Top 10 Performers of 2020

In a year full of silence, art somehow found a way to reach us. Looking back, here are the performances that really stood out!

2020 obviously wasn’t the best year for cinema. It wasn’t the best year for anything, to be honest (except, maybe, Goa tourism). It was strange, it was unknown and it was scary. I remember being in two minds before I went to watch Homi Adajania’s Angrezi Medium, starring the late Irrfan and incredibly talented Radhika Madan. I didn’t know what to do. The then new outbreak of the novel virus was scary, but at the same time numbers were low in India. And so, I went for the film. Little did I know that I’ll be able to experience this rush of emotions only nine months later when I step into a rather empty cinema hall to watch Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984. But it’s not like we didn’t have any new releases in these nine months. Thanks to online streaming platforms, films kept coming our way. They were less in number, but they were there. Had I wished we had gotten the opportunity to watch some of these films on the big screen? Yes. Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi) is one such film. But then there was also David Dhawan’s horrible Coolie No. 1 (Varun Dhawan, Sara Ali Khan) that I wish didn’t release even on OTT. But then, we have such films every year.

However, the point is, while I did miss the collective feeling of being in a dark hall with strangers around me while watching a film, there was some joy in 2020 for the world of films. Looking back, here are my top 10 performances of the year gone by, which started and ended with powerful female performances by Taapsee Pannu in Thappad and Tillotama Shome in Sir.

10. Pavail GulatiThappad

Pavail Gulati & Taapsee Pannu in a still from Thappad; Source: Amazon Prime

One of my favourite debut performances in recent times has to be Pavail Gulati’s portrayal of the antagonist in Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad. There’s a beautiful empathy with which he plays Vikram, even though the character is far from emphatic. Not once does Gulati’s performance tries to tells us that Vikram is a bad guy, when in reality, he is. Instead he probes deeper into the idea of the normalisation of entitlement. Women are the strength of Thappad – Taapsee Pannu, Geetika Vidya, Ratna Pathak Shah, Tanvi Azmi, Maya Sarao – but Gulati holds his own among a bunch of talented women and a spectacular Kumud Mishra.

9. Sanya MalhotraShakuntala Devi & Ludo

Sanya Malhotra in stills from Shakuntala Devi (with Vidya Balan) and Ludo; Source: Amazon Prime & Netflix

You’ve seen her in Dangal, you’ve seen her in Badhaai Ho, but have you seen Sanya Malhotra in Photograph? And then in Shakuntala Devi and Ludo? Those are performances to look out for.As a confused, left-out child-girl-woman in Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi, Malhotra is just perfect. It is Anu’s (her character) relationship with Shakuntala and Malhotra’s chemistry with Vidya Balan that drives this film. Their relationship as mother-daughter is beautiful. I would’ve loved to watch a film just on this relationship, but sadly, that’s not what we get. That Malhotra is stuck in the wrong script never stops her from performing the way she does. Similarly in Anurag Basu’s Ludo, an ensemble cast cannot take anything away from her performance. In a pool of very talented actors, Malhotra holds her ground and, for me, shines the most.

8. Janhvi KapoorGunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Janhvi Kapoor in a still from Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl; Source: Netflix

As Gunjan Saxena, Janhvi Kapoor is a terrific revelation (in Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl), and proof that the future of Hindi cinema is in good hands. Gunjan’s dream is to fly, not fight for the country. Similarly, Kapoor also seems to want to perform and not necessarily be a feminist icon leading a female-oriented film. She just wants to act and you see it in her – in her eyes, in the way she moves, talks. Gunjan is both timid and confident at the same time, whether it’s at home or at the workplace, and Kapoor taps into the difference of just that and performs as she hasn’t performed before (in the two films she’s been a part of). And I don’t know if it’s just me, or there are many who think like me, but I do see a great deal of the late Sridevi in Janhvi Kapoor, and I don’t just speak of the looks. But the sincerity, the earthy-ness, the dedication, and also the hunger. And most importantly, the respect – for herself and her craft. In times when the conversation around nepotism is so toxic, it is good to see Janhvi Kapoor perform as she has in Gunjan Saxena. Even otherwise, this is a performance to look up to.

