Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992 — The best performers of 2020

From Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992, Tripti Dimri in Bulbbul to Fahadh Faasil in Trance, Taapsee Pannu and Pavail Gulati in Thappad, here's a list of top 10 performers of 2020.

Pratishruti Ganguly December 21, 2020 08:09:17 IST
Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992 — The best performers of 2020

2020 has evidently been a difficult year. The global pandemic led to a tectonic shift in life as we know it. Those privileged like us, with all amenities at our disposal, were locked inside the comfort of our homes. With theatres and cafes shuttered, and public gatherings prohibited, we were forced to seek out entertainment escapism on our smartphones. And boy, did we watch (and discover) a lot of content.

As we stand at the wee end looking back at the year that was, we scourge the depths of movie calendars and streaming sites to bring some of the best performances of 2020.

Roshan Matthew in CU Soon

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

(left to right) Darshana Rajendram, Roshan Matthew and Fahadh Faasil in CU Soon

CU Soon, shot during the coronavirus -induced lockdown, is the aptest representation of how our lives contracted and folded itself into our smartphones and laptop screens. Produced by Fahadh Faasil’s production company, CU Soon uncovers the heinousness of sex trade through a seemingly innocuous plot of virtual dating. Almost the entire film plays out on text messages and video calls from inside homes and office buildings, which means the actors were not at the liberty of dialing up their charm in a song and dance sequence. Roshan Matthew plays Jimmy Kurian, a besotted lover who proposes to a woman a week after they meet on a dating site. Evidently, his happily-ever-after does not pan out as he had hoped, and Kurian spirals down as secrets come tumbling out of the closet. The camera remains steadfastly focused on Matthew's face; and the actor emotes with every muscle on his face — whether it be the goofiness of a hopeless romantic, the anxiousness of not being able to locate his girlfriend, the confusion over her identity, the fear of getting arrested in a foreign country or the disgust after certain revelations. The riveting narrative and the experimental format aside, it is Roshan Matthew’s utterly believable performance as a somewhat naïve, closet misogynist, yet vulnerable millennial that makes CU Soon thoroughly engaging.

CU Soon is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok

Paatal Lok is arguably one of the best series to have come out in 2020 — not only because it did not shy away from exposing the grim realities the privileged would best keep stonewalled — but also because the makers refused to assume an entitled stance and promise a hypothetic resolution. Amid the deafening cacophony of greed, corruption, and self-aggrandisation, Jaideep Ahlawat’s Hathiram Chaudhary emerged as the moral centre, questioning and getting sucked into the ebb and flow of systemic corruption in equal measure. Hathiram is the quintessential “common man” Naseeruddin Shah epitomised in Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, and he quickly realises that his police uniform is more of an Achilles’ heel than kryptonite. Ahlawat imbued Hathiram with fallibility and compassion, integrity and irritability — and out came a character that was so holistic it was difficult to imagine that he was just a description on paper once.

Paatal Lok is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Arshad Warsi in Asur

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Arshad Warsi in a still from Asur

Critics have long argued that Arshad Warsi has much more to offer beyond his Circuit (Munna Bhai franchise) and Madhav (Golmaal series) stints — sparks of which were seen in Ishqiya and Jolly LLB — but came front and centre in Asur. Also starring Barun Sobti and Ridhi Dogra, Asur revolves around a serial killer with a penchant for religious fanaticism. The part could've easily rolled over to the hero territory. Warsi's Dhananjay Rajput had the smarts, the screen time, and the dialogues usually mouthed by our garden variety heroes. He is intriguing — not much is shared about his life before this case. Above all, he operates on the side of the law, the side usually confused with the right side, or alternatively, the side audience sympathies are intended to lie with. However, neither the story, which is more layered than your gourmet tiramisu, neither the character, ever tread the morality line. Warsi's performance is a masterclass on how to artfully underplay a character, sustaining both the intrigue and not taking over the show with his starry aura. He sheds every ounce of filminess to become one with the cobwebbed, half-lit CBI offices and dingy bylanes of Varanasi.

Asur is available to stream on Voot Select

Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

A still from Scam 1992, featuring Pratik Gandhi. SonyLIV screenshot.

