Year in Review: Fresh faces who made their mark in Bollywood in 2021
We recall the standout performers of the year from Hindi cinema
27-year-old Adarsh Gourav impressed with a supercharged performance in The White Tiger. Ramin Bahrani’s film is an all-too-faithful adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel. Since the book, published in 2008, was powered entirely by its angsty protagonist, the 2021 Netflix adaptation had no choice but to get its central casting right. Jamshedpur-born Adarsh both fits in and stands out. As a repressed village boy with conflicting aspirations in a hierarchical world, he’s terrific to watch. His oily scalp, low voice and faded work clothes are almost as memorable as some of the killer scenes he gets. The performance earned Adarsh a BAFTA nomination for best actor in a leading role. His next, Extrapolations, is an international anthology series, where he stars with relative unknowns Meryl Streep and Marion Cotillard.
Just who, exactly, is a ‘non-actor’? The term is used to describe performers picked from everyday settings (as opposed to a film or drama school). Age, ethnicity and professional expertise are usually a factor in their selection. Which is probably what led Chaitanya Tamhane to cast Aditya Modak—a 33-year-old Hindustani classical singer from Mumbai—as his lead in The Disciple. The film is about a struggling musician who’s denied the alchemy of his craft. Aditya lends the role his voice and musical understanding. But he also gives it something more. Perhaps no one else, other than a trained singer himself, could have conveyed the film’s underlying frustrations better. Just watch his face as he types out an angry response on YouTube, and then, after some thought, deletes it.
A cisgender actor portraying a trans character in a film about the acceptance of trans love is ripe for career suicide. Vaani Kapoor, then, had a lot to think before signing up for Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. In the film, Ayushmann Khurrana’s gym freak falls for a beautiful Zumba coach. They have sex multiple times before the girl reveals she’s a trans woman. Her ‘confession scene’, which begins funny, is rescued largely by Vaani’s moving embrace of her character’s identity (though it takes her a while to get there). A little later, her ex-lover tells her to “get lost with that manly face”—a jibe few mainstream Hindi film stars would be comfortable with. Vaani truly lifts up Chandigarh, even if it’s Ayushmann pulling the weights.
Mrunal Thakur has been in seven Hindi films so far. In five of them, she’s a wife or love interest. Two of these films, Toofaan and Dhamaka, released earlier this year, and a third, Jersey, is on its way. It would seem a bright and promising actor has been woefully typecast. There is, after all, little variation between these roles. But Mrunal has done something subtly wonderful with them. She has infused her ordinary-seeming characters with a rare independence and depth. An industry as male-fixated as ours will continue to need its ancillary female leads. Does not mean they have to be forgettable. When Mrunal’s character, Vidya, slaps Shahid Kapoor in the Jersey trailer, you sense how central she’ll be in a film largely about a man.
Ayush Mehra brought a low-key charm to the role of a Parsi talent manager in Call My Agent: Bollywood. In a show full of loud performances, Ayush maintains a dry facade. And rightly so: celebrity agents have the coolest of heads. A slight inflection or show of anger can cost them their jobs (or worse). Ayush, all shades and sling bags, gets that right. It’s a late break for an actor who’s already a star on YouTube and Instagram. Call him more often... Bollywood.