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Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger to Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby, breakout performances of 2021

Here is a list of performers across languages who stole the show this year with their hard-hitting, authentic performances.

Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger to Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby, breakout performances of 2021
  • Shreya Paul

Last Updated: 03.53 PM, Dec 29, 2021


This year saw a spate of films and shows that pushed the boundary in terms of good storytelling. Some movies managed to crawl back to theatres, while others chose to opt for a direct-to-OTT premiere. No matter the platform of release, projects from new and veteran auteurs all had their moments in the sun. And some of the actors have displayed some of their career-best performances this year. While we have raved about some, the others may have slipped into the recesses of our mind. Considering that the memory of the interwebz is short-lived, we have scoured the depths of the internet to compile a list of some of the most remarkable performances of the year.

Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger

Adarsh Gourav’s moment under the sun came with Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, based on Aravind Adiga’s popular novel. Gourav’s compelling performance was so astute that critics were forced to turn around and take notice of this young talent. A method actor by approach, Gourav famously trained as a house help to ensure he slip into the skin of the ambitious social climber Balram. Gourav’s expressive eyes and convincing dialect take his audiences through his mental journey of making it big despite all odds. The young actor’s range was evident in the way he seamlessly oscillates between moments of sheer vulnerability and acute shrewdness. The actor’s dedication to the craft was such that he held his own before veteran actors like Priyanka Chopra and Rajkummar Rao, ensuring his narrative arc not be compromised for anyone’s glitzy star power. With a performance like his in The White Tiger, it’s only a matter of time that the young talent becomes a household name.

Konkona Sen-Sharma in Geeli Pucchi, Ajeeb Daastaans

Konkona Sen-Sharma’s brilliant performance as a Dalit lesbian in Netflix’s anthology series was praised across the board. Directed by Neeraj Ghaiwan, Geeli Pucchi was a tale of privileges and society’s abject and unfair division of it. Aditi Rao Hydari perfectly complemented Sen-Sharma’s brusque presence on screen. The 15 Park Avenue actress’ otherwise elegant gait transformed into a staccato body language. Sen-Sharma’s Bharati Mondol was an epitome of internalised rage and frustration at the continuous side-lining and prejudice that she has had to face in her life. Doubly marginalised (she is both homosexual and belongs to an inferior caste), Bharati then tries to achieve her status in life through sheer perseverance and merit. Hydari’s soft, saccharine voice is subtly vapid and almost repulsive. But to the actress’ credit, she never lets it overshadow her performance enough to break the illusion of a woman in love. Ghaiwan’s brilliant screenplay with a plot twist that encapsulated the perfect poetic justice, only bolstered Sen-Sharma’s portrayal of measured hesitation and vulnerability that Bharati naturally felt.

Anupam Tripathi in Squid Game

Anupam Tripathi’s Ali Abdul was an instant hit with viewers worldwide. The Indian-origin actor had relocated to South Korea around a decade ago but could only break into the entertainment scene with two-bit roles on stage and on screen. His outing as the steadfast and loyal Pakistani immigrant assigned No. 199 had viewers take notice of this proverbial newcomer. His role even demanded a body transformation as the actor was required to bulk up considerably. The actor’s depiction of innocence was so on-point that some even refused to process the fact that he may have died on the show. Whether Tripathi reprises his role for the second season is still unknown, but the actor surely garnered mass accolades for his performance in Squid Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch has always been a dedicated artiste. Whether it is his role of portraying Alan Turing, considered the Father of Computer Science or the suave Sherlock Holmes, the actor has always imbued his roles with a sense of conviction. Jane Campion’s 2021 Western based on Thomas Savage’s novel saw Cumberbatch play a gruff Phil Burbanks, an expletive-hurling, chain-smoking cowboy. Since the role demanded the actor be comfortable with cigars, Cumberbatch slipped on his method acting shoes and went on a smoking spree, coupled with not bathing for almost two weeks. His dedication to the craft was so intense that he was inflicted by nicotine poisoning thrice during filming. Phil’s insensitive homophobia while being acutely obsessed with his younger brother George was beautifully depicted. Phil’s struggles with accepting Rose as George’s new belove wife is both painful and beautiful to watch.

Annaleigh Ashford in Impeachment: American Crime Story

Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford was mostly known for her Broadway performances on stage for musicals like Kinky Boots and Sunday in the Park With George. The actress role in Masters of Sex was also well-loved and popular. But Ashford got the perfect canvas to portray her acting chops as the misunderstood Paula Jones (a loose adaptation of Monica Lewinsky). Ashford’s demure acting with hooded eyes and silent glances roped in viewers completely and they felt invested in Jones’ agonies. To portray Jones with so much heft was a challenge in itself considering the actress would have to adapt to make something serious and poignant from Lewinsky’s national-joke status. Ashford’s mature acting enabled the role to connect with the audiences and the actress shone in her role as the global phenomenon.

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby

Rachel Sennott’s precocious outing as the know-it-all young adult in Emma Seligman’s witty drama was as deliciously hilarious as it was endearing. Sennott’s Danielle was introduced to the viewers while she grapples with a major existential crisis. A floundering graduate student, Danielle is desperate to prove a point and establish her voice. Sennott’s calm onscreen presence and whip-sharp comic timing lends the film a veil of authenticity like no other. The actress’ natural performance ensures that viewers relate to Danielle completely in her struggle to make something of her life.

Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad

Barry Jenkins’ incisive series on the struggles of African American slaves just after the abolition was both traumatic and important. The in-depth series, much like Jenkins’ treatment of the subject on race, was a tableau out of a historical novel. Thuso Mbedu’s performance as the protagonist Cora is compelling and heart wrenching. Her struggle to cross over to North America from the oppressive plantations of Georgia is nothing short of brilliance. Mbedu oscillates from being the petrified teenager who escapes death and the bold young adult who combats a relentless bounty hunter to lead a life on her own terms.