Scam 1992: A Harshad Mehta Story, ever since its release, has been showered with words of adulation, and rightfully so. Hansal Mehta deftly turned the dry as a bone subject of the share market into a nail-biting biographical thriller series. For those who've lived under the rock to not have been familiar with Harshad Mehta's array of handiwork (this writer included), Scam 1992 gives an intimate portrayal of the man he was behind his several titles — ‘Big Bull’, ‘Einstein’, ‘cobra killer’ ‘cheetah’ and Amitabh Bachchan of Dalal Street. Pratik Gandhi played the larger-than-life Mehta with acute attention to his mannerisms, from the stockbroker's gait and speech, to how he flaunted his signature sideways smirk after outwitting the best in business. Gandhi’s ease in front of the camera and his knowledge about the craft of acting fit effortlessly with Mehta’s natural charm, keeping the viewers hooked to their devices through the show’s whopping 10-episode run. Further, what may also have worked in Gandhi’s favour was his audience’s relative unfamiliarity with his body of work in Gujarati theatre and cinema, enabling absolute suspension of disbelief.

Scam 1992: A Harshad Mehta Story is streaming on SonyLIV

Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati in Thappad

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Taapsee Pannu and Pavail Gulati in Thappad

Anubhav Sinha's new lease of films — his ostensible second innings — have all delved into issues frequently sidelined in mainstream cinema for fear of not being palatable enough. While both Mulk and Article 15 dealt with conspicuous antagonists —Islamophobia and casteism — Thappad's villain was more insidious. Subtle yet bold, Sinha was the first filmmaker to bolster a worthy conversation on microaggression. But beyond Sinha's featherlight direction and sensitivity in depicting domestic violence, what elevated Thappad was its performances. Pavail Gulati slipped into the role of an "otherwise loving husband" with ease and aplomb. His comebacks and reactions felt so authentic and organic it shook up our perception of normalcy in a household. His undramatic portrayal of the husband, whether it be expecting his wife to make his tea, or directing his anger about his office colleague at his wife, made him disturbingly real. Similarly, Taapsee Pannu channeled exceptional restraint as a wife living the humdrum life. Even when the character was at her most vulnerable, Taapsee's performance never crossed over to schmaltz or pity bait. Along with Warsi, Pannu and Gulati have taught cinephiles the ropes of not acting acting.

Thappad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Tripti Dimri, Paoli Dam in Bulbbul

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Tripti Dimri as the titular character in Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul

Much has been said and written about Anvita Dutt's allegorical horror series Bulbbul, and how it subverted the narrative of violence. Tripti Dimri, who essayed the titular role, had a formidable task — to make her character mysterious and vulnerable at the same time. Bulbbul is both fierce and naïve; she has agency, but her “well-wishers” frequently rob her off of it in the garb of caregiving. She is a woman of few words — she has learnt that her opinions, much like her prose and her spiritual existence, do not matter to others. It’s her corporeality men are after. Dimri, who had shouldered an equally difficult role in Laila Majnu, cakewalks through Bulbbul like it’s her second nature. Rather than letting verbosity define Bulbbul, Dimri allows her side glances, her cackles, her smirks and her silences speak for her. The role played by Paoli Dam, Binodini, is even trickier, as Binodini’s plight is always insinuated, never spelt out. She is the elder daughter-in-law, but as a widow, she’s has had to let go of the position of the woman of the house. She continually seeks validation from the men in the family, and not surprisingly, is routinely cast away in favour of the “younger and prettier” woman. She occupies the lowest rung in a power structure, as a woman and a widow. Hence, she channelises her frustration by undermining Bulbbul. Dam treads the tightrope like the seasoned actor she is, humanising Binodini's even most malicious acts. It is to Dam's credit that Binodini evokes as much empathy as Bulbbul.

Bulbbul is streaming on Netflix

Josh O'Connor in The Crown season 4

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Josh O'Connor in a still from The Crown season 4

As global sweetheart Olivia Colman took on the reigns of portraying the British monarch from Claire Foy, the world awaited the outcome with bated breath. Fresh out of her Oscar stint as Queen Mary in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite, Colman was unsurprisingly a treat to watch as a reserved, metered Queen Elizabeth II. But, away from the hubbub around Colman or even Tobias Menzies (who plays the prickly Prince Philip), shone a young, undiscovered talent. Josh O'Connor stepped into the shoes of an awkwardly bent, hesitant Prince Charles. O' Connor embodied the British scion with seamless perfection — the neatly tucked palms in his sweaters' front pockets, the slight head bob, and the signature unsure smile were merely a stepping stone to O'Connor's brilliance at physical acting. The actor accurately caught the beat of the insecurities, pain, and trauma of a man caught in between the life he yearns to have, and the one saddled with. O'Connor played Prince Charles with a layered maturity — he was a spoilt brat who grew up to be a flawed man riddled with a burdened childhood. From the tricky royal accent to Charles' idiosyncrasies, O'Connor successfully cast off every iota of himself to transform into the Prince-in-waiting. As audiences revelled in the physical similarity between the real and reel characters, critics raved about O'Connor's elegant acting.

