Digital platforms have become catalysts to uniting entertainment as a sole entity in which languages and genres are now peripheral.
With cinemas now opening up and big blockbusters finally seeing the light of day, as well as the influx of OTT media gaining prominence in India and across the globe. We have seen a barrage of talents this year, many include prominent actors – some fresh and others established.
So what does ‘game-changing’ mean? Well, we interpret this as performances that are somewhat dynamic, distinct and impressive within an actor’s filmography. We have also considered their upcoming works. Our list is in no particular order.
Sanon began her career with Heropanti, a Bollywood potboiler and has always shone in the roles given, even if a film has been underwhelming.
Her breakthrough Bareilly Ki Barfi fused romance, humour and realism. Rom-Coms have certainly been her forte.
But in 2021, Kriti has elevated after a powerful performance in Laxman Utekar’s social-comedy Mimi on Netflix, where she plays a surrogate mother to a foreign couple. A role that she carries fully on her shoulders. Then later in Hum Do Hamare Do, where she adopts parents with her husband
Sanon is finally getting her dues and catapulting to new heights of stardom. We can look forward to an upcoming slate of titles like horror-comedy Bhediya, action Bachchan Pandey and historical-epic Adipurush, among others.
Listed in YouGov’s ‘World’s Most Admired People’ 2021 list, Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ transition from Hindi cinema to Hollywood is an inspiration.
To get a role in mainstream cinema, let alone backing a film is incredibly tough. But The White Tiger, on that front, is a game-changer as Priyanka stars and co-produces. It subsequently got numerous nominated at the Oscars and BAFTA.
In The Matrix: Resurrections, she reprises the role of grown-up Sati, a pivotal character for the protagonist’s progression. Playing such an essential role in one of the biggest movie franchises is certainly a remarkable achievement.
Priyanka gears up for numerous releases in the future with Text For You, Citadel and her next Bollywood comeback, Jee Le Zaraa.
Ahmed already created history this year by becoming the first British-Asian Muslim to be nominated for an Oscar in the ‘Leading Actor’ category.
In Sound Of Metal, he plays a hearing-impaired drummer who grapples with his broken dream and reality. It is a poignant and heartfelt performance.
Then in Encounter, a Sci-Fi thriller, he plays a Marine Corps veteran and ex-convict who elopes to protect his children from an alien invasion. Arguably, Ahmed’s greyest and most emotionally-charged work yet.
With two very enthralling performances back-to-back, Riz continues to rise as an artist.
From Harrow to Hollywood, Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel has continuously reinvented himself as an artist.
Through Oscar-nominated The Personal History Of David Copperfield, Patel shows that equal representation is best done through colour-blind casting. His performance in The Green Knight is a testament to that.
In the medieval fantasy film, he plays Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur. A valiant role, performed brilliantly, true to the craft of acting.
We are excited to see Dev in his first directorial Monkey Man, an action thriller in which he stars with Sobhita Dhulipala. A trailblazer in every way!
Inclusivity in cinema is of paramount importance these days, more than ever. Lauren Ridloff is an icon in so many ways and a phenomenal talent as her characters convey the perspectives of those who suffer from hearing impairments.
Recognised from The Walking Dead and broadway play Children Of A Lesser God, she has given two back-to-back endearing performances.
In the recent Sound Of Metal, she plays a compassionate teacher who helps the protagonist learn American Sign Language.
Then in Marvel’s Eternals, she plays Makkari, which unlike the comic, is a person of colour and a female. The character is touted to be the ‘first deaf superhero’ in MCU. Despite a major cast, Ridloff shines strongly on her part.
Stewart has been an actor since a young age and playing Bella in the Twilight franchise rose her to fame and popularity.
Over time, she has also been dedicated to independent productions including Camp X-Ray, Still Alice and Equals. Her performance in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, however, has been an ice-breaker.
The re-imagined tale on Diana’s Christmas at Balmoral, shows Stewart delivering a powerful performance and at times, strikes an uncanny resemblance with the Princess.
Beyond the movie being a biographical take on Lady Di, it delves into striking a conversation about mental health and reactions toward it amidst the aristocratic classes in our society.
Deepika has risen like a phoenix this year and it’s not about the length of a role, but its quantity. Kabir Khan’s 83, although a cameo, plays a pivotal role and acts as the ‘voice of reason’ amidst the high-octane emotional sporting story.
