A great performance is marked by that invisible thread of connection with the audience that almost transfers the qualities from the screen to us. Slowly yet persuasively, we become those characters for a while. 2022 marked an array of superb performances from Indian cinema that made us sit up and take notice. Here are our best performances of the year, listed in no particular order.
Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi: Alia is present in almost every frame in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s grandiose tribute to the life of a sex worker who bows to rise up against all odds. From Ganga to Gangu and then to Gangubai, the actor turns in an emotionally intuitive performance amidst the frantic restlessness of the narrative. There’s a certain fragility in her ownership of power, the manner is which she is able to unlock the loneliness and hurt that has piled up over the course of her story. The standout moment – where she dances with a streak of reckless abandon in the song Dholida, still gives goosebumps.
Fahadh Faasil in Malayankunju: Is there anything Fahad cannot do on screen? In Sajimon’s survival drama Malayankunju, the National Award-winning actor is given the Herculean task of taking the entire narrative ahead single-handedly, even while he is trapped in a landslide. His character Anilkuttan is easily dislikeable, given his casteism that gets him into frequent trouble. Yet trust Fahad to turn in a daring, physical performance that is able to unlock a rare depth of emotional transparency in those excellently executed scenes inside the landslide. It’s a rebirth of a character aided by an actor who is fearless to take on the challenge. In Malayankunju, he gives a performance that is raw, turbulent and wholly unforgettable.
Rajkummar Rao in Badhaai Do: Rajkummar’s performance as a gay police officer Shardul in Harshavardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do is some of the most compelling and effective work of his whole career so far. This is a performance which could have easily gone heavy-handed, but Rajkummar moulds the hurt and resilience so disarmingly that you cannot help but root for him. The scene when he comes out to his mother (a terrific Sheeba Chadha) is further testament to Rajkummar’s undeniable force as an actor.
Shefali Shah in Darlings: Shefali has had a tremendous year, with the web series Human, Delhi Crime 2, the digital films Jalsa and Darlings all underlining what a tremendous actor she has always been. Still, as Shamshunissa “Shamshu” Ansari in the Netflix dark comedy Darlings, Shefali shines the brightest. She doesn’t let us into her inner world that easily, but once the guard falls off in the later half of the film, Shefali lets her eyes do all the talking. Darlings is further proof that no matter the length of the role, Shefali Shah never fails to astonish. It’s a full-circle performance, so much of Shamshu is revealed yet so much is left to explore.
Soumitra Chatterjee in Abhijaan: Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s tribute to Soumitra in Abhijaan finds the actor at his thoughtful best, saddled with the tremendous task of opening up in front of the camera. Soumitra’s posthumous presence increases the metaness of this performance alone, but the generational actor is quietly affecting as he gently guides us through a life lived by, in all its subtle pauses and thrills. It is an evocative, swan song of a performance that is radical in its own intellectual awareness as an evolving artist.
Nithya Menen in Thiruchitrambalam: Nithya is all kinds of wonderful in Mithran J Jawahar’s Thiruchitrambalam, and stands as a firm reminder that an actor doesn’t have to do a lot to register themselves amidst a cast that boasts names like Dhanush, Revathy and Prakash Raj. As the effervescent Shobana, Nithya is the indelible heart of this little film. The actor never relies in overcompensating for her scenes, but effortlessly conveys a world of conflict and resilience through her body language and eyes alone.
Sai Pallavi in Gargi: In Gargi, Sai Pallavi plays the titular protagonist who has to come to terms with the horrifying truth that her father has been arrested for sexually abusing a nine-year-old. In this provocative, tense whodunit cum courtroom drama directed by Gautham Ramachandran, she has to trace her own journey to confront assumptions and preconceived notions along the way. Rarely has a performance felt so revelatory on screen that you immediately connect to the subtle pauses of transformation that Gargi endures. Sai Pallavi gives a shattering, career-best performance and cements her position as one of the most powerful actors of her generation.
Darshana Rajendran in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya He: The less you expect from Darshana Rajendran’s Jaya in Vipin Das’s Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya He, the better. When she marries Rajesh (Basil Joseph, who made the superhero film Minnal Murali) she doesn’t anticipate the domestic abuse. Yet, the saturation point hits and Jaya decides to take matters in her own hands and fight back. Darshana balances the dramatic shift of tone tremendously – utilizing each glance and movement with aplomb. Even as the film takes a lighter route in tracing a dark subject like abuse, Darshana remains controlled and nuanced, carrying the film on her able shoulders. It is a daring, firecracker of a performance, one that makes you root for her throughout.
Special mentions: Mammootty in Puzhu, Revathy in Bhoothakaalam, Radhika Apte in Monica! O My Darling, Ujaan Ganguly in Lokkhi Chele, Rishabh Shetty in Kantara