Uninspiring at best – that’s how I would define Hindi films of 2021. Big stars had heavily flawed films, the writing of most films – big and small – was sloppy and the storytelling unimaginative. Rajkummar Rao had more than one releases this year, and none of his performances make it to this list, or maybe any. That’s how bad the year was. Not that we have just the film industry to blame for this, in times of crisis, but of the films that had released in the last year, very few made a mark for themselves. Even in one of Hindi Cinema’s worst years, we did see some brilliant performances. Here are my favourite ones, ranked…
10. Abhishek Bachchan – Bob Biswas
A comeback of sorts, Abhishek Bachchan is excellent in Bob Biswas. Carrying forward the legacy of Saswata Chatterjee as Sujoy Ghosh’s finest character, Bob Biswas, Bachchan delves deep into the character’s complex journey of innocence and cruelty, and gives, what I think, is his career best. I really do hope there’s more of this Abhishek Bachchan to watch in the years to come.
9. Arjun Kapoor – Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
Driving SAPF are Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra. Both Kapoor and Chopra have had good and bad films and performances in the past. But they seem so evolved in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. It’s as if I was watching them in the 2012 Ishaqzaade, where both of them showed tremendous potential. Kapoor’s last outing, Panipat, was proof of the fact that there he is a good actor. As Pinky, you see him doing better. Pinky is not the usual Delhi/Haryana boy. He’s sensitive, he knows right from wrong and will always stand up for it. Kapoor taps into this innocence of Pinky and brings out his best.
8. Parineeti Chopra – Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
And while this is as much his film as it’s Parineeti Chopra’s, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is her show! I’m not comparing Kapoor’s and Chopra’s acting skills, not at all. But after the recently released The Girl On The Train, I didn’t think Chopra could perform as she has. This is her career best performance, in a very complex character. Sandeep is stern, unaware of her privilege. She wears a Rs 40,000 dress and unapologetically announces that her bag is worth Rs 2 Lacs. From the looks of it looks like Parineeti Chopra has gotten back into the main scene. She proves herself as an actor and her performance shows that there’s a lot of untapped, unexplored potential in her. This is her career best performance.
7. Taapsee Pannu – Haseen Dillruba
Taapsee Pannu as Rani is terrific in Haseen Dillruba. Over the last few films that Pannu has been a part of, she’s shown so much range, even as the “strong, independent woman” trope that her characters follow. Wild in Manmarziyaan, self-made and confident in Thappad, and now selfish and hot-headed in Haseen Dillruba. While Rani borrows from Rumi (also written by Kanika Dhillon), Pannu’s portrayal of both are poles apart. If I may say, Taapsee Pannu has redefined what it means to be a Hindi Cinema heroine – something that Vidya Balan had done, and continues to do, years ago.
6. Ranveer Singh – 83
83 is an important film. Not just in terms of story, but primarily for Ranveer Singh. This is the least “Ranveer-y” he’s been in any of his films. In 83 he gives his best performance, because he’s so absent from the entire film. He unlearns everything he knows about Ranveer, about being a Bombay boy, about being a film star and adapts to Kapil Dev. From his physicality to his accent, everything is so devoid of Singh, and so accepting of Dev that it’s not just my favourite performance of Singh, but one of the finest performances I have seen in recent times. What particularly won my heart about his act was how Singh has made Dev’s broken English his own. So when he mouths dialogues like, “we here to win” you’re not laughing at him, like the English press. You’re only marvelling at the acting capabilities of Ranveer Singh. When, as Kapil Dev, he says that winning two matches is not enough for him, and that he’s here for the World Cup, you believe him. You know he’s going to win it, but you still believe him with all your heart.
5. Farhan Akhtar – Toofan
Farhan Akhtar’s transformation for and through Toofan is commendable, as is his shift from Ajju to Aziz. He adds nuances to both the personalities and even though this may not be his best performance (for me it’s The Sky Is Pink), he shines. He rises above the matter he’s been given and delivers exceptionally.
4. Sanya Malhotra – Pagglait
If I had to describe Sanya Malhotra’s act in Pagglait in one word, I would call it dignified. In one of the most remarkable performances and characters of the year, Malhotra delivers and how! As a new widow, confused between grief and hope, Sanya Malhotra taps into Sandhya’s complex feminine urges to portray her. This is a character that could’ve gone really wrong, but at the hands of Sanya Malhotra this is a clear win!
3. Vicky Kaushal – Sardar Udham
While it’s a given fact that Vicky Kaushal is a great actor, his victories in Sardar Udham are a combination of his capabilities as an actor and the writing of the film. This Shoojit Sircar film has become one of my favourite films of all times. Credit goes to the writing, and Kaushal’s portrayal of a man lost between mission and compassion and everything in between. If you haven’t watched the film yet, watch out for Kaushal in the Jalliabwala Bagh massacre scene – that scene alone tells you that Kaushal is one of the finest actors our industry will ever produce.
2. Vidya Balan – Sherni
In Amit Masurkar’s Sherni, Vidya Balan gives one of her best performances. In the past, Balan has played both, women who want to bring about change, question systems and women who know that shared stories are more important than personal ones. Vidya Vincent falls in the latter category. Vincent never wants to be a feminist icon. In fact, she wants to get a raise ‘in December and quit’. This is a character that demanded too much stripping from Balan. Balan’s other characters – Shakuntala (Shakuntala Devi), Silk (The Dirty Picture), Vidya (Paa) have always have the traits we often associate with “strong women”. Vidya Vincent has none, and that makes her one of Balan’s strongest characters. You almost never see Vidya Balan in Vidya Vincent. Balan is so secure an actor, so confident in her craft that not for a single second does she put Vidya Balan before Vidya Vincent and that is the biggest strength of an actor. Balan realises the importance of Vincent’s mission and of Masurkar’s storytelling and gives a performance that, for me, comes at par with what she did in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (my favourite performance of her).
1. Konkona Sensharma – Geeli Pucchi
Featuring a terrific Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi is about the lives of two women – Bharti Mandal (Sensharma) and Priya Sharma (Rao Hydari) – which are as sloppy as a wet kiss. Bharti and Priya lead opposite lives. Bharti is stern, ambitious and smart. She is the only woman at her workplace, where there is no toilet for women. When new employee Priya asks her where she goes if she wants to take a leak, she casually says, “jahan sab jaate hain, isme kya hai?” All Bharti ever dreams of is for her work to be appreciated for how it is and not for who she is. She’s a Dalit lesbian. The struggle for her is three times worse – a woman, a Dalit and gay. Sensharma does a wonderful job playing her. You see the constant anger in her eyes, the deprivation, and the urge to be seen, even by just one person. You cannot take your eyes off her. There’s no actor I find as irresistible as Konkona Sensharma, which makes her the performer of the year.
A special mention to Aditi Rao Hydari, Aadarsh Gaurav, Vaani Kapoor and Vikrant Massey for their stints in Geeli Pucchi, The White Tiger, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and Haseen Dillruba.