Best Actresses of 2011: The Year of the Bad Girl
If this were the 80s, many of the women in this list would have been slapped into submission. Fortunately,the ‘bad girls’ lit up the silver screen this year, and we look at some of the top actresses from 2011.
By Vikram Phukan
Earlier this year, our mid-year picks brought out the indie soul of Bollywood, before a litany of blockbusters took over the box-office in quick succession. Female actors often have precious little to do in many of these '100-crore' bonanzas. However, this year has certainly reaped a rich harvest of great turns by women, several of which have been in films that have done reasonably well commercially. A common theme that has emerged is how the 'bad girl' seems to have been catapulted to centrestage, indicating that audiences are perhaps increasingly able to view women outside the mould of tailor-made propriety.
Vidya Balan's performance as the actress Silk, in The Dirty Picture, is sometimes seen as a function of the excess kilos she 'bravely' put on for the role, or of her being able to pull off the bawdy act convincingly. In a pivotal scene in the movie, when a heavily-sedated (and over the hill) Silk stumbles out of the sets of a soft-porn film—the shooting of which has just been busted—into a once-familiar neighbourhood where the chaste echoes of the girl she once was can still be found, Balan does more than just display a lack of vanity in ill-fitting 'sexy' attire. She manages to get as unnervingly close as possible to the emotional truth of her character, demonstrating, in devastating close-up, the laceration of a woman's psyche, and the embittered morale of an actress being pushed into oblivion, even as she continues to hold on for just about as long as she can. While it is uncertain how much of real-life starlet Silk Smitha's life has been plundered here for the purposes of cinematic license (The Dirty Picture is essentially an exploitation flick in the guise of a B-movie), Balan creates her Silk in the mould of a free spirit and a game-changer, who seems strangely untouched by the sleaze around her, almost like a diamond in the raw. It's a piece de resistance turn that nicely complements her less showy but superbly crafted part in No One Killed Jessica. Balan is undeniably the actress of the year.
Although Tigmanshu Dhulia's Saheb Biwi aur Gangster is not really a remake of the Abrar Alvi classic (sharing only some narrative themes with it), its leading actress Mahie Gill acquits herself well enough to emerge from the shadow of Meena Kumari' gut-wrenching portrayal of the sex-starved wife of a feudal lord who takes to alcohol with a vengeance. Gill's pill-popping Chhoti Bahu is also as emotionally ravaged, and driven to bouts of attention-seeking hysteria, but she is also cannily observant of her own situation and possessing of the enterprise with which she can subvert her lot, either by engaging in a passionate tryst with her driver in response to her man's infidelities, or by wresting control of her husband’s fiefdom in a delicious climatic twist. Gill extends her range to edgier territory, while still holding on to a kind of rawness that makes her a shoo-in for parts that don't fall within the realm of candy-floss cinema.
In her films, Kalki Koechlin usually lugs around the persona of someone so utterly self-possessed that it is difficult to imagine that there could be an emotionally fragile side to her. In That Girl in Yellow Boots — as Ruth, a British girl in search of her Indian father—she may still be one hard cookie, but she allows us to look, beyond that impassiveness, at what's simmering just under the surface. In the process, she gives a maudlin tale (a script she has co-written with Anurag Kashyap) a shot of vitality. Her shaky hold over the local tongue adds to Ruth's earthy child-like bearing (her portions in English seem surprisingly hokey in comparison), and Koechlin delivers a performance of splintered elegance, even with the film being set in a seedy massage parlour in Mumbai. Given the film's inconsistent emotional tenor, she still manages to steer Ruth towards a heart-rending denouement—in what is a fully-realised performance more so than her work in Shaitan, where she is more of an art installation—a metaphor for the times—than a real person.
This year some of our more seasoned actors have played women grappling with bereavement. In Memories in March, Deepti Naval is wonderfully stoic as she deals with the untimely death of her son in a car accident, creating a stillness in her performance that allows each poignant moment to breathe. It's only when she discovers that her son was gay, that the potent mix—of emotions and conflict and moral indignance—pierces into the silence as Naval negotiates the transitions with lilting compassion in a film that is ultimately more a bitter-sweet tale of warmth and acceptance than a paean to suffering.
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For Juhi Chawla in I Am Megha, it is more than just a physical or material loss, it is the loss of identity. She plays a Kashmiri Pandit who returns to Kashmir for a visit, still haunted by memories of the time when her family had to leave the valley in the wake of what seemed to be anti-Pandit pogroms. Chawla eschews her trademark chirpiness and employs a softer palette to give us a stirring portrait of Megha's melancholic self. Manisha Koirala plays her childhood friend and simmers with a warmth and luminosity that makes her underwritten part of a Kashmiri woman come alive. It's a Manisha who is very much redolent of the cinema of her prime like Dil Se or Khamoshi—those expressive eyes still speak volumes, yet now they contain so many more untold stories.
The revelation of the year is Katrina Kaif in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Long dismissed as an acting lightweight, under director Zoya Akhtar, Kaif blossoms into a incandescent woman with a full-blooded personality. As Laila, an adventure-seeker with the soul of a wanderer, Kaif wears her wisdom lightly and unselfconsciously, amidst all the preening men about her. As she rides back several miles in a bike to deliver what could be a final kiss to her beloved (played by Hrithik Roshan), Kaif gets it all accurately on her flushed countenance, embodying the film's philosophy in one fleeting moment that's almost worth the price of admission.
We have seen Rani Mukerji spew expletives earlier in films like Bichhoo, and indeed she has been a firebrand in several of her roles, but as the hard-nosed journalist Meera Gaety in No One Killed Jessica, Mukerji is exquisitely heroic despite the Max Factor eyes and the neatly appointed outfits. It's a flamboyantly brash part, but in a film that's more pop-thriller than human document, it fits in nicely.
In a supporting turn as a deaf girl in Soundtrack, Soha Ali Khan keeps her tics in control and gives us a charming young woman, who despite her lack of hearing (or maybe because of it), is someone whose optimism and zest for life (and lip-reading) is infectious. Poorna Jagannathan in Delhi Belly brings more to her part than just articulateness or confidence, but also an earthily attractive integrity of character (although a diamond heist is still fair game). Puja Sarup in That Girl in Yellow Boots and Parineeti Chopra in Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl take their similar parts of women with a gift of the gab, to opposite ends, with Sarup deliciously sending up a massage parlour madam to light up the dreariness of a subaltern existence, and Chopra (aided by Habib Faisal's dialogues) chalking up an amusing caricature as the spoilt daughter of one of Delhi’s nouveau riche businessmen. With her winning persona, Nusrat Bharucha stops her unsympathetic turn of a passive-aggressive girlfriend in Pyaar Ka Punchnama from veering into vixen-from-hell territory, delivering instead a nuanced portrayal that is disarmingly identifiable. Finally, Saba Azad is self-depreciatingly vivacious in Mujhse Fraandship Karoge giving us a leading lady with a difference (and erasing memories of her self-conscious debut in Dil Kabaddi Etc).
If this were the 80s, many of the women in this list would have been slapped into submission and asked to toe the line. Fortunately, bonafide ‘bad girls’ such as these—whose bodies are their own, who speak their own minds and who seem to be in control of their romantic and sexual entanglements—lit up the silver screen this year, and revealed the progressive side of even a parochial movie industry such as ours. For every fleshed-out role there are possibly umpteen decorative parts but hopefully those will be consigned to history, while these ones will endure.
The selections in this article have been made by all three contributors to Film Impressions—Deepa Gahlot, Deepa Deosthalee and Vikram Phukan.
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