She is also the co-producer of the film which marks her second production. This is a first for an A-list actress to produce a movie of this scale and grandiose, which itself breaks glass ceilings of sorts.
Padukone has a stellar lineup of films including Sidharth Anand’s Fighter with Hrithik Roshan, Madhu Mantena’s Draupadi, The Intern with Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan-John Abraham starrer Pathan and Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan with Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi.
The superstar will also star and co-producer an international cross-cultural romantic comedy with Hollywood production giant, STX Films.
We don’t usually add debutants to the list, but Zhang’s performance in the film is solid and has such an inspiring story.
Daughter of an actor and stage designer, Zhang’s experience was largely in Chinese theatre and musical productions.
Having studied the art of acting in London and Russia, an unassuming Meng’er Zhang sent off an audition tape for Marvel’s Shang-Chi. Lo and behold, she got the part.
She plays superhero sister Xu Xialing, a character who is equally strong (if not stronger) and shines bright with her valour.
There is something that is totally kick-ass about Emma Stone. From doing theatre as a child to gaining prominence with Teen-comedies like Superbad, Stone has progressed so much as an actor.
It’s no surprise as to why she bagged the ‘Best Actress’ for La La Land because a few of her roles exude strong ‘broadway’ and theatrical feel.
Stone grabbed eyeballs with Cruella, the whacky villain-origin story by Disney. Her performance is dapper, stylish and compels one to empathise with the role. The black-and-white hairstyle and outfit are here to stay too!
It will be exciting to see her unite with Yorgos Lanthimos for Poor Things, continuing in the dark comedy genre.
Daniel’s roots are firmly implanted within the improvisational theatre style. An actor in the truest sense.
His work in Television series like Skins made him a household name but after breaking through with Get Out, his landmark performance led him to several award nominations and iconic status.
In 2021 and at the age of 32, became the seventh-youngest Academy Award Best Supporting Actor winner for his work in Judas And The Black Messiah.
Portraying the role of revolutionary socialist Fred Hampton, Kaluuya delivers (arguably) his most powerful performance yet by presenting the brave story of a man who fought back racial discrimination in Illinois during the 60s.
Gourav has proven his calibre since he was a teen when he starred as the young Rizwan Khan in My Name Is Khan.
Since then, he has shined in films like Rukh, where he plays a character who fights his inner and exterior conflict. Then exploring the dark side of humanity as a rapist in Mom.
The BAFTA-nominated actor hit it out of the park with Netflix’s The White Tiger as Balram Halwai, a cunning driver who conspires to escape the clutches of poverty. He is fascinating to watch on screen.
It will be exciting to see him Apple TV’s Explorations and Zoya Akhtar’s Kho Gaye Hum Kahaan, in future projects.
Jennifer Hudson is an icon. She is the recipient of various accolades for both her music and acting, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Daytime Emmy Award and two Grammy Awards.
Over the years, she has fused music and movies in a seamless manner and is certainly no stranger to playing music icons in titles like Dreamgirls.
However, her performance in Respect certainly deserves what the title suggests. Playing ‘Soul’ Queen Aretha Franklin, Hudson powerfully depicts her life from being born to a musical prodigy and stardom to enduring an abusive marriage and constraints of patriarchy.
This performance is certainly in the Oscar race and most deservedly.
An endearing and vibrant personality amalgamated with an abundance of talent. That is the legendary Youn Yuh-jung for you.
Yuh-jung received back-to-back commemorations of Oscars (in ‘Supporting Role’ for her Hollywood debut, Minari) as well as the ‘Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit’ – South Korea’s highest cultural sector medal.
Having emerged as the first Korean to bag an Oscar, Youn has appeared in two powerful roles in 2021. In Minari, she plays a widow travelling to America to safeguard her grandchildren.
Then she also played an ageing prostitute in The Bacchus Lady. Two back-to-back powerful, lightly comical and yet tragic characters performed with grace.
It is always a challenge for actors from Indian Television to get opportunities to rebrand and explore a plethora of roles. Mohit Raina, however, is a major success story.
For many of us, his divine aura as Lord Shiva in Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev is unforgettable. Seeing him as a soldier in Uri: The Surgical Strike leaves us feeling pride and poignant. This year though, Raina pushes the envelope further.
