It is that time of year again, when lists are made and arbitrary rankings are passionately made and argued about.
Actresses out-performed the actors in Hindi cinema this year, and keeping this list down to ten names was hard. The following names include a debutant and a veteran, obvious inclusions and unlikely suspects, and one young lady who rocked the list twice. They all created characters worthy of admiration, those that won our respect and those we’d applaud any given Friday.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the class of 2016:
10. Taapsee Pannu (Pink)
In Pink, Pannu’s character is a feisty girl with her spirit decapitated by a nightmarish situation. She flares up from time to time but — despite not being in the wrong at all, something we realise with the photographs of the attack on her — breaks down and is desperately, believably and heartbreakingly apologetic in court. A restrained, real performance.
9. Vidya Balan (Kahaani 2)
Balan, an actress who eschews vanity and dives headlong into character, has a lot to do in this film as a woman with a murky past and a precarious present. She is, as always, immensely credible — both when unsure of herself and when recklessly raring to go — and shares her breathlessness with the audience.
8. Ratna Pathak Shah (Kapoor And Sons)
This family drama relies on an ensemble of fathers and sons and grandfathers, but holding everything in place is the haranguing mother, played to perfection by Shah. Forever on the end of her tether, the only woman in the family is exhausted, exasperated and driven past breaking point by secrets all around her. Shah, always terrific, brings fragility to the film.
7. Zaira Wasim (Dangal)
Zaira Wasim made her debut as the young Geeta Phogat, and while it feels unfair to single out one of the daughters even as both were given a gruelling workout, Wasim sparkled in the wrestling film as the elder daughter, warring a dictatorial father, looking out for her younger sister and being the first one to blaze the gender-defying trail by slamming cocky young boys in langots who never knew what hit ‘em. The grown-up Geeta is played very well by Fatima Sana Shaikh, but it is the younger Geeta who shoulders the first half of the film. We must all buy this girl golgappas.
6. Kirti Kulhari (Pink)
Kulhari’s character in Pink seems to be the relatable, level-headed one. A girl who knows what trouble is and wants to stay out of it, thank you very much. She plays this tightly coiled character quietly till she is pushed past reason, after which she bursts into justifiable hysteria. After much courtroom conjecture on whether the molested girls actually were soliciting the men, Kulhari declares that they were indeed doing so, and questions how that is important. She shockingly and immediately makes that misogynistic line of legalese irrelevant, giving the film a lot more depth and cutting closer to the bone.
5. Alia Bhatt (Dear Zindagi)
Bhatt plays a surly, spoilt sourpuss of a character in Dear Zindagi. Until, that is, she opens up and makes us aware of the many conflicts and insecurities inside her. It is a seemingly simple but genuinely impressive performance, one that is never obvious and a character that unravels instinctively as the actress lets us in. Bhatt makes her character, and her problems, feel real.
4. Anushka Sharma (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
Playing the most complicated character on this list, Sharma does fantastically to make her Alizeh — cursed with too much clarity except when in love — come alive. Both spritely and sad, Alizeh lives on impulse but is rock-solid when drawing a line. A stubborn girl, she may not know exactly what she wants, but decidedly knows what she doesn’t. She has patience, compassion and the ability to say no, and Sharma is smashing in the part.
3. Sakshi Tanwar (Dangal)
Dangal is so much a father-daughter film that the mother — with her lack of say in the matter — may be sidelined, but so credible and vulnerable is Tanwar, pitching her mostly silent character between the lines, that it’s hard not to be bowled over. Hers is a character mired in helplessness, dealing with pigheaded spouse and offspring, trying hard to strike an agreeable balance while armed with merely a sigh, and eyes that truly do speak volumes. Except when chicken is brought home. She’s having none of that.
2. Alia Bhatt (Udta Punjab)
The preternaturally talented Bhatt is pushed into a nearly thankless role in Udta Punjab, a film where she plays a horribly abused victim, a girl with no name who has drugs and drunkards forced into her. It is a put-upon part that gathers momentum as it goes along, culminating in an avalanche of an outburst that ends up the film’s highest point. With one fiery speech, Bhatt tells us of her hopes and her misery and her dreams of escape, before attacking a pack of bastards with a hockey stick she clearly knows how to wield. Unforgettable.
1. Sonam Kapoor (Neerja)
In the role of her career so far, Sonam Kapoor turned into Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot. It is an emotionally challenging and delicately balanced performance that leaves us with enduring memories of a real girl we never knew.
Kapoor is spot-on as the purser and the affectionate daughter, but it is aboard the hijacked aircraft — where push does indeed come to shove in the most brutal of ways — that we see what her Neerja is capable of. The girl is both scared and determined, full of alarm and conviction in equal measure. In a standout scene, she silently and wistfully sits by herself and eats a cookie. Before all hell breaks loose.
It’s heartbreaking to see one so young and likeable forced to dig deep in this superhuman way, and Kapoor vividly captures the real Neerja’s fiercely brave mindset. By the end of this claustrophobically photographed film that left the actors with no escape, Kapoor’s Neerja made me wish I knew wrong and that the film would somehow end differently from fact. What a performance.
First published Rediff, December 28, 2016