Rewind 2019: The exceptional performances by female artistes in Bollywood

Bhumi Pednekar to Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranaut to Kareena Kapoor, 2019 was a year where marquee artistes excelled in inspiring roles

By Mayur Lookhar

Long held as a man’s bastion, Bollywood has largely used it female artistes as objects of love, devotion. Indian actresses, however, are slowly and steadily finding their voice in Bollywood. Perhaps, the rise of female directors such as Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Nandita Das, Leena Yadav has helped the feminist cause.  Their films many not necessarily be feminist but the women in their films have defining roles.  The box office is perhaps a man’s headache, female artistes simply yearn for that pivotal role.

It’s always a challenge to find them, but we were fortunate enough have quite a few meaningful roles by women this year. Let’s revisit the fine performances by female artistes in 2019.

10 Zoya Hussain – Laal Kaptaan

Vineet Kumar Singh hogging all the limelight in Mukkabaaz [2018] perhaps overshadowed the brilliant efforts of young Zoya Hussain. She was terrific as the mute Sunaina. Sadly, most audiences turned a blind eye to Sunaina.

Hussain had no handicap in Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan.  A Dalit and a widow. That’s Hussain’s identity in Laal Kaptaan.   Abandoned by society, the widow serves as a slave to the Rohilla thug – Rehmat Khan [Manav Vij]. The widow though is no meek, sullen woman.  She uses her sharp mind to drive her ambition. And she has a wry sense of humour too.

Hussain overpowered her more accomplished actors to give a fine performance.  Of all the actors in the film, Hussain was the one who aced the accent.  Her biggest asset is her expressive eyes, which say more than her voice. Hussain was like a breath of fresh air in this exhaustive, dull drama. 

9 Kareena Kapoor – Good Newwz

Save for Jab We Met [2007] or Qurbaan [2009], Kareena Kapoor has largely featured in the male-dominated stereotypical dramas.   Post her motherhood, Kapoor found a sensible role in Shashanka Ghosh’s feminist drama Veere Di Wedding [2018]. It’s common for a mother to be written off, but Kapoor shut her critics with a confident show in Raj Mehta’s Good Newwz.

She was the first to be cast in Good Newwz. Being a mother herself, Kapoor’s experienced the anxiety, stress, mood swings that a woman goes through during pregnancy. No wonder that she just eased into her role of Deepti Batra. There’s a glow, a spark on her face that instantly attracts you to Kareena. Well, motherhood makes a woman more beautiful. And she also’s instrumental in creating the film’s intended [sex education, pregnancy] conversations. Clearly, there’s more to come from the Begum of Pataudi.

8 Yami Gautam – Bala

Having impressed in her first Hindi film, Vicky Donor [2012], Yami Gautam had since flattered to deceive. With Bala [2019], she reunited with Ayushmann Khurrana after seven long years, and reaped the same success.

Once a face of a popular fairness cream brand, Yami Gautam played a brand model in a film that openly mocks at cosmetic companies for attaching beauty to a certain colour.

The vanity queen’s world revolves around looking beautiful in ads, mobile video applications and the countless ‘likes’ to each still or video. And Pari’s [Gautam] unapologetic about it.   “For a man [Bala] who is embarrassed to see himself in the mirror, how can I spend my whole life with him?,” Pari puts forth a pertinent question.  Unlike Ujda Chaman [2019] that stereotyped pretty women as insensitive opportunists, Bala respects individuality and personal choice.  Sometimes over acting becomes a requisite for a character.  A vanity person fits the bill here perfectly and Yami Gautam simply nailed it.

7 Priyanka Chopra – The Sky is Pink

 Salman Khan, and some  trade analysts, would be silently mocking Priyanka Chopra for opting out of Bharat [2019] in favour of The Sky is Pink. Well, the latter may not have big box office collection, but The Sky is Pink is a million times richer than Khan’s Bharat.

Director Shonali Bose’s heart wrenching story is based on the life of the late motivational speaker Aisha Chaudhary and her family .  At 37, Chopra had no qualms playing mother to the 19-year-old Zaira Wasim.  

The Sky is Pink was not just a role, but a chance for Chopra and the other actors to pay homage to Aisha, express solidarity with her brother Ishaan and parents Niren and Aditi Chaudary.  Adversities bring out the best in a person, and Chopra helps Aditi emerge as a strong character.  The events in Aisha’s [Wasim] short life challenged the family, It leads to frustrating conversation between Niren and Aditi.  Chopra is very convincing in displaying the array of emotions that Aditi goes through.   Aditi experiences anxiety attacks, and Chopra is exemplary in these tense sequences. We see a shade [hairdo] of Bose in Chopra too.   It’s hard not to cry while watching Chopra sob in the end.  An underrated film, and a very underrated performance by Chopra.

6 Geetika Vidya Ohlyan – Soni

Most Indian content on digital space is poor.   There were a few exceptions this year. Chief among them was US based filmmaker Ivan Ayr’s highly intense, gripping slow-burn crime drama Soni that was released on Netflix.   The art house film received wide critical acclaim.  Delhi’s notorious for its crime rate, especially safety of women.   There’s oppression out on the streets, but Ayr draws your attention to oppression at work.  Soni opened our eyes to the pressure that a woman cop faces both in her professional and personal life.  

Ayr introduced us to the talent of Geetika Vidya Ohlyan.  Largely understated, Soni (Ohlyan) though is carrying mental scars.  Given a free hand, she would unleash her wrath on all immoral men.  Shackled by protocol, Soni largely cuts a frustrated figure.  The only person whom she fully trusts is her superior Kalpana Ummat [Saloni Batra].   The professional bonding is strengthened with an emotional connect too, one that may subtly hint at a queer relationship.  Though a digital release, and the word Bollywood may be missing from Ayr’s film, Geetika’s understated, intense act is hard to ignore.