In Mumbai Diaries 26/11, he acts as a divorced lawyer who grapples with his doctor profession and damaged personal life amidst the 2008 Mumbai Attacks.
We later saw him in Shiddat where he plays an Indian Foreign Services officer who chooses duty over love. Two very powerful roles are depicted with ease. We look forward to seeing more great work from him.
Taylor-Joy is an actor who certainly has the knack for playing period characters and dark narratives.
Whether it’s portraying the titular role of Emma or a girl captured by evil forces in The Witch, Anya has never failed to impress us.
Through Last Night In Soho, however, she delivers arguably her fieriest performance yet as the dark vigilante from the 60s. Sandy is an image still fresh in our minds.
She has some fascinating projects in the pipeline including epic historical-thriller The Northman and becoming Princess Peach for Universal Pictures’ Mario film.
It’s never easy for an outsider to break through and survive, let alone thrive. But Kartik is a prime example of a thriving talent.
In the early stages of his career, he explored the rom-com genre through the Punchanama series even though titles like Akash Vaani and Kaanchi there are serious undertones.
This year though, which also marks his 10th anniversary in Bollywood, Aaryan shakes off the fun and comical image with Dhamaka as a journalist negotiating with a terrorist whilst presenting live on television. It is a role performed solidly and passionately.
One awaits to see how Kartik delivers in future projects like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Freddy and Shehzada.
With an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and four Primetime Emmy Awards to her credit, Regina is a powerful figure and actor.
Her roles have always been revolutionary, be it If Beale Street Could Talk or Seven Seconds, King’s characters have fought against suppression and societal norms.
The Harder They Fall is one such trailblazing venture to emerge this year as it has a predominantly black cast in the Western style of cinema. Regina’s first experience of exploring the genre.
Her character is powerful yet dark in equal measure as an outlaw gang member, Trudy Smith. Despite being a film headlined by men, the female characters are equally strong and ferocious. A dynamite performance.
Success has not come easy for Parineeti. It’s been a challenging 10-year journey thus far, but 2021 is arguably most rewarding for her.
In The Girl On The Train, she plays an alcoholic divorcee who gets embroiled in a murder case.
Then in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, a bank executive was framed for a crime she did not commit. Saina sees her plays the real-life badminton champion.
Chopra is endeavouring to explore her creativity as an actor and it will be wonderful to see her in Animal and Uunchai in the future.
Azmeri Haque Badhon
A glamorous talent with knowledge in dentistry, Badhon is quite a gem and has worked in Bangladeshi cinema for several years now.
This year has been a game-changer as her film Rehana Maryam Noor, the first Bangladeshi title to be showcased under the Un Certain Regard category. It’s also the country’s official Oscar submission.
Azmeri displays a plethora of emotions whilst portraying the bottle-kneck situation of an assistant medical professor who discovers her colleague has sexually assaulted a student.
After such a raw and real performance, she is set to make her Bollywood debut in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya.
Since her dynamite debut in Gangs Of Wasseypur, Huma has never shied away from playing diverse characters of various shades.
This year, Qureshi celebrates numerous releases and in roles of different styles of cinema. She even made her Hollywood debut in Zack Snyder’s zombie-heist Army Of The Dead on Netflix.
A 360 degree turn from the film, she then starred in Maharani on SonyLIV, playing an accidental politician, who is forced to fight patriarchal and corrupt forces.
We later see her in a brief but pivotal part in Bell Bottom, playing an antagonistic character. She is set to star in the highly-awaited Tamil flick Valimai and another Netflix original, Monica, O My Darling. Huma is on a roll!
Joanna Scanlan is an English actor and screenwriter who has always left a lasting presence on television shows like The Thick Of It, Puppy Love and No Offence.
She was even nominated at BAFTA TV Awards for her work in Getting On. Film appearances include titles like Girl With Pearl Earring and Stardust.
Scanlan’s performance in After Love is so powerful. She plays a widowed white woman, who converted to Islam for her husband, only to discover that he was living a double life.
Carrying the film on her shoulders, her eyes convey sorrow and grief, but yet there is formidability. There is sincerity in her enactment which makes the role seem so raw and real, even the Urdu delivery.
Additionally, Joanna has tickled the audience’s funny bones with the ITV drama The Larkins. She is a talent we deserve to (and hopefully will continue to) see more of.
