The year 2014 was great for our actors, and a lot of them did exceptionally well.
Restricting this annual fixture to a list of 10 was harder than it is in most years, and the credit for that goes to filmmakers who celebrated underrated actors by giving them meatier roles, those who armed them with sharp lines and characters, and those who pushed established artists out of their comfort zones.
Here, for my money, are the actors who led the class of 2014.
10. Manav Kaul in Citylights
Hansal Mehta’s turgid remake of the exciting Filipino film Metro Manila was a limp, disappointing affair, but Manav Kaul took a supporting role and ran with it, creating a character far more intriguing than in the original film.
His Vishnu, a street-smart security guard, is one for the books, and Kaul plays him with a sly, easy believability and significant magnetism.
9. Pankaj Kapur in Finding Fanny
The first time we meet Kapur in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny, we see his bare, hairy chest with a drop of sweat running down it.
This is a grimy, sultry, lecherous performance, one that borders close to being a caricature -- that of an overbearing, pompous artist -- and while it appears that he’s pretending his way into a certain lady’s pants, Kapur’s genius lies in the way he is later repulsed by the muse he’s been chasing.
It is a moment of hardcore disgust, unfiltered hatred.
It might not be obvious throughout the film, but this Don Pedro is indeed all about high art.
8. Rajkummar Rao in Queen
Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is by no means a film that has room for a leading man, but Rajkummar Rao does the next best thing (or is it an even better thing?) by playing the perfect foil.
He’s excellent as an indefatigable Delhi suitor, carrying more balloons than should be legal, he’s terrific when replying to his fiancee’s Hindi questions evasively and coldly in English, and, later in the film when he realises that the girl is out of his league, his helplessness is quite perfect.
7. Narendra Jha in Haider
Most of us walked out of Haider in a state of wonderment, and one of the key questions had nothing to do with crossborder politics or Shakespeare.
We had to know who was the tremendous actor playing Haider’s father, a man of such unwavering calm, such striking sobriety.
Jha, hitherto seen mostly on television, lays down the firmly real tone for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation, and is the kind of doctor we would all like to know. An inherently thoughtful man, he brings an air of gravitas and grace to everything he says -- even to the platitudes.
How perfect for the Bard’s words.
6. Girish Kulkarni in Ugly
There are a lot of fine actors in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, but the film reaches a true boil only when -- minutes after a man is killed and a girl kidnapped -- Kulkarni’s Inspector Jadhav infuriatingly yet meticulously takes his own time at a police station.
It’s a shining performance, that of a cop who can be both commanding as well as sycophantic, and in a film full of characters arguably too dark to be real, it is Kulkarni’s Jadhav who brings in the believability.
5. Sanjay Mishra in Aankhon Dekhi
It’s always heartening when a powerful yet underutilised actor finally blooms into his own as soon as enough elbow room is made available, and the greatest triumph for director Rajat Kapoor was to let Sanjay Mishra reign over Aankhon Dekhi.
His character -- who literally believes only in what he can see -- is one that could well have been farcical, but Mishra succeeds in creating a poignant, emotionally stirring (and utterly unconventional) hero.
4. Aamir Khan in PK
It takes some serious commitment for an actor to go through a long film with his eyes stretched perpetually to lid-ripping point. But that is by no means the only impressive facet to Khan’s fresh-faced performance as an alien giddily eager to explore the Earth.
Straitjacketed by that ridiculously wide-eyed expression, he nevertheless manages to convey wonderment, helplessness, epiphanies and loss very effectively indeed.
Rajkumar Hirani’s film might have its detractors, but few will contest that Khan is at his best.
3. Irrfan Khan in Haider
The greatest ‘hero’ entry of 2014 belonged to Irrfan as -- with the snowy white screen diffused into a long blur -- he gradually came into focus, wearing snow-goggles, a limp and armed with the baddest, awesomest bass-line.
A fiendishly clever update on Shakespeare, Hamlet’s father’s ghost was transformed into a man with ghost identities, a slithering merchant of motive.
He may or may not be worth trusting, but, thanks to Irrfan and his compelling screen presence, is definitely worth following. His character, Roohdar, may well have been called Rockstar.
2. Vijay Raaz in Dedh Ishqiya
Once in a very blue moon, an actor takes a part originally grounded in pantomime -- that of the moustachioed villain, in this case -- but turns in a performance so disarmingly nuanced that he rises above the label of what he does to the why of it, fascinating us with a character so richly textured that we care about him more than any hero-type.
In Abhishek Chaubey’s delicately crafted and beautifully tongued film, Raaz plays a politician and goon, but with such heart that we may spend the film guessing at his motives.
Is his bullying merely bluster because he is expected to be rough? Would he carry on Mexican standoffs forever if his opponents were armed with the right rhymes? Instead of forcibly abducting the begum of his dreams, he kidnaps a portly poet so he can pretend to craft verse, wanting desperately to impress instead of intimidate.
It all sounds comical (and most of it is splendidly droll) but Raaz brings such wary wistfulness to the part that it becomes impossible to ignore his grand pathos. As I’d mentioned in my review, this is the kind of role that, in an American production, would have been played by great chameleons like Javier Bardem or Christian Bale. And Raaz owns it.
1. Kay Kay Menon in Haider
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius is a villain.
He is a schemer, a cunning uncle, a plotter to the throne and a pretender defiling his brother’s bedchamber with grand designs on his wife. It is a part that has traditionally required powerful theatrical credentials as well as a certain dynamism of character.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider requires even more, demanding that Kay Kay Menon embody all of these vile things -- and yet none of them.
The adaptation is carefully balanced on a tripwire of deceit, with a lie at its centre, and depending on where you stand, Kay Kay’s Khurram is either dastardly or dashed. As a result, the actor plays everything double-edged, and thus, when, for example, he pleads to his nephew’s better sense and speaks about the need to avenge his missing brother, he could be either sincere or a scoundrel. Or even a mix of both.
It is remarkable how much of this dualist balance Kay Kay brings to the part, leaving everything crucially open to interpretation. He makes the character appear shifty and sly, though -- thanks to his ever-evident discomfort -- he could as well just be ashamed of himself for coveting his brother’s wife. But that doesn’t mean he engineered his demise.
Or does it?
In one of that great film’s most striking departures from the original text, Menon’s Khurram sits as Hamlet performs his Mousetrap play with the Bismil song, watching with a smile on his face while everyone around him is repelled by Hamlet’s naked audacity. In the play, he’d stormed out of the performance, propelled off-stage by his fury. In the film, he watches, applauds and -- even with mud on his face -- smiles an indulgent smile. Does he know better than we initially believe?
Thanks to the sheer mastery of Kay Kay’ performance, we can only guess.