7. Konkona SensharmaDolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare

Konkona Sensharma in a still from Dolly Kitty; Source: Netflix

In recent times, Konkona Sensharma is one of the very few actors I find irresistible. She’s so good on screen, it makes you want to wish you saw more of her. On most days, I go back to watching just a couple of scenes from Wake Up Sid! to see the wonders she does with her characters. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Sensharma plays Dolly, a very intricately written character. According to her, she’s living the life. Even though she is in a sexless marriage, there’s a lot that she has going for her. She has a family, a job that she does for just ‘fun’, an AC on rent, and a hope that their new apartment will be ready soon. These are the truths of her life, of course, until her younger cousin, Kaajal arrives. Sensharma is an actor par excellence. There is a quality to her, quite unexplainable, that keeps you glued to the screen whenever she’s on it. As Dolly, she’s exceptionally good. She performs as a true performer should – with her eyes, facial expressions, and body language. All it at once, and even in isolation. She’s a rare artist. Sensharma has a scene with Neelima Azim (who plays her mother) and that scene alone is a testament of how good and secure she is as an actor. This is one of her finest!

6. Bhumi PednekarDolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare

Bhumi Pednekar in a still from Dolly Kitty; Source: Netflix

Bhumi Pednekar is one of the most perfect examples of evolution in our industry. How she’s grown from strength to strength over the films that she’s been a part of is marvellous. Not that she was ever a bad actor, she’s always been more than good. But with every single film that she’s a part of, you see that she’s learnt from the minute mistakes she made in her previous film. In Dolly Kitty Pednekar plays Kaajal, and Kaajal is playing Kitty. It’s a very interesting character. Not like we haven’t seen women talking on the phone/radio in our films before. We obviously have, but Kitty is a far cry from all of them. She’s new to this world, of big cities, hopeless people, cheaters. Even Kaajal is new to all of this. She’s also new to unexplored realms of sexuality, both male and female. As a representative of Red Rose App, she has to talk love and sex to a variety of men. In one of the films most powerful scenes, we see Kitty talking to her initial caller. She’s hesitant, awkward, unaware. The guy wants to masturbate to Kitty’s voice. She doesn’t know what to do, so she sings a song as he helps himself. In that scene, you see how informed Pednekar is as an actor.

5. Pankaj TripathiGunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl & Ludo

Pankaj Tripathi in stills from Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl & Ludo; Source: Netflix

Is there any character Pankaj Tripathi gets wrong? I think not! In Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Tripathi plays Gunjan’s father, Anup. Anup is considerate, kind, affectionate and even though he knows that sending his daughter, or even his son, into war is risky, but he wants them to fulfil their dreams. In a sequence, where Gunjan has to lose 7 kgs in 15 days, he trains with her so that she doesn’t lose her morale. When she comes back crying to him, he tells her this is a battle he too has lost. That’s the kind of father he is – perfect. As is Pankaj Tripathi. Even when he’s not doing anything, there is so much that Tripathi ends up doing. What a rare and gifted performer!

4. Sanjay MishraHar Kisse Ke Hisse: Kaamyaab

Sanjay Mishra in a still from Kaamyaab; Source: Red Chillies Entertainment

Sanjay Mishra, as the aging small-time actor is more than perfect. He deals with the inner conflict of a man whose 499th film didn’t work and brought disgrace to his family. His scenes are either comical or emotional, and in both he is an absolute vision. He dodges between the various moods of his character with no visible effort – he’s that good. Hardik Mehta’s Har Kisse Ke Hisse: Kaamyaab is a film you must watch for Sanjay Mishra. The aim of this film, or his performance, is not too high. It’s a group of talented people having fun with their craft, and it shows!

3. Nawazuddin SiddiquiSerious Men & Raat Akeli Hai

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in stills from Serious Men & Raat Akeli Hai; Source: Netflix

In both Raat Akeli Hai and Netflix’s Serious Men, Nawazuddin Siddiqui occupies almost every single frame. And in both these films, he’s extraordinarily good! It’s Siddiqui after all, when have we, as an audience, not been able to rely on him. In Raat Akeli Hai, he plays a policeman. While we’ve seen him play a policeman before (Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani) this performance is a class apart. In Serious Men, Siddiqui plays Ayyan, a man who thinks that his social status has wronged him and would go to any lengths to make sure that his son isn’t wronged because of the same. When you look at most of Nawaz’s characters, they mostly look the same. While other actors put in an effort to go through transformations for characters, Siddiqui changes his body language. Apart from the clothes, most things remain the same for him (physically), but just through body language, physical movements, Siddiqui does so much, every single time.

