First Take | 2021 was the year of the actors, from Vicky Kaushal, Fahadh Faasil to Taapsee Pannu, Huma Qureshi

It is the year where Kartik Aaryan became the first A-lister to commendably break through a streaming platform.

Subhash K Jha December 18, 2021 12:55:51 IST
First Take | 2021 was the year of the actors, from Vicky Kaushal, Fahadh Faasil to Taapsee Pannu, Huma Qureshi

Vicky Kaushal in and as Sardar Udham

The year threw forward some  surprises as far as the actors were concerned. As Sushmita Sen told me, she  unlearned all the overt acting skills to just “be” in front of the camera for Aarya. Are our actors finally learning to  just be themselves? Looks like it.

Kartik Aaryan’s powerful performance in Ram Madhvani’s Dhamaka holds the film together. His journey from a self-serving scumbag to a conscientious newshound is convincingly achieved by the young actor. This is his best performance to date, and one that puts him ahead of all competition. I see Aaryan winning all the best-actor awards this year.

So far, the digital platform has not been very kind to the Bollywood A-listers. Akshay Kumar floundered with Laxmii, Varun and papa David Dhawan delivered the worst film of their career in Coolie No. 1. Salman Khan’s Radhe was arguably the worst film of the superstar’s career. As for Anil Kapoor’s AK Vs AK, the less said the better.

What is the 'it' factor that goes missing when Bollywood A-listers translocate their films from the big to the small screen? That lacuna in the genre is filled by Dhamaka. Director Ram Madhavani had earlier gripped us with the series Aarya, and that superb hijack drama Neerja. He knows how to keep us on tenterhooks.

First Take  2021 was the year of the actors from Vicky Kaushal Fahadh Faasil to Taapsee Pannu Huma Qureshi

Kartik Aaryan in Dhamaka

While Aaryan will be the first Bollywood A-lister to break the barrier between Bollywood and the OTT, there are several A-listers like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Kha, Hrithik Roshan, and Ranbir Kapoor who have so far stayed away from OTT platforms. It is time for Bollywood’s superstars to get down from their high horses, and adapt to  the new home medium of entertainment. Do not give us arrogant self-centred I-me-myself films like Sadak 2 and Khaali Peeli on OTT.

Jayasurya’s spectacular performance in Ranjith Sankar’s Sunny holds  this one-man show together. He is so inured in the character’s dark, desperate, suicidal world (at one point, Sunny actually puts a piece of broken glass to his wrist; at another point, he is about to jump off from the balcony of his fourth-floor hotel suite) that we become unconditionally invested in his desolation for a little more than  90 minutes. Not that Sunny is likeable or even remotely heroic. But his anguish is a throbbing entity, impossible to ignore.

I have seen other actors do a one-man show: Sunil Dutt in Yaadein, Rajkummar Rao in Trapped, Tom Hanks in Cast Away. None of these actors has been able to capture the essence of isolation as effectively as Jayasurya. He takes us into Sunny’s wretched  life — a broken marriage, a broken extra-marital affair, a lost job, debts owed to nasty people, a dead  child — not in a ritualistic relay race of imposed drama created to build a sense of sympathy  around the quarantined hero.

As for Jayasurya, is he a better actor than his Malayali peer Fahadh Faasil? When Sunny finally breaks down at the end (out of relief, not despair), I was sobbing with him. This is not a performance. This is an embodiment of  life’s  essential truth where the adage, ‘This Too Shall Pass,’ acquires an entirely novel relevance.

First Take  2021 was the year of the actors from Vicky Kaushal Fahadh Faasil to Taapsee Pannu Huma Qureshi

Fahadh Faasil in and as Joji

Then there was Pawan Malhotra in Tabbar. Set in the curiously vivacious bustle of Jalandhar, Malhotra plays the  upright patriarch Omkar, a petty entrepreneur with a wife and two sons. One  night, their lives go horribly wrong, and thus begins a distressing horrific downward spiral that can only go one way.

Malhotra’s character makes it to the grade of a gender-reversed Mother India. Malhotra and Supriya Pathak bring nuances to their stereotypical roles (strong obdurate father, frail devoted mother) that are hard to pinpoint.

In a role written to make her shine, Kriti Sanon in Mimi plays an ambitious Rajasthani dancer who wants to be a Bollywood star, and has Ranveer Singh’s poster in her room. She also has Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor Khan’s pictures on the wall just to remind herself that once she gets to Bollywood, those divas are done with. The  film has some interesting ideas on parenthood and the woman’s right to her womb. But the treatment gets progressively guillotined by excessive melodrama. However, Sanon's feisty performance holds interest till the end.

You cannot take your eyes off Mita Vashisht in Your Honor 2. Every time Jimmy Sheirgill and Vashisht are on screen together, you want to see just where their conversation is going. The words they speak seductively encircle their cat-and-mouse game in this energetic, engrossing, and altogether gripping tale of empowerment, privilege, and their misuse.

Vashisht’s sly-cop act furnishes a vinegary flavour  to her conversations with the judge in the dock. Vashisht plays the cop as a mixture of attentive and disdainful. I just could not take my eyes of her stolen, steely, scornful glances at the guilty-as-sin judge.