The Crown season 4 is streaming on Netflix

Poorna Jagannathan in Never Have I Ever

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Poorna Jagannathan in Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age dramedy series about a first-generation Indian American teenager earned brownie points for its sharp as butcher knife humour. But upon release, the show, intended to spotlight the diasporic Indian experience, evoked polarising responses. Many argued that it ended up pandering to stereotypes more than effectively dismantling them. Devi's widowed mother Nalini (played by Poorna Jagannathan) is one character who’s undeniably steeped in lazy stereotypes — she’s a strict disciplinarian obsessed about her daughter enrolling into an Ivy League college. However, Nalini is not just a caricature planted into the narrative to lay focus on Devi's hardships. Nalini is an immigrant just about straddling two cultures, while raising a mercurial teenager daughter. She is consumed by an overwhelming sense of isolation, having lost her husband recently. Unable to navigate the growing distance with her daughter, Nalini resorts to an abrasive parenting approach, monitoring and controlling every aspect of Devi’s life. Like Devi, Nalini is also desperate to belong. Jagannathan submits herself to Nalini's character, perpetually on the cusp of breaking down, but holding herself together by a bare thread for the sake of her daughter. While Maitreyi Ramakrishnan's Devi may have had sizeably more screen time and dynamism, it was Jagannathan who ensured that even in her most unlikeable moments, Nalini’s reactions did not feel unreasonable.

Never Have I Ever is streaming on Netflix

Fahadh Faasil in Trance

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Fahadh Faasil in Trance

Trance, directed by Anwar Rasheed, is practically a one-man show. Through his protagonist, essayed by Fahadh Faasil, Rasheed offers an exposé into the business of blind faith. Despite its promising design, complete with a meticulously constructed backstory of the protagonist’s circumstances, Trance never really stretches out to reach its dramatic crescendo, and the complexity of the narrative gets increasingly watered down by simplistic resolutions. Notwithstanding the film’s inconsistency, Faasil’s performance remained unwaveringly faithful to his character. As the fake godman/guru Pastor Joshua Carlton, Faasil struck lagom balance between an infectious frenzy and a measured intrigue. His extravagant theatricality sits comfortably with the character of a master illusionist selling religion as a drug.

Trance is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You

Taapsee Pannu in Thappad to Roshan Matthew in CU Soon and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992  The best performers of 2020

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You

If 2019 was the year of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s heartbreakingly sardonic Fleabag, 2020 belonged to the trailblazing I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s blisteringly funny and passionately fiery drama series woven around the concept of sexual consent. Created, written, co-directed, and starring Coel, I May Destroy You presents the fictionalised account of her sexual assault. She plays Arabella, a Twitter famous writer struggling to finish her second book. One night, during a particularly unsuccessful writing episode, Arabella ventures out for spirits for her spirit. Her drink is spiked, and the next morning, her mind can hardly recollect anything except the image of a man forcing himself on her inside a toilet. Coel’s story is searing and thought-provoking, but I May Destroy You takes as much care to uphold friendships, autonomy, and mostly, self-acceptance. As the creator, Coel ensures Arabella’s journey is as immersive and it is cathartic. Coel infuses Arabella with the millennial nonchalance and the default propensity for escapism — she is casually dismissive of her million problems — and her virtual persona often trickles over to her real life. But in the moments she lets her taut, perennially chirpy façade slide off, her sore, festering wounds get exposed. Her serrated humour at the most unexpected junctures rends you apart, but it also quietly heals. It’s nearly impossible to differentiate her performance as an actor from her accomplishments as the writer-director in I May Destroy You; perhaps because her person from her fictional character often meld to become one.  All art, after all, have in them a few pieces of the artist.

I May Destroy You is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium

(All images from Twitter)

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