From Lijomol Jose To Samantha Ruth Prabhu, 9 Actors Who Delivered The Best Performances Of 2021
Has the pandemic changed our viewing habits irreversibly? The answer is in our subscription charges. There is an accompanying question too. Along with viewing choices, has it also changed our perception of actors and acting? Well, that would be a yes and a no. Even while we binge-watch series or drag a show on for weeks — and there are too many on the list as the recommendations keep coming — a film is a film.
I feel series have an unfair advantage over movies. Characters are given ample time to grow and develop, with backstories that give the viewer an understanding of where the person is coming from, and where they are going. There’s more meat for the actor to sink their teeth into, more to digest, and the luxury to deliver a nuanced, multi-faceted performance. Even within a formula — and series are written to a more expansive formula — one gets the feeling of knowing a character better.
Film is more concentrated and it has the advantage of conveying the essence of a story in 90 to 120 minutes. A film can be sublime; like a fresh brew you savour and the warmth of which you feel through your being. A transparent, honest and calibrated performance seen in a film stays in your memory. Yes, such performances are rare but they aren’t elusive.
This year saw a number of performances, both in film and in series, that deserve a standing ovation. To start with, the first two choices aren’t surprising. A strange coincidence, but both roles portray marginalized people – a tribal woman, and a Dalit man. This is a tragic comment on their plight in our uncaring society. They may be from different strata and the tone of the films may be poles apart, but they both suffer at the hands of a system caught in the iron grip of caste, privilege and a hierarchic structure indifferent to suffering.
1) Lijomol Jose in Jai Bhim (Amazon Prime)
It is a role that pierces your conscience with a searing, gut-wrenching performance by Lijomol Jose as Sengeni, the pregnant wife of Rajkannu who is taken by the police for a theft he has not committed. But as is seen with the Irula tribe — easy victims of bonded labour in rural Tamil Nadu (without an Aadhar or voting card) — they are the first to be clapped in jail, often resulting in custodial death that is masked as prison escape. Jai Bhim is as graphic as it gets. Police brutality is unleashed on Irula men (a hard watch), and you feel the pain Sengeni goes through when her husband — who has been battered by the cops — can’t swallow the mouthful of rice she feeds him.
Jose’s entire body is an instrument that depicts tough emotions like pain, endurance and uncompromising dignity. Her eyes sparkle with mischief and glow with tenderness when we first meet her, and then they turn bleak with grief as she deals with the circumstances life brings her way. Her saviour, one without a self-righteous halo, is the dedicated lawyer Chandru (superstar Suriya, reprising a real-life legal hero) who files a habeas corpus for the missing husband. Sengeni stands upright, morally and physically, despite her advanced pregnancy, when the cops try to bribe her into withdrawing her petition.
Jose’s work in bringing to life a woman who clings to hope in the bleakest times is marvellous. She convinces you that she is an Irula woman reliving her tormented life. Jai Bhim eventually turns into a courtroom drama and an investigation of Rajkannu’s death, but through it all, the actress keeps you tethered to the narrative. Jose deserves every award for the honesty she brought to her performance.
2) Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Serious Men (Netflix)
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s interpretation of a Dalit man in Serious Men touches your heart and appeals to your mind. It’s a role never attempted before as it dares to endow the oppressed with the luxury of ambivalence. The nuanced performance earned him an Emmy nomination, a richly deserved recognition. As I wrote when the film was first released on Netflix, Serious Men broke the stereotype of a Dalit being shown as a victim and not an individual with ambition and the cunning to achieve it.
Ayyan Mani (Siddiqui) is a quick learner and wants to game the system that rewards chutzpah. As PA to a top scientist — who siphons off funds for a nebulous project — Mani masters the rules of the con game. He creates a child prodigy out of his slow-learning obedient son and presents him as a combination of Einstein and Ambedkar to fool the adoring public and the fawning media. Sudhir Mishra’s black satire doesn’t shy away from showing Mani as an abusive father, who has terrorised his son into being a performing monkey.
