The coronavirus pandemic meant that fewer movies were released in 2020, but there were enough web series and direct-to-streamer films to compensate for the shortfall in big-screen entertainment. Web shows especially provided usually neglected actors unprecedented opportunities to exhibit their talent. The galaxy of stars has been irrevocably expanded – and that can only be a good thing. The following list of the actors responsible for 2020’s most memorable performances is in alphabetical order.

Aaditi Pohankar
She was the best thing about She. The series was salvaged by Aaditi Pohankar’s watchful and astute performance as a police constable who discovers her sexual side during an undercover operation. Pohankar was also compelling in Aashram, as a Dalit wrestler who belatedly learns that her beloved spiritual guru is a pervert. Nandini Ramnath

Aaditi Pohankar in She. Courtesy Window Seat Films/Netflix.

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Akshay Oberoi
Akshay Oberoi delivered three web series this year, playing a lawyer in Illegal, a psychotic sex trafficker in Flesh and an addict-turned-entrepreneur in High. The US-born actor has come a long way since his Bollywood debut in Isi Life Mein a decade ago. The actor didn’t get his due with the films Pizza, Laal Rang and Gurgaon, but the streaming boom has given him the space to grow. Udita Jhunjhunwala

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Amitabh Bachchan
Two years short of 80, Amitabh Bachchan has done it all. In 2020, he beat Covid-19 and delivered one of his most moving performances. In Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar got the veteran to shed his usual mannerisms and disappear into a character. Bachchan fabulously played the irascible landlord Mirza whose soul is as crooked as his spine. NR

Amitabh Bachchan in Gulabo Sitabo. Courtesy Rising Sun Films/Kino Works/Amazon Prime Video.

Anil Kapoor
Playing himself as well as the character named Anil Kapoor in AK s AK, this long-distance runner showed that he hasn’t lost his energy for the demands of performance. To quote him from the direct-to-streamer movie: “Mindblowing!” NR

Dibyendu Bhattacharya
The web series Undekhi owed its impact to its lead actor. Dibyendu Bhattacharya beautifully played a rumpled but sharp police officer who arrives in Manali to investigate the disappearance of two sisters. Bhattacharya was equally impressive in the series Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega, in which he played a different kind of policeman. NR

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Until he portrayed the unpredictable but vulnerable heir to the Mirzapur throne, Divyenndu was best known for playing Liquid in Pyar Ka Punchnama. You had to hand it to Divyenndu for making Munna Bhaiya from Mirzapur so deliciously evil that you didn’t want him written out of the series.

Soon after, the 37-year-old actor turned up as Akhil in the revenge drama Bicchoo Ka Khel. He has clearly recognised the need to sprint away from hinterland bad boy typecasting. UJ

Mirzapur season 2.

Geetanjali Kulkarni
Geetanjali Kulkarni brings a wealth of stage experience to her roles in movies and web series. The previous year’s Gullak featured a finely nuanced performance from this ace performer. In 2020, Kulkarni had a scene-stealing part in the movie Is Love Enough, Sir. She sparkled in the series Taj Mahal 1989 as a physics lecturer who loses her connection with her poetry-spouting husband. Riotous as well as romantic, Kulkarni’s Sarita was the show’s beating heart. NR

Jaideep Ahlawat
Often cast as a one-note villain, Jaideep Ahlawat got a role of a lifetime in the series Paatal Lok. Ahlawat’s monumental performance as a world-weary police officer investigating an attack on a journalist upturned the cliches associated with this character type. The series gave Ahlawat the opportunity to be what the movies deny him – a magnetic leading man. NR

Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok.

Jitendra Kumar
Don’t go by that unassuming face. Jitendra Kumar is the lord of the death stare. In the movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, he was suitably harried as a closeted gay man. Kumar also shone in the medium that had been the kindest to him – the streaming universe. He was the only noteworthy element in Chaman Bahar. In Panchayat, Kumar superbly played a government official who meets a bunch of loveable eccentrics during his posting in a small town. NR

Panchayat (2020).

Konkona Sensharma
Several films and web series in 2020 were rescued by unerring performances. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare was among them. The movie featured Konkona Sensharma as a housewife whose husband’s infidelity pushes her out of the dollhouse and into a strange new world. Sensharma also had a neat cameo in the space travel drama Cargo. A few minutes of her is all we need. NR

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Kumud Mishra
In 2020, Kumud Mishra reunited with two directors who have fruitfully explored his talent for underplaying scenes. In Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, Mishra movingly portrayed the supportive father of a domestic abuse survivor. In Nitin Kakkar’s Jawaani Jaaneman, he was warm and witty as the hero’s brother. In Kakkar’s heavily delayed Ram Singh Charlie, Mishra poignantly played a Charlie Chaplin performer who struggles for work after his circus is shut down. NR

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Maanvi Gagroo
Bit parts in films, recurring roles in TVF series, including as Chanchal Sharma in TVF Tripling, and then Maanvi Gagroo landed the part of Sidhi Patel in the uber-glamorous Four More Shots Please! In season two, Gagroo’s dizzy non-blonde had found her mojo, both sexually and as a stand-up comic.

