Shining bright in 2020: Eight actors who lit up our screens in this dark year
This was the year when the pandemic cooped up people in their homes and compelled viewers and visual-content creators to pause, think, rewire and transition from the big screen and physical theatres to the OTT (over-the-top content) platforms online. It gave a fresh impetus to burgeoning creative output, as OTTs were on the lookout for acquiring original content and filmmakers turned to create cinema for the OTTs. A host of actors, who have come to us earlier in small roles, owned the medium this year with powerful performances in unusual roles – from a serial killer to a child bride, from a nurse-turned-moll to the mastermind of one of India’s biggest scams – in films and web-series. Here’s a look at the actors who made their presence felt and their standout roles.
As a child, Divyenndu loved it when his parents would ask him to recite a poem or sing for guests. “I would embellish it with some theatrics or other,” says the actor whose role as Munna Bhaiya in the web-series Mirzapur on Prime Video has been a hit. “When people ask when I was bitten by the acting bug, I say that I was born with it,” he says.
Jitendra Kumar had never harboured any dreams of being an actor. Theatre and acting happened by chance when he was pursuing civil engineering at IIT Kharagpur. After that, there was no looking back. A fellow student Biswapati Sarkar pushed Kumar, facilitating his entry into the world of online content in 2012-13. As his videos went viral, Kumar became a familiar face. The year 2020 looked promising with two big releases — as the romantic lead opposite Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (the film, directed by Hitesh Kewalya and Rohit Sharma, released in February), and the web-series Panchayat (released on Prime Video this April).
SOON after Abhishek Banerjee finished shooting for Paatal Lok in June 2019, he left for a month-long trip to Europe with his wife, Tina Noronha. The actor had found himself uncharacteristically angry, anxious and even possessive of his wife when he was shooting for the web-series as the serial killer, Hathoda Tyagi. Travelling was his way of leaving behind the intensity the character demanded.
Mumbai was under lockdown when Paatal Lok’s release was announced this April. “The announcement brought back memories of Hathoda Tyagi,” recalls Banerjee, whose portrayal of the negative character brought him wide recognition.
“When we were making Scam 92, we knew that it was something unique. It is one of the first financial thriller series based on real events, for instance, but we never imagined it to have an impact of this magnitude,” says actor Pratik Gandhi, on the massive success of his OTT debut, Scam 92: The Harshad Mehta Story, directed by Hansal Mehta, which released to great reviews in October on Sony LIV.
When Gandhi had arrived for an audition at casting director Mukesh Chhabra’s office, he had no idea of what lay ahead. He had been given a very vague idea about the show. So he was thrilled when he landed the lead role of the stockbroker Harshad Mehta. “When Hansal asked me if I was up for playing Harshad, I was like, ‘yes’! I later got to know that Hansal hadn’t even looked at my audition tape. For the last 15 years, I have run pillar to post, sometimes doing multiple auditions a day, for a break, so I was quite taken aback. But Hansal said that he had seen my work in the Gujarati film Wrong Side Raju (2016), and he didn’t need any other validation of my work,” says the 40-year-old.
Have you come out of the character of Bulbbul yet? Tripti Dimri, 26, has fielded this question several times since Anvita Dutt’s compelling directorial debut Bulbbul premiered on Netflix on June 24. Wrapped in resplendent Banarasis and an air of enigma, Dimri owned the titular lead with ease. It’s not easy to outgrow such a powerful character, but Dimri has tried her best.
Shalini Vatsa’s journey charted its own course. Her Lata Kutty, who transforms from a no-nonsense nurse into gangster Sattu’s (Pankaj Tripathi) doting lover in Anurag Basu’s Ludo (released in November), has “a fun and quirky side”. She plays Lata Kutty with great comic flair, fitting into Ludo’s whimsical world effortlessly. This character “was something I hadn’t explored on screen so far” and was “very different from my previous strong-women roles in Sacred Games (2018-19) and Gurgaon (2016),” says the actor who had been uncertain about a film career for years. Her first film role, as Dhaniya (in Peepli [Live], 2010), was to have been her last.
Then she landed a small but significant role as domestic worker Gauri in Shanghai (2012). But her desire to continue acting in movies developed only after the Hansal Mehta-directed Shahid (2012), in which she played Prosecutor Tambe. “People talk of having a wish list. Even without having one, I’ve worked with the directors who would have featured on my list,” she says.
The role of a weary and introverted policeman in the nine-episode show has been the best and most challenging in Ahlawat’s decade-long career. “You can find a Hathiram around you: a middle-class man who is struggling on every front — job, personal life — yet he is trying to live his life and achieve something. People could relate to his emotions,” says the actor from Kharkhara village in Haryana. While the team of Paatal Lok couldn’t meet to celebrate the show’s success because of the pandemic, Ahlawat says he is aware of the role that the lockdown played in increasing viewership of OTT platforms and in generating word-of-mouth acclaim for the show.
“I have been in the industry for a decade, but nothing mattered until Scam 92,” says actor Shreya Dhanwanthary, 29, who plays the complex role of the journalist Sucheta Dalal in the Hansal Mehta-directed Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. “I did Ladies Room (TV miniseries, 2016) with Yash Raj Films, and it became a big thing, and was critically acclaimed, too. But people didn’t put together that it was the same girl from a Samsung phone TV commercial and the lesbian rock chick from a Fastrack commercial. I would chameleon-ise into various roles,” she says.
Then came the 2019 film Why Cheat India opposite Emraan Hashmi, and, a role in the much-talked-about Manoj Bajpayee-starrer web-series Family Man (2019), “but things shifted in a phenomenal way only since Scam 1992,” says the Hyderabad-born Dhanwanthary, whose miniseries A Viral Wedding, which she wrote and acted in, released this May.
What happens when a human and a mosquito take matters to court
In a filmi courtroom drama setting, presenting the case: My Goodself vs Shrimati Dengue; the issue of contention being yet another sleepless night, courtesy the undesired company of Shrimati Dengue.
Prosecuting Counsel: Milord, my journalist-writer client’s profession depends on his having a clear head every morning to enable him to write coherently and not befuddle his readers. With a disturbed night, this is not possible. My client has had many such disturbed nights thanks to the accused who’s been dancing noisily like a dentist’s drill around his ear. She is robbing my client of a good night’s sleep and the ability to make a livelihood.
Defence Counsel: Milord, my client comes from a noble lineage of insects, which has remained virtually unchanged for at least 79 million years. Her soprano wing-beats produce pure music, “the food of love”, as she lands delicately as a ballerina.
Reading recommendations from a pandemic year
Poets and politicians, sportsmen and theatre personalities like Shashi Tharoor, Aruni Kashyap, Gulzar, GN Devy, Bhupender Yadav, Kenneth I Juster, K Srinath Reddy, Walter J Lindner, Rohini Hattangadi, Sanjna Kapoor, Feisal Alkazi, David Abraham, PR Sreejesh, Varun Grover, look back at 2020 through the books they read
What is neurodiversity and where does it figure in the spectrum of social justice and human rights
Tahira, a single mother of a child with autism, shared with me that the society’s obsession with normality had convinced her that her four-year-old child was “damaged” and she, as a mother, was a “failure”. Her words made me reflect on our compulsive need to compare, categorise and label children. The further the child is from that benchmark of “normality”, the more they are ranked as deficient and measures taken to fix them.
Here, I present some ideas in an attempt to unpack the dominant discourses on normality and the countermovement.
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