Reigning queens Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Taapsee Pannu stay true to form, but the year also saw impressive acts by some fine young talents
By Mayur Lookhar
In a refreshing scene from Chintu Ka Birthday , a Iraqi landlord tells his Indian tenants Sudha [Tillotoma Shome] and Madan [Vinay Tiwari] in Arabic, “Look what happens when we give the world to men. It’s the women who drive a home, and the world would be better if the women take control of it,”. Liberalism is not usually associated with countries based on religious identities. India is a democracy, too, but large parts of its society still reeks of patriarchy.
Cinema though has been a medium to tell the woman’s story. Hindi cinema has taken big strides over the years in telling more feminist tales. Fine stories have ensured that women artistes don’t necessarily need a solo lead film, but they can leave an equal mark in a male-led film too. 2020 saw such performances from unheralded talents. The usual contenders though charmed us again, but ‘barrier breaking’ Bhumi Pednekar was off colour this year.
We are sure Pednekar would return strongly in 2021, but let’s revisit the finest performances by a female artiste in 2020.
11 Megha Burman – Panga
It is not easy to make a mark in a film that is headlined by Kangana Ranaut. We’ve heard stories of co-actors’ dissatisfaction in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi . However, there was all harmony in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga. Unheralded actor Megha Burman smiled, joked and played with Kangana Ranaut as Nisha Das, Jaya Nigam’s [Ranaut] colleague in the Indian kabaddi team. She has a fine screen presence, and the pretty diminutive girl raided your imagination from her first scene where Jaya and Nisha indulge into a bit of banter. Nisha looked more agile, and complimented Ranaut both on and off the field. She’s been around for a few years, tasted other regional cinema, but it’s with Panga that Burman has truly announced herself on the big stage. Throw a chunky role at her, and Burman is bound to play around with it.
10 Ipshita Chakraborty Singh – Bhonsle
Another young talent that is likely to slip under the radar of starstruck reviewers. At first glance, the face looked familiar. Few minutes into her entry in Bhonsle , yours truly recalled that this girl was the one who threw acid on Laxmi Agarwal [Deepika Padukone] in Chhapaak . Though a gruesome act, but young Ipshita Chakraborty Singh impressed with her intensity. Singh atoned for her sins in Chhapaak by playing a rape victim in Bhonsle. Sita [Chakraborty Singh], the petite Bihari migrant works as a nurse in a municipal hospital in Mumbai. Singh was a picture of simplicity, grace, a strong headed girl who refuses to bow down to a bigot. The heinous crimes break her frail body, scars her soul. Singh’s shivering act after being raped leaves you numb. In two films alone, Singh has proved her versatility. We hope other producers keep an eye for this prodigious talent.
9 Janhvi Kapoor – Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Forget the disapproval by the Indian Air Force. Shun all the trolls who often needlessly pick on her. Like it or not, truth is Janhvi Kapoor is a fine young actress. She showed great improvement in her second film Ghost Stories . And with Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl , Janhvi Kapoor serves a reminder to her critics that she will continue to stay strong. She showed that passion, grit, resilience in the Gunjan Saxena biopic. In her short career so far, Saxena comes across a keen learner. And that attitude seamlessly integrates into her character in Gunjan Saxena. More than a war film, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl was an aspirational tale of an underdog. As a product of nepotism, Kapoor is all familiar with the brickbats, scrutiny that comes with it. And so she naturally relates with the struggles of Gunjan Saxena to achieve her dreams. This passion, courage flows relentlessly through Janhvi Kapoor’s performance. The naysayers can keep talking, while Janhvi Kapoor will continue to do her job well quietly.
8 Taapsee Pannu – Thappad
Her stocks have been rising with every strong performance each year. That has made Taapsee Pannu among the most sought-after actress today. For a quality actor like her, perhaps it would be a tad surprising that we placed Pannu eight in this list. In our humble view, the ones preceding her have earned their stripes. That though doesn’t take away from another fine act by Pannu. Anubhav Sinha untapped Pannu’s potential in Mulk . Thappad saw Pannu play Amrita, a housewife who opted marital bliss over career. Thappad was a tight slap to patriarchy/matriarchy. However, it wasn’t done through melodrama or any bitter divorce battle. There were three shades to Pannu. First a visibly happy looking housewife. Then came the slap which saw Pannu goes speechless, wrecked by the turmoil within. The woman then decides to fight for her dignity. Pannu wasn’t overly aggressive, but she stood firm in the face of the adversity. It wasn’t vintage Taapsee Pannu, but the girl did enough to find a place in this list.
