the compulsive tea-making that can't be "performed," and in the throaty laughs during unorthodox radio auditions. As a result, we get Vidya Balan at her responsive best – unafraid of the alleged flaws of womanhood her character celebrates, and unmoved by the pressure of representing an entire breed of homemakers without once looking like the emotionally manipulative underdog.
5. SWARA BHASKAR (Anaarkali Of Aarah)
The freakishly talented Swara Bhaskar was born an all-round Indian performer – the feisty energy of which only a few filmmakers seem to understand. By designing a film around her love for the stage (and camera), debutant Avinash Das succeeds where parts of his tangential screenplay don't. As the fire-breathing, embattled woman in a man's world – a Bihari erotic folk dancer taking on the character-assassinating whims of an obscene politician (Sanjai Mishra) – Bhaskar is like an underdog boxer invoking the vividness of mainstream Bollywood. She humanizes the "item girl" culture without overplaying it, especially in a memorably aggressive final song, where she conveys generations of suppression merely through the "emotion" of her moves. This can be compared to Ayushmann Khurrana's "baarat" dance in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan – two sparkling cinematic moments this year that rely on vigorous musical expression elevating verbose scripts.
4. RATNA PATHAK SHAH (Lipstick Under My Burkha)
"Buaji" is the kind of career caregiver that isn't expected to take care of herself. Hence she is frumpy, maternal and widowed – a respected matriarch as long as she refuses to be a neglected woman. The other three ladies of Alankrita Srivastava's Bhopal-based ensemble drama feel like daughters who secretly don't want to become her. She is so used to being "Buaji" that she often hesitates to recall her real name, Usha Parmar. The last thing they – we – expect is for her to get turned on by an erotic novel and initiate torrid anonymous phone sex with a Jatt toyboy. Ratna Pathak Shah conveys so much through her awkward, time-respecting body language that it's hard not to marvel at the easiness of her courage. She makes us think about our withering parents and grandparents, and their nervous grasp of sexuality while transitioning from one generation to another. There are no sultry-cougar connotations – it's just our favourite Buaji learning to pleasure herself under her figurative burkha.
3. VIKRANT MASSEY (A Death In The Gunj)
It's been a while coming. And perhaps it's only appropriate that Massey's career best – the most vulnerable and "naked" performance of 2017 – occupies a film with a stellar ensemble cast. Ever since his film debut in Lootera, he has spent a large chunk of his roles standing out in the background. In Konkana Sen Sharma's hypnotic directorial debut, as a reticent black-sheep-in-the-making on a freewheeling family trip, Massey is huggable and frangible in equal measure. His is a voice desperate to remain in the background, but unable to. In an ideal cinematic world, Shutu – a name that is now emblematic of unchecked introversion – would isolate himself from social structure until he develops a heartwarming love story with a fellow loner. But this film is a cry for help. It's about the one that gets away – the one who, even in crisis, chooses to selflessly implode rather than transform into a faceless mass-murdering shooter making global headlines. Massey's climactic moments are that complete and damning.
2. PANKAJ TRIPATHI (Newton)
Assistant Commandant Aatma Singh may not exactly be the protagonist of Newton, but Pankaj Tripathi makes him the mirror through which we access the film. In fact, he is the "hero" of his morally ambiguous environment – the Naxal-controlled jungles accommodating clerks on Election duty – jaded and vaguely envious of the hopeless idealism the film's hero, Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), represents. But there's more to him than his sarcastic drawl and defeatist duty. His hostility towards Kumar can be construed as an egotistic act of protection, so that the young man can survive to fight bigger battles away from the dirty dances of democracy. Tripathi appears in no less than seven films this year – each of them an eye-catching supporting turn – but it's in Masurkar's superbly written political quasi-satire that his voice finds a silent resonance that has to be observed rather than explained.
1. RAJKUMMAR RAO (Trapped)
There is no predetermined template to act like a man coming to terms with the fact that his cause of death might read: irrevocably stuck in a high-rise apartment. The new-age allegory is obvious, but the literalness of the situation is unprecedented in genre-averse Indian cinema. In Vikramaditya Motwane's audacious survival drama, Trapped, Rao is a guttural force of nature trying not to be usurped by civilization. As Shaurya, he becomes a naïve hero of ambition and romance whose fledging story is brutally cut short by…a faulty door-lock. Trapped is a one-man show, the cinematic equivalent of a desperate two-hour-long physical monologue on stage. On a diet of black coffee and carrots for the month-long shoot, Rao didn't rest on the laurels of a continuous outward transformation; he clawed his way into history with one of the most hazardous – and freefalling – performances of this decade. Out of all the mediums he occupied this year, some of them vacant mainstream misses, Trapped will remain his star on the Bollywood Walk of Fame.
Vijay Varma (Monsoon Shootout)
Zaira Wasim (Secret Superstar)
Ranbir Kapoor (Jagga Jasoos)