2. Taapsee PannuThappad

Taapsee Pannu in a still from Thappad; Source: Amazon Prime

In Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, Taapsee Pannu plays Amrita with complete conviction. There’s a lot of silence in this character, and she beautifully captures that while delivering a strikingly nuanced performance. Over the years, Taapsee Pannu has mastered her art and proved to us that she is one of the best actresses we have. In Sinha’s Thappad, she goes even beyond what she has done in the past, with characters like Minal (Pink), Aarti (Mulk), Naina (Badla). This is undoubtedly her career best performance, mainly because of the way in which she masters her silences. Amu is a tough character to crack. She’s one of the simplest characters Pannu has ever played, and yet so complex. To maintain this very balance and to show it on screen, with limited dialogues, that’s where Pannu’s finesse comes into the picture!

1. Tillotama ShomeSir

Tillotama Shome in a still from Sir; Source: Netflix

Rohena Gera’s Sir is a kind of a film that comes only once in a while. While the writing and direction deserve credits, it’s Tillotama Shome’s career best performance that takes the cake for this film. As Ratna, the live in housemaid, Shome delivers a very raw, rare performance. She taps into the many layered vulnerabilities and nuances of her character to make her performance my favourite performance of the year. And I’m sure there are many people who would agree. Shome doesn’t restrict her character to mere mannerisms to show the very evident class divide and to conceal her emotions. She taps deeper than that. She plays Ratna from a very honest, real place. Anything that I say about her performance is going to less than what needs to be said about Tillotama Shome.

Special Mentions:

Radhika ApteRaat Akeli Hai

Radhika Apte in a still from Raat Akeli Hai; Source: Netflix

In Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai, Radhika Apte plays Radha – a mistress of sorts, and she plays her part so perfectly, like always. The brilliance of Apte lies in her eyes, and she knows exactly how to use them! While there is enough dialogue and conversation that her Radha engages in, Apte masters the silences and gives another breathtaking performance.

Tripti DimriBulbbul

Tripti Dimri in a still from Bulbbul; Source: Netflix

Bulbbul is Tripti Dimri’s film and nobody can take that away from her. You see Dimri become Bulbbul, in every aspect of the character. The abandonment Dimri goes through to play Bulbbul is striking — when she’s fanning herself, walking down corridors, delivering dialogues, crying, or even just staring. This is a breakthrough performance.

Alaya FJawaani Jaaneman

Alaya F in a still from Jawaani Jaaneman; Source: Amazon Prime

Alaya F is the real star of her debut film, Jawaani Jaaneman. In times when star kids are launched irrespective of talent and effort, Alaya comes as a breath of fresh air, because what she has done in Jawaani Jaaneman not just reflects natural talent but also acquired talent. You see the effort she has put in to make Tia her own, to stand alongside both, Saif Ali Khan and Tabu and then give one of the best debuts in recent times. It’s not just a good debut performance, but a good performance in general.

Shweta Tripathi Sharma & Vikrant MasseyCargo

Shweta Tripathi Sharma & Vikrant Massey in stills from Cargo; Source: Netflix

Both Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi Sharma are excellent actors and there are no two thoughts about it. In Cargo Massey’s Prahastha is an introverted, silent character. He speaks only when needed, and even that is precise. Massey plays his part with a very impressive control. Many a times what happens with introverted characters is that you get bored of them, because they don’t match up to your level of excitement, but that doesn’t happen with Prahastha. Vikrant Massey lends a beautiful unemotional aspect to his character and that is worth looking out for. In the silences, Shweta Tripathi Sharma’s Yuvishka is a welcome surprise. You root for her, for her zeal for life and optimism. Tripathi Sharma very excellently captures both, the confidence and conflict in Arati Kadav’s writing of this character. I sincerely hope that our industry realises the true potential in both Massey and Tripathi Sharma (as does Kadav) and we see them in many more films, either together or apart.

Also, we saw great performances by Dia Mirza, Geetika Vidya, Kumud Mishra, & Ratna Pathak Shah (Thappad), Fatima Sana Shaikh, Rajkummar Rao, Abhishek Bachchan (Ludo), Ayesha Raza Mishra (Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl), Richa Chadha (Panga), Saiyami Kher (Choked), Radhika Madan & Irrfan (Angrezi Medium), Anil Kapoor & Harshvardhan Kapoor (AK vs AK) but it’s impossible for us to list them all in a top 10 list.

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