While you empathise with Mani’s motives, it’s hard to like him in these scenes. The camera makes his face a canvas for changing emotions — love, pride, guilt and regret — in a crucial scene with his son. It’s a moment of pure cinema. Few actors can stand the scrutiny of a revealing, demanding camera.
3) Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham (Amazon Prime)
When a film is structured like an episodic epic going back and forth in time, opts for a fragmented collage to lead to the shattering climax, it’s challenging for the actor to draw the arc of a man who has seen and undergone so much. It is a slow simmer where the intensity is sheathed but then erupts in moments.
Whether Sardar Udham’s tumultuous life as portrayed in Shoojit Sircar’s film of the same name is the factual truth or fictionalised reality is not the point. The point is how Vicky Kaushal convinces you that these are the experiences he lived through. They hone him into the patriot who shot Sir Michael Dwyer, the governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala massacre; shot him in public so that it is seen as an act of protest. The sensitivity of Masan’s Deepak Kumar and the bravura of Uri’s Major Vihan Singh Shergill meld seamlessly into a maturity of craft. There are demands made on his reserves of stillness at the core as well as emotional outbursts like the anguish, the maniacal energy to save the wounded and the physical and spiritual exhaustion. This film should guarantee him the hard-to-predict National Award.
4) Aditya Modak in The Disciple (Netflix)
Immersive cinema yields a subtly immersive performance. Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Best Screenplay winner at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It’s the first Indian film to win such honors since Mira Nair’s Golden Leopard for Monsoon Wedding way back in 2001.
In The Disciple, Tamhane immersed his being into the world of classical music and the discipline it demands from a true musician who shuns shortcuts to popular appeal. The standards set for Sharad Nerulkar (played by Aditya Modak, a singer in real life) by his guruji (Arun Dravid, a trained musician) and late mentor (referred to with reverence simply as Mai), rule his life, to the extent of the young musician having no semblance of a personal life.
The pursuit of perfection, revered as tapasya, is beset with self-doubt. He is judgemental of musicians who tailor their performance to please a crowd accustomed to consuming it in short takes. Modak is spot on in his portrayal of a student devoted to his guru who sometimes seems to take pleasure in demanding greater discipline and higher creativity. It is difficult to make a mark when it’s a non-dramatic character but staying within the confines of self-effacement and depicting the acceptance of one’s shortcomings without rancour needs a selfless actor. Modak’s performance suggests immense depths under the rather composed demeanor he presents to the world. He completes the immersive journey the film sets out to make.
5) Sidharth Malhotra in Shershah (Amazon Prime)
It is the time of commemorating military heroes through biopics and Shershah began the trend this year. Sidharth Malhotra, who plays Captain Vikram Batra, does both well — the role of the charming boy-next-door with his simplicity, and that of the gritty war hero.
6) Vidya Balan in Sherni (Amazon Prime)
An actor who always rises to the roles she takes on, Vidya Balan’s strong performance in Sherni was expected given her caliber. She plays the part of Vidya Vincent, a pragmatic forest officer, earnestly and convincingly. I, however, expected a bit more from the movie, and that’s perhaps down to the script.
7) Zoya Hussain and Pawan Malhotra in Grahan (Disney Hotstar)
Most of the surprises came from OTT shows. First, an unexpected discovery. Grahan was eclipsed by the lack of an ad blitz but it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. This film is exceptional in the way it brings together the past and present — a political time bomb that extracts an enormous human price.
At the centre of the fast-paced narrative is Amrita Singh, (Zoya Hussain), a young, efficient and upright IPS officer entrusted with the investigation into riots against Sikhs in Bokaro in 1984. Hussain blends confidence and vulnerability, and poise and doubt during the course of the investigation. It implicates her father, a Sikh devoted to serving others. Pawan Malhotra, as the father Gurusevak Singh, speaks more through his silence and finds eloquence when the past unravels its heartrending surprises.