Gagroo slipped into the designer robes of a woman discovering her identity and getting over stage fright with striking ease, just as she unswervingly owned those sunglasses as Goggle in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan earlier in the year. UJ

Maanvi Gagroo in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Courtesy Color Yellow Productions/T-Series.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Not a year seems to go by without Nawazuddin Siddiqui on a list of best actors. He was a delight in two heavily delayed releases, Ghoomketu and Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa. In Serious Men, Siddiqui deftly portrayed the complex character of a Dalit hustler who embroils his son in a scam. And in Raat Akeli Hai, he appeared with a fat moustache and a clear intent of stealing the movie from his co-stars without trying too hard. NR

Neena Gupta
Soft as a well-worn cushion in The Last Color and tough as teak in Panchayat, Neena Gupta went from strength to strength in 2020. She was hugely entertaining in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan too, but her best role was in Masaba Masaba, in which she played a version of herself – the actor-mother of the designer Masaba Gupta. NR

Neena Gupta in Masaba Masaba. Courtesy Netflix.

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Pankaj Tripathi
Pankaj Tripathi is in a neck-to-neck contest with Nawazuddin Siddiqui to top annual best actor lists. He has emerged as a favourite daddy, the go-to talent for quirky parts, and the default face when you think of men with the squishiness of teddy bears. Tripathi had a busy 2020, turning out hard-to-forget performances in the second season of Mirzapur and Criminal Justice and the movies Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and Ludo. NR

Pratik Gandhi
Looking nothing like Harshad Mehta but perfectly capturing the crooked broker’s swaggering ambition and spectacular fall in Scam 1992, Pratik Gandhi was one of the biggest and most welcome surprises of 2020. NR

Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992. Courtesy Applause Entertainment/Studio Next/SonyLIV.

Rajkummar Rao
Rajkummar Rao has gone into full-throttle comedy mode after years of playing volcanic men. Yet, even his kooky characters in Ludo and Chhalaang contained traces of his simmering intensity. Rao played a fool in love in both movies with just the right dash of despair. NR

Rajkummar Rao in Ludo.

Ranvir Shorey
Ranvir Shorey can be comic and tragic, scary and goofy. He delivered five knockout performances in three series – Hasmukh, High and Metro Park – and the direct-to-streamer movies Kadakh and Lootcase. He was particularly good in Kadakh, as a man hiding a body in his apartment, and High, as a deadly assassin with a persuasive method of interrogation. NR

Rasika Dugal
The extraordinarily sensitive Rasika Dugal made a welcome comeback this year as the sari-clad schemer Beena Tripathi in Mirzapur. Dugal’s nuanced performance was one of the highlights of an ordinary second season. She was also in the direct-to-streamer comedy Lootcase and had a small role in A Suitable Boy. Mirzapur was where Dugal was the most comfortable, handling a distracted husband, a lecherous father-in-law, and an unstable stepson. NR

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Rinku Rajguru
Marathi actor Rinku Rajguru made her Hindi debut this year in the seriocomic series Hundred. The 19-year-old actor’s preternatural maturity and ability to smoothly transition from goofiness to sobriety was one of the show’s highlights.

The essence of Rajguru’s persona – tough yet tender, pragmatic and dreamy too, fearless but also vulnerable – was also seen in Tannishtha Chatterjee’s contribution to the omnibus film Unpaused. Rajguru is ready for the Bollywood big league. All she needs to do is work on her Marathi-inflected Hindi. NR

Rinku Rajguru in Hundred. Courtesy R.A.T Films/Disney+ Hotstar.

Saif Ali Khan
Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior included a committed Ajay Devgn as a Maratha warrior and a delightfully depraved Saif Ali Khan as his adversary. The most interesting member of Bollywood’s Khanate was also a hoot in Jawaani Jaaneman, as an ageing playboy who meets his love child. Khan grinned and grimaced his way through the year, continuing to send up the vacuous romantic heroes he used to play before he got serious. NR

Sheeba Chaddha
In the Vidya Balan vehicle Shakuntala Devi, a part-time traveller caught the eye. Sheeba Chaddha played Tarabai, a Maharashtrian boarding house owner who provides the titular mathematician a home away from home. In the web series Taj Mahal 1989, Chaddha was rivetting as a former prostitute who is never allowed to forget her past. She moved from fiery to delicate in a matter of minutes – a testament to her range.

Chaddha’s highly expressive face also stood out in the ensemble cast of the classical music-themed Bandish Bandits. The web series explores the tussle between a rigid patrician and his adventurous grandson. Apart from Shankar-Ehsan Loy’s score and Naseeruddin Shah, Bandish Bandits was noteworthy for Chaddha’s character Mohini, who fights tradition and convention to assert herself. NR

Sheeba Chaddha in Bandish Bandits. Courtesy Still and Still Media Collective/Amazon Prime Video.

Sushmita Sen
After a 10-year absence owing partly to an illness, Sushmita Sen returned to headline the crime drama Aarya. The former Miss Universe immersed herself in a character she described as “Michael Corleone in the female form”, leaving fans hungry for more. They will be satisfied only when new seasons of the saga of the reluctant don who becomes a drug trafficker are rolled out. UJ

Swara Bhasker
From playing the heroine’s fast-talking best friend to a single parent to a feisty advocate of self-pleasuring, Swara Bhasker landed a triple bill with three web series in 2020. In Rasbhari, she played a small-town seductress, and in Flesh, a police officer. Bhasker was also the whole and soul of the series Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, about a runaway bride chasing her dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Her stock might be up, but the trolling hasn’t stopped for this outspoken actor. But she sure knows how to take the heckling head-on and blunt the blow with humour. UJ

Swara Bhasker in Rasbhari. Courtesy Amazon Prime Video.

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Tillotama Shome
Two older productions featuring lovely turns by Tilottama Shome came out this year. One was Chintu Ka Birthday, in which she plays the mother of a precious six-year-old-boy. She was the most watchable element of Is Love Enough, Sir, as a domestic worker who develops feelings for her employer. NR

Tillotama Shome in Is Love Enough, Sir? Courteys Inkpot Films/Cine Sud Promotion.