The Best Bollywood Actresses Of 2016 – Part 2
It might not be apparent from the lack of female-led films, but 2016 was the year we discovered cinematic excellence in the most unexpected places. Who would have thought, for example, that a horror film about agoraphobia would showcase one of the most moving performances of the year, or that an actress mocked for years for her lack of acting ability would have us all sobbing with her profoundly sensitive portrayal of a real-life hero?
If anything, 2016 proves that regardless of whether they’re given the showcases they deserve, female acting talent will always find a way to shine through. Here are my picks for the best female performances of the year.
1. Sonam Kapoor (Neerja)
Many were understandably skeptical when Sonam Kapoor was chosen to play fallen air hostess Neerja Bhanot, whose bravery and sacrifice helped saved hundreds of passengers from an almost certain death at the hands of a team of hijackers. While Sonam has been steadily improving as an actress, this was a role that would fall under intense scrutiny, and one that would require her to carry the burden of paying proper tribute to Neerja’s legacy almost entirely on her own shoulders. Could she handle the pressure? Many said, “No.”
Never one to lay down and play dead, Sonam put everything she had into this performance, and to say she nailed it would be an understatement. Her every movement, her every expression was so perfectly and deliberately placed that even watching Neerja sitting down to eat a packet of biscuits had us reaching for a box of tissues. Sonam defied all expectations, proved her mettle as an actress, and helped make Neerja an unprecedented success at the box office, where it became the most profitable film of 2016. Audiences and critics alike may have doubted Sonam before, but after Neerja, we’re all waiting to see what she does next.
2. Radhika Apte (Phobia)
On paper, Phobia probably sounded like a ridiculous movie: an agoraphobic young woman begins to see visions of her flat’s former tenant being murdered, and becomes obsessed with unravelling the mystery and bringing her killer to justice. Sounds like the plot of a cheesy Vikram Bhatt horror film, right? But through Pavan Kirpalani’s direction and Radhika Apte’s pitch perfect performance, Phobia becomes a profound study in the way our minds can imprison us.
A less talented actress could have easily turned Phobia into a comedic venture, but Radhika’s measured performance as Mehak brought the audience spiraling down into madness with her, causing us to feel every bit of terror Mehak feels as mental illness and supernatural forces combine to entrap her in a web of her own creation. There’s plenty of screaming and crying here, but never once does Radhika resort to chewing scenery in order to get her point across. Everything Mehak feels is written on her face. It’s a terrifying adventure, but one you’ll want to take over and over again.
3. Anushka Sharma (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
It’s tough playing a female character in a Karan Johar film. They are often shrill, unreasonable, arrogant, and generally unlikable for no apparent reason. Alizeh in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was no different, so it is to Anushka Sharma’s credit that we came away loving Alizeh instead of wanting to see her buried six feet under (...er, spoiler alert). In Anushka’s capable hands, Alizeh was complex, steadfast, sympathetic, and beautifully flawed. The actress has always had great comedic timing, but what impressed us most were her emotional scenes, particularly her breakdown after having run into the love of her life again after a painful split. The real tragedy here? That Anushka is not the center of more awards chatter for her role in ADHM!
4. Alia Bhatt (Udta Punjab)
In all honesty, Alia Bhatt was probably not the right choice for the role of a naive Bihari migrant worker who finds herself inadvertently caught up in the Punjabi drug trade. But, just as she did in Highway, she made us forget about Alia Bhatt the star in favor of Alia Bhatt the chameleonic actress. With a sun-chapped face and dirt under her nails, Alia did what she does best, taking on a young woman’s trauma headfirst and making it entirely her own.
Alia Bhatt may have grown up living the charmed life of a star kid, but she’s quickly becoming an expert at making the audience believe her as the used and wounded phoenix destined to rise from the ashes. For one so young, she shows true grit onscreen, something it’s taken her seniors decades to master.
5. Shabana Azmi (Neerja)
In a supporting role as Neerja Bhanot’s mother, veteran powerhouse actress Shabana Azmi was the emotional center of the film. Even knowing how the story ends, we still feel hope for Neerja so long as her mother feels hope, and as that hope slips away, we grieve alongside her. And though she is terrific throughout the film, it is the scene of Mrs. Bhanot standing next to her daughter’s casket, holding the yellow saree she bought her for her birthday, that becomes the film’s crowning moment. After decades of acting excellence, we have no reason to doubt Ms. Azmi’s talents; yet, through films like Neerja, she continues to surprise us.
6. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
In a film starring such talents as Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and Fawad Khan, it’s certainly an accomplishment to steal the spotlight out from under them in just a 20-minute role...but that’s exactly what Aishwarya Rai Bachchan did. Playing the role of a divorcee poetess, Aishwarya was herself poetry in motion. More than her stunning good looks, it was her maturity, sophistication, and unwavering self-assurance that has already made Saba an iconic character. It was beyond refreshing to finally see an older, sexually liberated woman in a mainstream Bollywood film, without any of the typical “wink wink, nudge nudge” moments that typically come along with displaying sex onscreen. But more than just sex appeal, Aishwarya managed to sell pain, heartbreak, resilience, and some seriously heavy-handed Urdu poetry as well. If she’s not already the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress awards this year, she certainly should be.
7. Tabu (Fitoor)
It’s no easy feat, taking on the iconic role of Miss Havisham in the Indian adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Miss Havisham, in this movie rechristened as Begum Hazrat, is unhinged, cruel, and yet strangely sympathetic, making a game out of the lives of others after her emotions were toyed with one too many times. Fitoor may not have hit the mark at the box office, and there’s plenty of things to fault the film for, but Tabu’s masterful portrayal of Begum Hazrat isn’t one of them. She effortlessly transitions from indifferent stoicism to impassioned hatred to regretful sorrow in a matter of moments, and Tabu never once hits a false note.
8. Ratna Pathak (Kapoor & Sons)
As a mother trying to preserve both her family and her own sanity, sometimes by contradictory means, Ratna Pathak embodies so many middle-aged women who find themselves dissatisfied and afraid at a point in their lives where the desire for change seems to have come too late. Struggling with the infidelity of her husband and the undercurrent of tension between her two sons, we sympathize with Ratna, even when her actions only make the situation worse. But it is her realization that her elder, favored son is gay, and her coming to grips with the new reality of their relationship, that offers one of the most profound moments in cinema this year. She is neither unrealistically enthusiastic about this new reality, nor does she outright reject her son; she struggles as most mothers would, but ultimately we are left with hope for the future, and the catalyst for a much-needed conversation among moviegoers about homosexuality in today’s society.
9. Kirti Kulhari (Pink)
Three young women are sexually assaulted by a group of men after a night out at a concert. After a series of threatening phone calls, insulting police interviews, and an additional sexual assault, one young woman finds herself on trial for attempted murder for daring to fight back against her attacker. As the main protagonist Meenal, Taapsee Pannu does a wonderful job, but it is Kirti Kulhari’s act as her best friend and unwilling accomplice Falak that gives the girls’ ordeal an added dimension of tragedy. Simultaneously supportive of her friend and terrified of the repercussions of speaking up, Falak becomes the group’s reluctant spokeswoman, ultimately laying everything on the line--including her own happiness, reputation, and integrity--to make sure her friend gets justice. She’s a polarizing character, certainly, but that’s what makes her so fascinating, and we have Kirti Kulhari’s performance to thank for that.