I'll admit it--I'm a Bollywood pusher. I'm quick to suggest Hindi films to my friends, always eager to send them links to fun videos of stars they've said they like, and really take pleasure in seeing them enjoy films which I'm sure they thought would be cheesy and awful (or films that were cheesy and awful, but that they enjoyed all the same). The question I always have to ask myself before I show a film to a friend is "which one will do the trick?" Though not exactly big Bollywood fans, most of my friends have exceptional taste in films, and I know I can't get away with showing them any old thing and hoping they'll be impressed. They won't be. I try to start with films that are as familiar as possible: films with believable storylines, a judicious use of dancing, and, above all, good acting.
Ahh, good acting. From my first exposure to Hindi films I wondered if that even really existed as a requirement to getting into the film industry. So much of what I saw early on was mediocre, forced, and, well...filmi. Don't get me wrong, I love Shah Rukh Khan, but the first films I saw of his were Devdas, Kal Ho Na Ho, and KKKG. All wonderful films, but a bit thin on the acting skill.
So who in the industry has actual acting chops? Here's my list. Mind you this is based solely on the films I've seen (I think that should be fairly obvious!) so feel free to let me know if my judgement has been misplaced!
Let's start with the ladies (in no particular order), as for some reason it's by far the shorter of the two lists:
Konkona Sen Sharma
I first caught her in Amu, a decidedly non-Bollywood film about the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, and she began making impressive showings in more and more of the films I loved: Life in a Metro, Wake Up Sid, Omkara, Luck By Chance, and Mixed Doubles. She brings a certain vivaciousness to her roles, and definitely makes interesting script choices. I've yet to be disappointed by one of her performances, and have started working my way (albeit somewhat slowly) through her entire body of work.
Admittedly I haven't seen much of Shabana Azmi's work, but I've loved what little I have. I think the first of her films I saw was the British film Madame Sousatzka, which hardly anyone remembers, but she was lovely in it, playing the mother of a young piano prodigy. And then of course there was Deepa Mehta's Fire, with a lesbian storyline which angered conservative filmgoers and led to cinema halls being burnt to the ground. Needless to say she was absolutely brilliant in it. I've just begun to watch Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. and so far she's just as lovely as I expected.
I've sadly only seen three of her films: Fire, Earth, and Provoked. I thought she did well with the material she was given in Provoked, and she was absoutely brilliant in both Deepa Mehta films. I'll never forget the scene in Fire where she dons a man's suit and mustache and dances Chaplin-esque in front of the mirror. She is always competely believable in her roles; no hysterics from Nandita Das.
She made a stunning debut in Dev D; it will be fascinating to see how her career progresses from that.
So far the first really mainstream actress on my list. I saw her in her debut, Parineeta, and was blown away. She played Lolita in a perfectly understated way, and you couldn't help but be lost in her character. The majority of the films I've seen her in since have been similarly impressive: Lage Raho Munnabhai and Bhool Bulaiyaa. Others have been so-so, but I think that's more a lack of decent material (ahem, Kismet Konnection) at fault than her.
Very good, I thought, in Dev D. Again, will be interesting to see what sorts of projects she takes on in the future.
Anyone who knows me knows Tabu's my girl. I adore her. Cheeni Kum, Kandukondain Kandukondain, The Namesake (especially The Namesake), Maqbool...the woman can do no wrong. The way she madly, deperately ran around the house in The Namesake, turning on all the lights and crying out in grief on the walkway killed me. She's perfect. She has a way of making me think, after a film is over, that she alone saved the movie for me. Cheeni Kum is a perfect example of this: though I thought Amitabh's character at the beginning wasn't half bad, by the end the movie had become almost unbearable, with the sole exception of Tabu's elegant performance.
Again, haven't had the good fortune to see very much of her, but that's not for lack of trying: though definitely one of the most intriguing and talented actresses (and dancers!) to hit the big screen in the last decade, she gave up films after doing only two. But those two were so good: Lagaan had me from beginning to end, and there's still no finer dance sequence than Radha Kaise Na Jale, in my opinion. And in Munnabhai MBBS she was light and sweet and just right.
Shefali Shetty (Shah)
I've seen her in exactly one film, and it's my favorite: Monsoon Wedding. She was heartbreaking in that film, and it's a performance that ranks as one of the best I've ever seen--not just in Indian cinema but in film, period.
If I've left anyone out, apologies. It's not that I don't love them (there are very few actresses I truly dislike), but it's likely that all I've seen of them are the same old recycled overly dramatic/vapid girlfriend roles. There are a few (Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, etc) who I do think have started to hit their stride but who honestly have not yet established themselves as "solid" actresses the way the women above have.