5  Alia Bhatt – Gully Boy

In a film that is all about a man’s dreams, it’s hard for a woman to find her voice.  Alia Bhatt though knows how to get her pound of flesh.  Safeena Firdausi [Bhatt] is a feisty, pugnacious woman who is overtly protective about her man.  And she wouldn’t hesitate to get violent too.  Sky [Kalki Koechlin] found it the hard way.  Though traditional, Safeena is not conservative. She respects traditions, but wouldn’t let that come in the way of her dreams, desires.   Being a Mumbaikar, Bhatt naturally picked up the Mumbai-lingo.  However, it’s the never-seen-before ferocity from Bhatt that floored the viewers.  It wouldn’t be wrong to call Safeena as the Angry Young Woman of Bollywood.

4  Taapsee Pannu – Saand Ki Aankh   

After struggling for years, Pannu has come into her own with power packed performances in films like Pink [2016], Mulk [2018] , and Manmarziyaan [2018].   She enjoyed great success with Badla [2019] but it was the shooting dadi (granny) Prakashi Chandro from Saand Ki Aankh that won us over.  Tushar Hiranandani’s Saand Ki Aankh was based on the inspiring journey, the sacrifice of India’s oldest sharpshooters, sisters-in-law Chandro [Bhumi Pednekar] and Prakashi Tomar.

Having been raised in Delhi, Pannu is familiar with the Haryanvi accent.  The prosthetic could have been better, but one couldn’t find fault with Pannu’s performance.  She didn’t let the age gap between Pawan Chopra and her hinder her act.  Pednekar and Pannu shut the debate over ageism once and for all.  The chemistry between Pednekar and Pannu also boosted their individual performances. Taapsee walked off with her head held high and also enhancing her reputation further.

3 Vidya Balan – Mission Mangal

A Bollywood film with an ensemble cast often sees a director struggling to allocate the right space to each actor.  Give her two minutes and Vidya Balan would make that little space her own. The talented actress had no cameo but she was rightly put on an equal footing with superstar Akshay Kumar in first time director Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal that is based on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM).   Balan brought the mom’s touch to this MoM story.  A hard working scientist, Tara Shinde [Balan] is also a responsible mother, wife.  She strikes the right balance between work and personal life. When the latter requires long hours, Tara doesn’t lose sight of her family responsibilities.  Balan brought an infectious charm, a power of positivity in Mission Mangal. While Rakesh Dhawan [Akshay Kumar] was the team leader, it was Shinde who truly motivated the disjointed team.   Balan was a picture of beauty, intelligence, poise and grace.  It’s Shinde’s indefatigable spirit that made Mission Mangal a resounding success.

2 Kangana Ranaut – Judgementall Hai Kya

It’s not often that we say that a person was born to play a particular character. Kangana Ranaut loves a confrontation.  Her critics often call her an attention seeker, and a few wouldn’t fall short of labelling her mad.  At the Wakhra Swag song launch, Ranaut stated that she was cool if anyone called her mad. And so she was apt to play the lead in director Prakash Kovelamudi’s Judgementall Hai  Kya.

Ranaut was the natural fit for the troubled Bobby Grewal.  The world is hell bent on labelling her mental for life, but Grewal rises above the pejorative thinking to hammer home her truth. Grewal’s fight sure resonates with Ranaut’s personal battles too.  The off-screen tussles put Ranaut in the right frame of mind to play Bobby. And the lady produced a stunning, manic display of anxiety and aggression.  The Queen [2014] actress perhaps went overboard in the self-appraisal of Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi [2019], but it’s Bobby that truly catches your imagination. Take a bow, Kangana.

1 Bhumi Pednekar – Saand Ki Aankh

She’s made a career out of playing rural women and breaking taboos. Pednekar took the patriarchal bull by its horn in Saand Ki Aankh. Though she is two years younger than Taapsee Pannu, Pednekar played Chandro Tomar, the older among the sisters-in-laws.

Compared to Pannu, Pednekar looked more convincing as the 60 plus granny. Not quite wrinkle free, but Pednekar’s face has more wear and tear than Pannu. The experience of playing earthy characters helped Pednekar gain a tiny edge over her co-star. And the Sonchiriya (2019) actress chipped in with another virtuoso performance. Her command over Haryanvi, the body language, expressions is simply excellent.  Add to it her natural wit, especially her Haryanvi-accented English, Chandro hits you like a cool character.  Pednekar nails it in the emotionally gripping climax, giving you the goosebumps and also making you shed few tears.    With this perfect show, Pednekar hits the bullseye in our ‘best actress of the year’ chart.

Special Mention

Nazanin Boniadi – Hotel Mumbai

Would an Australian, American, Indian co-production that has English, Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, be considered a Bollywood film? Well, we don’t know the answer but the pain is very much ours. Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai was based on the horrific terror attacks of 26/11.  The film paid tribute to the unarmed heroes of Hotel Taj Mahal.

Desi audiences got a glimpse of Iran-born British actress and human rights defender Nazanin Boniadi.  She played Zahra, a Muslim woman married to an American.  Boniadi’s intense, fearful, emotionally gripping act evoked plenty of ooh-aahs , OMGs. We still don’t know whether Hotel Mumbai is eligible for Bollywood awards, but Boniadi’s stellar show deserves a special mention.

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