7 Sayani Gupta – Axone
Unheralded filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone was perhaps among the first film to stop the rut for Netflix India. The much-acclaimed social drama exposed the stereotyping of North East Indians and their struggle in a city like Delhi. Bengali girl Sayani Gupta stepped into the shoes of a Nepalese Hindu girl Upasna working in Delhi. Gupta has slight Mongoloid features, but unlike some other starry names, she didn’t reduce her North East Indian character to a caricature. She got the accent right and was flawless with dialogue delivery and expressions. Gupta’s convincing show only enhanced her stature as a versatile actress.
6 Inayat Verma – Ludo
Not only do we have very little content for children, but the little ones are often ignored at many awards do. Reality TV find Inayat Verma proved that age, size simply doesn’t matter. The adorable, talented Verma dwarfed Abhishek Bachchan and other adults with her stellar act in Anurag Basu’s Ludo. Mini [Verma] is a girl from an affluent family, but she hits you like a street-smart kid who knows to work her way around. The tiny girl hatches her own kidnapping, all in the hope that her toxic parents will finally shower her with love. Verma’s sweet tone, sharp wit, and the unabashed, fearless attitude made her the darling of this ensemble cast. And she pulls it off without losing her innocence. Oh, these fab child artistes. You wish they never grow for you just want to keep gazing at them over and over again. Take a bow, little dynamite.
5. Sarika Singh – Kaamyaab
In a story about an unsung hero, there was another uncut diamond that came to the fore. Sarika Singh ,an unconventional beauty much like your girl-next-door. There’s a natural maturity beaming through those deep eyes, and Singh’s character Bhavna was more practical, sound than her father Sudheer [Sanjay Mishra]. Bhavna loves her father, but she also embodied the challenges, frustration of being raised by a struggling actor. Singh was impeccable in her performance. You felt her anger, you cried when she shed a tear. Such a powerhouse of talent can no longer be ignored. We can’t wait to see more of Sarika Singh.
4. Maya Sarao -Thappad
If you are ranked four places above the lead actress [Taapsee Pannu], it only proves volumes of your performance. Maya Sarao enjoyed her finest hour with Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad. She played Amrita’s [Pannu] lawyer Neha Jaisingh – a thorough professional, immaculate in her speech, and supremely confident. Seldom have we seen such advocates in Hindi cinema before. It’s not just her work, but it’s her life beyond it that catches our imagination. Here’s a successful woman who chose to marry her mentor’s son, but till date, feels burdened by this marriage. For a successful divorce lawyer, Jaisingh is unable to break free from her obligatory bond. She is in platonic relationship with a chef. A patriarchal society would question such characters, but Sarao maintains the dignity of her character throughout. Neha Jaisingh was one of the many characters from Thappad who is a victim of patriarchy. Given the array of (female) talent in the film, we firmly believe that it was Sarao who impressed us the most.
3 Fatima Sana Shaikh – Ludo
Zaira Wasim’s tour de force in Dangal  overshadowed the performances of other debutants – Sanya Malhotra, Suhani Bhatnagar and Fatima Sana Shaikh. Truth be told, Fatima Sana Shaikh wasn’t all that impressive. She came under cooked in her next, Thugs of Hindostan  – a poor film overall. Unlike Fatima, it was Sanya Malhotra who grew in potential with her subsequent films. While the knives weren’t out, but perhaps post Thugs of Hindostan, there wasn’t much expectations from Shaikh.
The former child artiste finally came of age with a brilliant show in Anurag Basu’s Ludo. Shaikh’s character Pinky had few shades to her. From a mischievous college beauty, Pinky surprisingly ended up as a demure, reticent, submissive housewife. She is childlike in her pleas to her childhood friend Alok Gupta [Rajkummar Rao] to help recue her husband. In this journey, Pinky also discovers an aggressive side to her, one that shocks Alok and the viewers. Shaikh displayed the mood swings, different shades emphatically. She was barely recognizable from her Dangal, Thugs of Hindostan look, but it’s the sheer brilliance of her performance in Ludo that changes the game for Fatima Sana Shaikh. Let’s just say with Ludo, Shaikh has shaken off the early rustiness.
