This is a monthly series where we highlight performances from the film and streaming universe that caught our eye. Since Film Companion watches widely, we decided to curate this list to foreground exceptional work, even if these actors did not have the proverbial spotlight on them.
When Shubhra, played by Churni Ganguly, finds herself helping the woman who is her ex-husband’s present wife during an emergency, old wounds reopen and closure proves to be a painful yet liberating process. It’s a fabulous premise to explore marriage, love and patriarchy. Anchoring director Kaushik Ganguly's insightful film is Churni’s performance as Shubhra, whose generosity of spirit is counterbalanced by the ruthlessness with which she can spot and attack someone’s Achilles heel. Few Indian films will let an older woman lead a movie and fewer still will let such a protagonist steer clear of clichés. Ganguly does both and Churni is magnificent as a woman who ultimately proves herself to be so much more than just the better half of a man.
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Only the most devoted Bollywood fan would have recognised that the mustachioed Joint Commissioner of Police Harshvardhan Shroff in Scoop was the same actor who had been dismissed more than a decade ago by audiences and critics for films like Dishkiyaoon (2014). Thanks to Hansal Mehta, Harman Baweja, who has been working as a producer since his short-lived run as an actor in the 2000s, has had the last laugh. Baweja is a scene-stealer in Scoop as the unethical and ambitious JCP Shroff. In terms of screen time, it’s a small role, but Baweja’s understated performance makes JCP Shroff one of the highlights of the show.
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub plays Imran Siddiqui, the only character in Scoop who, for most part, doesn’t change significantly from beginning to the end. In the hands of a lesser actor, this part of an upright individual, devoid of an arc over six hours — always saying the right thing and acting in a just manner — could become boring. However, Ayyub burns the screen with how strongly and fiercely he feels for the injustice being dispensed upon someone he knows clearly does not deserve it. It’s a performance brimming with empathy and feeling, maybe it also helps that we know about Ayyub’s politics. Like Liev Schreiber in Spotlight, who undercuts the overwhelming “passion” of his reporters by being the voice of sanity, this character doesn’t have to scream off the top of buildings and beat his chest about wanting to do the right thing. Everything about him; the tilt of his head, the polite-yet-firm intonation, his posture — they all convey it.
Streaming Platform: Netflix
In Konkona Sen Sharma’s film in the Lust Stories anthology, Tillotama Shome plays an upper-middle class working woman who finds pleasure in seeing her househelp (Amruta Subahsh) have sex on her bed. Her reaction, first of horror, then of pleasure, is full of humor — you are not laughing at her, but at this situation, a fine distinction that her performance and Sen Sharma’s assured direction makes. When she is caught in this charade, she flares, in a scene that sees her fling slurs, voice raised, as though she has reached the highest pitch she can hit, beyond which her voice would crack. Her anger — completely unacceptable — feels potent. It almost stuns you into silence, given the force with which it is delivered. Here is a performance that, even when she is in the middle of the most undignified acts, keeps her shroud of grace and composure, of class-inflected surety intact.
As the titular character in this Mari Selvaraj film, the legendary comedian gets to reinvent himself like never before. In the film, Vadivelu isn’t just brilliant in scenes that are written for and around his performance. He’s just as good, even in scenes that aren’t about him. Take for instance, the way he produces a series of micro-expressions, leading up that big solo emotional breakdown. He slants his head ever so slightly when he understands the real intention behind his senior’s silence on a major political issue. Initially lacking in confidence or courage, he looks at his MLA posting as a blessing, a divine favour he must reciprocate with life-long subservience. Yet his transformation, from Mannu (mud) to Maamannan (emperor) gets a visual arc almost entirely through his body language. What’s equally fascinating is how he’s able to create a performance unlike any he’s done before despite the hundreds and thousands of hours we’ve watched him in before.
Streaming Platform: Disney+ Hotstar
Varin Roopani plays Vikram, a sharp student who gets embroiled in the shady dealings surrounding the disappearance of a child from his boarding school. His friendship with a fellow student and his affection for his housemaster are both inflected by sexual desire — tender, complicated, and certainly problematic.
Roopani’s performance has that quietness, which masks an erupting interiority, which shows up in slits through the show. The way his eyes move and sometimes fix someone in their gaze, the way his diction flows effortlessly between Hindi and English — without bringing attention to itself — the way he is both a victim and perpetrator of violence, situating himself somewhere between your sympathy and apathy, these emerge from his gait, his voice, his posturing. It is a terrifically controlled performance of a complicated character.