8) Shabana Azmi in The Empire (Disney Hotstar)
The Empire showcased woman power. Shabana Azmi owned the screen as the decisive, commanding grandmother who takes control of the reins when young Babar is left fatherless. Drashti Dhami, hitherto seen only on TV soaps, makes her presence felt as a strong woman who has turbulence thrust upon her. She is poised to take over in the next season as Babar’s older sister who has endured marriage to a besotted oppressor with a cruel streak and is now in Delhi to oversee the succession after the emperor’s death.
9) Samantha Ruth Prabhu in Family Man Season 2 (Amazon Prime).
Now the crowning performance for the last. Samantha Ruth Prabhu is the year’s revelation in Family Man (Season 2). She plays Raji, an LTTE commando who is an antagonist and makes us see her point of view. It is the writing, of course, but the actor has to be able to create, if not empathy, a sympathetic understanding of the cause she is wedded to. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. This overused phrase is brought alive by Samantha’s Raji. From the quiet factory worker who keeps her eyes lowered — a demure camouflage — to the laser-eyed lethal weapon she transforms into, happens in a flash. She unleashes a gravity-defying display of commando skills. To convey the coiled energy demands a superbly controlled physicality.
Bring in her back-story and you have a complete woman avenging the wrongs done to her. As a viewer, it is exciting to be on the see-saw of emotional allegiance. As for the rest of the cast, Manoj Bajpai delivers what we expect, and the others are in perfect sync. The best scenes include the Bombay/Chennai one-upmanship and the good-humoured ribbing when it comes to food.
In 2018, Samantha shed her glam avatar for Mahanati (Amazon Prime); I include it here because I only saw the movie this calendar year. She plays a diffident reporter propelled into unearthing the star Savithri’s tumultuous life. It is a nice counterpoint to Keerthy Suresh’s vibrant portrayal of the many facets (on- and off-screen life) of Telugu cinema’s sole female superstar.
REVISITING THE GOOD ONES
I must confess, I watched fewer films this year, and most of them weren’t new releases. With days slipping into each other, we slip back into time and catch up on films that we missed, or revisit some old ones. I found myself going back to Mira Nair’s work. So let’s relish some old performances.
1) The young Denzel Washington was as hot as can be when Mira Nair cast him in Mississippi Masala, a film that confronted us with our own Brown versus Black racism. He spelt small town dignity as the well-spoken Demetrius who started a carpet cleaning business. He is both civil and adventurous in wooing the sultry Meena (played by Sarita Chowdhury) who has no time for the namby-pamby Gujarati young man who is said to be a catch in their small community.
The chemistry between Washington and Chowdhury is tender and passionate. It was such a prized re-discovery of the other Washington before he got almost stereotyped as the angry radical asserting his identity.
2) What a nostalgic pleasure it was to watch Naseeruddin Shah as the father of the bride in the Monsoon Wedding. Amidst all the irritation and anxiety he’s experiencing, he gives us an unforgettable moment: when he looks at his daughter who is fast asleep, he says the love he feels weighs him down with a tender ache. A quiet moment in the heady rush of a big fat Punjabi wedding.
3) Nair draws out a finely nuanced, troubled and angry performance from the superb Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. From a financial whiz kid who loves everything American to a disillusioned university lecturer teaching political radicalism to restless young men in Lahore, Ahmed delivers an unforgettable performance. His eulogy for his protégé is a flow of emotion in Urdu that he speaks with such fluency and feeling. It was a sign we got in 2012 — the discovery of an actor who’d go on to offer so much to cinema.
4) In The Namesake, Irrfan Khan and Tabu perform to an unheard duet with such grace, carrying the cadences of Bangla into their English. They complement each other perfectly; her chatter against his reticence and a lot said without using many words.