2 Kangana Ranaut – Panga
Off the screen, it’s been a dramatic year for Kangana Ranaut as her social media commentary earned her both praises, but also new and powerful foes. On the screen though, it was business as usual. Kangana Ranaut gave a superlative performance in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga. An aggressive title but this was perhaps a new territory for Ranaut as her character required her to be mellow. More than any physicality, Ranaut had to bring out the mental toughness of Jaya Nigam – a mother trying to revive her sporting career. While Ranaut could have been more agile at her kabaddi skills, but she emerged as champion for every mother eyeing a professional comeback. She had her difference of opinions, but Panga was all about overcoming the inner conflicts and emerging a winner. Ranaut chipped in with her most matured act showing a strong yet emotional side to her.
1 Vidya Balan – Shakuntala Devi
Vidya Balan has this natural quality of spreading positivity even when confronted by grim situations. It’s her infectious smile, vibrant, cheerful tone that lights up a dull mood. While we see the excitable Balan again, but Shakuntala Devi  also brought a certain vulnerability to the actress. Credit to director Anu Menon for telling the story of an unsung but also a flawed genius.
The late Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013) was a mathematical genius, one who earned the name of a human calculator. However, solving the personal equations proved to be a stern test. Menon’s films marveled at her genius, but her personal struggle humanised Shakuntala Devi. Having never met the lady in flesh, all the more aggravated the challenge for Vidya Balan. But Balan proved again why she is counted among the finest actors in the millennia. She broke down the mathematical equations, sums with consummate ease, and convincingly emoted the ego, frustrations of Shakuntala Devi. For a positive lady, it was perhaps a little painful to watch Balan suffer. At times, one felt that Balan was slightly off track in Shakuntala Devi’s emotional outburst. Hey, but that’s how flawed geniuses are. Also many a times, we end up becoming what we despise the most. The rough times, her factious relationship with her daughter Anupama [Sanya Malhotra] mirror the fractious relationship Shakuntala Devi shared with her opportunistic father. Mere mortals never met or heard about the lady, but Balan surely gave us a fine account of the life and struggles of Shakuntala Devi.
It was hard to separate Kangana and Balan, but perhaps the more fascinating and truer story of Shakuntala Devi tilted the scales in favour of Balan. We don’t know about others, but as Shakuntala Devi, Balan surely deserves the top spot for us.
Riya Shukla – Raat Akeli Hai
Public memory is short lived. Five years can sometime feel like eons. It was in 2015 that Riya Shukla had won accolades as the child artiste in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary’s much-acclaimed Nil Battey Sannata. She played Swara Bhasker’s daughter Appu. Five years on, the 21-year-old was unrecognizable in first-time director Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai . The young lady essayed the character of Chunni, the house maid of the Thakur household. Shukla’s ashen face just refused to erase from your memory. Though a brief role, Chunni was the key to unravelling the mystery in the thriller. Shukla’s intense act was hard to miss and deserves a special mention.
Shikha Malhotra – Wonder Woman (Covid Warrior)
She’s not a celebrated name in tinsel town, but as the words Covid Warrior suggest, Shikha Malhotra turned out to be a real-life hero in 2020. As she continued her struggle in the film industry, Malhotra chose to help mankind in the hour of pandemic. Malhotra picked up her nurse’s uniform and started serving in a government hospital in Mumbai. And all of with a big smile. As word spread, Malhotra was praised across media and social media circles. Her video of cheering up a little baby, who was isolated from his/her Covid positive mother, won many hearts. The Delhi-girl’s unselfish act caught the attention of Katrina Kaif who didn’t hesitate in calling Shikha her hero. It was an overwhelming moment for Malhotra.
The poor girl though faced some testing times. First she broke down after her film Kaanchli  struggled to get a digital release. Few months later, she contracted the virus. There was more agony when the poor lady suffered facial paralysis. It saddened millions of her fans. The tough nut that she is, Malhotra is fighting it strongly and her recent social media pictures suggest that the lady is slowly recovering.
We don’t know what lies ahead in her film career, but through her heroic act in a pandemic, Shikha Malhotra is etched in our memories forever as the real Wonder Woman.