Take a bow, ladies.
It is truly a thrilling and liberating time to be an (established) actress in Hindi cinema, a time when risks are smiled upon and when roles are pushing various envelopes. The ten women singled out for applause this year have played characters that include a cop, a lesbian, a hostage, a tourist and a boxer — what an amazing range, and those are just the labels. The true magic lay in richly textured and well-etched characters they created.
Here, then, are the ten terrific ladies leading the class of 2014:
Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom is an abysmal excuse for a film, one of the worst biopics I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, but leading lady Priyanka Chopra worked her derriere off for the part, and it shows. Prosthetic debates aside, Chopra puts in a plucky, emphatic performance as the already-legendary boxer, playing her with a committed bravado.
Rajat Kapoor’s slice-of-life fable about a lower-middle-class Delhi family centres around the patriarch caught in introspection and whimsy, but the glue holding the family together is the beleaguered wife and mother, played by Pahwa. Nagging, miserable and often exasperatedly talking to herself, Pahwa nevertheless conjures up a mother character we recognise — and one who, when asked point blank by her increasingly eccentric husband if she thinks he’s going mad, is loving enough (and resigned enough?) to assure him he isn’t.
8. Sonam Kapoor in Khubsoorat
Remaking a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was always going to be an uphill task, but director Shashank Ghosh avoided all comparison by turning his update into a glossily Disneyfied confection, with Kapoor as its ideal candified centre. Channelling her inner Emma Stone, Sonam delivers a breezy and energetic performance that is klutzy, refreshingly free of vanity, and full of gif-worthy faces.
Rani is scary in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani — and I don’t mean her hefty, unflattering look. Cops are often called tough as nails, but Mukherji exemplifies it with a hardline, no-nonsense performance that provides a spine to an otherwise feeble film. Sure, the film is a showcase for the actress, but when she is this effective — closer to the intensity of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s cop in Kahaani than to the cartoonish bravado of Salman Khan’s cop in Dabanng — that’s not a bad thing at all.
6. Deepika Padukone in Finding Fanny
We’ve always had a problem with actors trying to emote in English, mostly coming off as overdone or badly accented or merely, tragically unnatural. Padukone, however, is stunningly candid in Homi Adajania’s film, serving as narrator and muse and resident stunner but doing it all with a merrily light touch. It’s a strongly believable performance — she’s restrained even when hornily jumping a guy — and this kind of easy candour is rare in our cinema.
A sheltered girl kidnapped the night before her wedding, Veera Tripathi has no business pluckily falling in love with her dour abductor. And yet she does. She confides in him, sings to him, provokes him, and — atypical even to Stockholm Syndrome — begins to mother him while envisioning a future together. It is all beautiful to look at but decidedly deranged, and Bhatt shines effervescently and credibly in the demandingly odd part.
4. Tejaswini Kolhapure in Ugly
Shalini Bose doesn’t care. About her ex-husband. About her current husband. About what whiskey is filling her glass. About what the domestic help might think of her outbursts. About how she looks. About how she’ll get through tomorrow. About her daughter. Everything is a burden to this miserable character, and Tejaswini Kolhapure, shrouded in fatigue, ekes out a performance through silences, small but telling gestures and sad, sad eyes. Once upon a time when trying on a red dress for a stranger, those eyes could manage a sporadic sparkle but by now they’ve glazed over. Apathy this absolute has to be this haunting — or so we may only imagine.
3. Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya
It’s all about the words with Begum Para, be they the words of besotted poets vying to win her beautiful hand, or the strategically-plucked words from handmaidens who know better. Dixit, as the imperious Begum with a mischievous smile, impressively enunciates her finely chosen words with appropriately italic lilts, but — even better — reacts with glorious grace to the words surrounding her, no matter what is said. This is an elegant, un-showy performance made up of precise, subtle tonal shifts, and it is a treat to watch Dixit dazzle like only she can.
2. Kangna Ranaut in Queen
In any other year, Ranaut would be champion.
Carrying off Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is no small feat, for the entire film rests definitively on the shoulders of one actress. Ranaut, playing the simple Delhi lass Rani Mehra, excellently — and seemingly effortlessly — captivates us from the start as she hungers for the right selfies and sangeet steps. She comes so close to the audience that we can almost hear her heart break, and we’re curiously perched on her shoulder as she decides to fly solo for her honeymoon.
And then someone tries to pinch her bag. This is the moment that Rani and Ranaut dig their heels in and hold on tight, throwing out hysterics in hyper-real fashion and making sure she’s won us all over, this gritty girl who refuses to fade. Ranaut, who has written her own dialogue in the film, fashions a character with undying spirit and verve — who also, as it happens, is most unlikely to be able to spell verve. Or even say it right.
The way she says “hawwwww,” the thrill she finds in a lassi drinking competition, the infectious twinkle in her widened eyes when telling a “non-veg” joke, her brilliant unselfconsciousness… Nobody enchanted us like Rani, and there’s never been a character like her. As said, in any other year… But sometimes a character we know — or think we know — can be even better.
1. Tabu in Haider
She’s all about family. Her husband, a noble doctor, constantly imperils their very existence, and we come across her teaching a classroomful of children to parrot the definition of a perfect home, in perfect unison. Ghazala Meer is Shakespeare’s Gertrude but armed with Indian-mother possessiveness, a woman who rushes onto a cricket field and points a gun at her own head to banish her boy, to keep him from mixing with militants.
Many years later, walking through a field, mother and son discuss that memory strung violently high. He accuses her of bluffing, and it is at this point that Tabu — so far luminous, emotional, inscrutable, all arrows we know well from the formidable quiver of her filmography — smiles a heartbreakingly wry smile, the smile of a mother who knows so much more. And, equally, of a woman who wistfully, earnestly, longingly wishes she didn’t know better.
As lover and as liar, Tabu is sensational in Haider. She screeches, she sobs, she succumbs — all with a miraculous consistency, elaborately crafting one of Hindi cinema’s most memorable characters. It is the kind of performance that reveals more magic with each viewing, one that embeds itself in audience memory and one that, standing as it is boldly left of centre, becomes the heart of the film. And throbs so damn strongly it changes the beats set by the Bard.
In other words, the mother of all performances.
First published Rediff, December 31, 2014