To make an acting debut with an emotionally-layered role is certainly no cakewalk, especially when it comes to playing the lead in Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical The Hand Of God so effortlessly.
The touches on Sorrentino’s own tumultuous childhood growing up in 1980s Naples, where his world was changed first by the electrifying arrival of soccer legend Diego Maradona and then by a shocking accident.
It was a lengthy process for Scotti to bag the role where he spent an entire Summer preparing for it. He was conscious to not emulate the filmmaker’s life and is marvellous in the part.
Having moved from Naples to Rome, the 21-year-old is hopeful to expand his film career. A true legend in the making.
An experienced actor whose acting credentials in Television has always stood out and impressed audiences.
From a series like Maryada to her debut web show Asur, many of her characters exude strong social undertones, as well as display artistry.
In 2021, however, Ridhi hits it out of the park with The Married Woman, she plays a woman who falls in love with another, presenting a humanised representation of homosexuality in mainstream Hindi entertainment.
After such a riveting act, it will be fascinating to see Dogra make her Bollywood debut in Lakadbaggha as a Kokota-based Crime Branch Officer.
Since his debut, Vicky has been rooted and ravishing in all roles. Life post-Masaan propelled him to become a bankable name in Bollywood.
The turning point for his career happened following Raazi and Sanju, wherein major films, his serious yet endearing presence brightens up screens.
A major game-changing moment however has emerged this year with Sardar Udham, wherein he plays the Indian revolutionary who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in London to avenge the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.
His acting is nuanced as there is nationalistic pride and fury as well as poise. It is an incredible portrayal of India’s unsung hero, one which will always haunt audiences. Kaushal will be next seen in Govinda Naam Mera.
At such a young age, Pugh has explored a plethora of characters that are of such mature shades – be it an aspiring footballer in Fighting With My Family or a traumatised woman discovering a cult in Midsommar.
Even in period films like Lady Macbeth and Outlaw King, she has played powerful, compelling and believable performances.
This year, however, she portrays the most distinctive act as Yelena Belova in Black Widows. Her Russian accent, razor-sharp action and subtle humour is dynamite to watch on screen.
Her presence is solid even when she reprises the role in Disney+’s Hawkeye. Forthcoming projects also include the psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling and the debut production A Good Person.
From being prominent faces in major commercial films like Pardes and Jab We Met to now being finally recognised, Pavan Malhotra is a talent who has never got his dues.
He has played two back-to-back Sardar roles whilst making his digital debut this year. In Grahan, he plays the role of a cop’s father which unravels a dark past linked to the 1984 Sikh Massacre.
Then in Tabbar, he plays a vigilante who will stop at no cost to protect his family.
These are two very notable performances that are satisfying to watch as audiences. It’s high time that talents like Malhotra continue to get the credit they rightfully deserve.
Nimisha has always gained critical acclaim for her work. This year, though, she’s done extremely well.
In Malayalam films Nayattu, she plays a headstrong cop and then in Malik she essays a vigilante’s sister. Two of which make strong societal commentary.
However, her performance in The Great Indian Kitchen is exemplary. With minimal dialogues and sheer body language, she addresses misogyny and regressive norms of marriage.
Sajayan is a tremendous talent who will be seen in further great projects like Nathalia Syam’s Footprints On Water.
Sidharth’s journey in Hindi cinema has been the dream of all outsiders and aspiring actors. He is an inspiration to many.
Since his spectacular debut in Student Of The Year, he has brought simplicity to every role – be it a suspect in Ittefaq or a gangster-turned-scorned-lover in Ek Villain.
This year though, Malhotra delivers arguably his most heartfelt and valiant role yet in Shershaah. He plays Param Vir Chakra-awardee Captain Vikram Batra. The film documents his first posting in the army to his death in the Kargil War.
A role that is patriotic yet so human in essence, certainly one which is a highlight of 2021. It will be fun to watch him back in action (literally) in Yodha and Mission Majnu.
Kate Winslet is a legend who needs no introduction and is among the most prominent actresses of our generation.
From Titanic to Little Children, she has always played headstrong characters that are complex in nature and emotions. Mare Of Easttown is a title that dominated 2021. Owing to its popularity, Winslet won her second Emmy Award.