Vijay Sethupathi in Navarasa taught us the importance of silences. They say 'save the last for the best.' But in this  eclectic uneven omnibus of nine stories based on the nine basic human emotions, the best is the first story, Edhir, based on the emotion of pity (karuna). It features two powerhouse performances by Sethupathi and Revathy as the murderer and his victim’s wife respectively. Their confrontation is so beautifully mapped that the entire film seems to have been plotted by director Bejoy Nambiar just to bring these two fabulous actors together. But no. There is more here.

Edhir addresses itself to the question of the conscience and the power/ambiguity of forgiveness with such stupendous serenity, it is a joy to behold Nambiar's art.

Sethupathi is a force of nature. With one twitch of his eyebrow, he can convey an ocean of conflicting emotions.

Ditto Fahadh Faasil in Jijo. In film after film, Faasil proves himself a fearless, peerless, seamless actor who merges into his characters like water in a stream. And better still, flows down that stream where the human condition merges with the very bedrock of existence. And look at where Faasil has arrived in JojiMacbeth gets the treatment which I am sure would make William Shakespeare himself envious .

Joji is of course played by Faasil who brings to the character a kind of patriarchal bitterness that manifests itself in not-expected bursts of devastating violence. This is director Dileesh Pothan’s third directorial with Faasil (after  Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum), an  by far, the most reflective, moody, sinister, subtle, and sublime. Though Macbeth is an inherently violent tale of patricide and Oedipal guilt, Pothan’s film does away with the vileness of the protagonist’s deeds by introducing a kind of a dithering juvenilia into Jijo’s character. His chosen weapon of violence is an air gun, and his selected hideaway is a half-dug well.

Fahadh's Jijo is an unlikely villain, and hence, all the more devastating. He is also an unlikely Shakespearean hero who has, in all probability, never heard of Shakespeare.

Huma Qureshi’s transformation from Leila in Deepa Mehta’s Leila, searching for her lost daughter, to Rani, the politician’s wife who searches for her own identity in Maharani is admirable. Here, Qureshi creates a woman who is at once, street-wise and parliament-foolish but possesses the moral wherewithal to tell right from wrong. The way she stands up against her husband in  the dismissal of Prem Kumar, the minister in-charge of the fodder resources, would get taalis in the  movie theatre. If only wishes were horses, then Rabri Devi would be Margaret Thatcher.

The real Lalu Prasad Yadav was convicted in the Rs 950-crore scam. In this thrill-stamped, cleaned-out sweeping  drama, all the guilt is shifted to the Minister while Rani Bharati runs an expose that transforms her into a neo-Joan Of Arc, a woman who cares deeply for the truth. Alas, we cannot say the same for the makers of this series who have spun a fabulously fake drama, transforming a rubberstamp wife to a self-willed righteous crusader. The dishonesty does not make Maharani any less interesting. Qureshi makes sure she elevates her character into some kind of a feminist firebrand without rendering Rani unbelievably noble. The woman in Rani Bharati  surfaces in her scenes with her convalescing husband.

In Shershaah, Sidharth Malhotra plays real-life soldier Vikram Batra with a sincerity and honesty that shine through in every frame. In every frame, he is Rajesh Khanna in Anand and Aradhana. You know he is going to be missed sorely once he is gone. Malhotra plays Batra as unforgettable. Boyish, helpful, sincere, and  endearing. There is not a duplicitous bone in this soldier and lover-boy. The film allows the protagonist to fly freely.

Aahana Kumra, the fearless feisty firefighter of an actress, does not mind looking ridiculous if the need arises. In Call My Agent: Bollywood, Kumra plays Amaal, a "kamaal ki lesbian" with temper problems who more than  meets her match in Jasleen (Anuschka Sawhney), a tax assessor who has the hots for Amaal. Their romance plays  out like  a rippling riff in a buxom musical refrain that is warm, intimate, relatable, and sometimes, sad.

 Taapsee Pannu in Haseen Dillruba  delivers yet another titillating performance, rendering Rani a slut hard to slot. It is interesting to see how an avant-garde writer like Kanika Dhillon is pushing the Hindi Film Heroine over the edge. She can now crave for things like non-vegetarian food and satisfactory sex without being slut-shamed. It is okay t,obe a 'slut' now.

After Sardar Udham, Vicky Kaushal can tell his children he got married to their mother during the same year   that he gave the best performance of his career. Kaushal’s Udham Singh is a performance laced with grace, tinged with bitterness, and defined by a dormant rage. When Kaushal says something as innocently pacifying  as “Mere bahot saare British friends hain,” he sounds as fringe-friendly as those fake liberals who say, “I’ve nothing against the gay community. In fact, some of my best friends are gay.”

Finally, there is the Tamil star Arya in Sarpatta Parambarai. In the author-backed role of Kabilan, Arya is a  revelation. I have seen his earlier works. Nothing he has done in the past can ever equal the power and glory, the  self-destructive streak and the redemptive strength, that pull his character out of his self-made abyss into a tentative light at the end, when in the final fight in the ring, he defeats his main adversary. Wife and mother, who hate his boxing ambitions, are there to cheer him on. The power of cinema is to sway and derail negative emotions.One of the many unadulterated pleasures of watching Sarpatta Parambarai is to see Kabilan’s  absolutely endearing relationship with his wife. If the husband-wife relationship rings true, the guru-shishya  tradition is here taken into a zone of  insulated  adoration where the protégé hero-worships his guru blindly. Arya  manifests all the roles and emotions of his character with majestic authenticity and an empowering rawness. He is  childlike in his stubbornness, and a true hero in his selfless quest for victory in the boxing ring.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.

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