Kate plays a detective in Pennsylvania who investigates a local murder while trying to keep her life from falling apart. Rooted, raw and real, Winslet yet again proves her mettle as an actor. We look forward to seeing her in Avatar 2.
What an incredible 11-year journey it has been for Ranveer. From delivering a sleeper hit like Band Baaja Baaraat to an antagonistic historical character in Padmaavat, he has come leaps and bounds as an actor.
The game-changing moment happened in 2019 after Gully Boy got shortlisted for the Oscars. However, 83 excels his performance further.
Being his first sports film, it’s also the first time he portrays a character who is real and alive. Playing Kapil Dev, captain at the 1983 Cricket World Cup, his resemblance to the cricketing legend is uncanny and effective. Among his best performances yet.
Singh has a busy lineup of projects including Cirkus, Jayeshbhai Jordaar and Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani.
As a music artist, Gaga needs no introduction. Her presence on stage as well as behind the mic is powerful. Thus, her album Love For Sale received acclaim this year.
The star is certainly no stranger to acting. From dark exploitation films like Machete Kills to romances A Star Is Born, she has explored a vast range.
However, nothing quite beats her House Of Gucci portrayal of Italian socialite Patrizia Reggiani, who was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci.
From her accent to the unpredictable demeanour, Gaga is extremely convincing in the role and shares a fiery reel camaraderie with Adam Driver. Definitely, an Oscar-worthy performance which leaves us wanting more!
Rupali has dedicated her life to the performing arts. From a child artist in Saaheb to the popular Monisha on Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai, Ganguly has always impressed us.
She also played a modern-day, helicopter mother whose upbringing stands the test of time in Parvarrish – Kuchh Khattee Kuchh Meethi. After which she took a 7-year sabbatical to play the titular character of Anupamaa, a huge breakthrough.
Even though the serial has been airing for a year, Rupali’s performance is high-octane jam-packing a plethora of emotions. She is empowering as a dutiful housewife breaking free from a regressive and patriarchal family.
Anupamaa is a tribute to all women to pursue their dreams and do whatever makes them happy. It nonchalantly questions the so-called implicit norms of a wedding.
Shahid has come such a long way since Ishq Vishk. Projects such as Vivah, Kaminey and Haider proved that the actor is more than just a chocolate boy hero.
He already changed the game with Kabir Singh in which he plays a self-destructive lover. Whilst the character raised eyebrows, his performance is undoubtedly unnerving and yet so sincere.
With Jersey, Kapoor takes sentimentality to whole new levels. He plays a father resuming his cricket career to fulfil his son’s dreams. The full-throttle delivery embraces male sentimentality as well as subtle addressing mental health issues within men. Plus, he revisits cricket after 12 years.
Shahid is set to flex more muscles with Bull in which he will play a paratrooper and makes his digital debut in Raj & DK’s next.
Vidya Balan is one of the finest talents in India. Breaking through was not easy but since The Dirty Picture, she has proven her mettle with her portrayal of solid characters.
This year, Balan explores two distinct yet socially impactful roles. In Natkath, which premiered on Voot, she plays a doting mother who educates her young son on misogyny. Balan’s first short film production and is so striking.
In Sherni, Vidya plays a forest officer who fights patriarchal colleagues who inflict danger to nature and wildlife. Her role is the most subtle yet equally formidable. Her demeanour is not gung-ho like a typical officer and emotions are underplayed delicately. A rare performance of a rare representation in Hindi cinema.
Upcoming projects include Jalsa with Shefali Shah and a rom-com featuring Pratik Gandhi, Sendhil Ramamurthy and Ileana D’Cruz.
Ever since his debut in Boy A, Garfield has proved that when it comes to acting, he means business. His other titles Hacksaw Ridge and Silence are a testament to this.
Playing Spider-Man is no unfamiliar experience for the actor. But seeing him in No Way Home as a cameo presents the superhero’s cuteness, humour vulnerability and craft so beautifully.
In Tick, Tick… Boom! he delivers a stellar act as the legendary artist, Jonathan Larson. The Eyes of Tammy Faye sees him as the infamous televangelist and convicted fraudster, Jim Bakker. Two distinct real-life characters are presented in a compelling manner.
Andrew headlines the upcoming TV Mini-series Under the Banner of Heaven.
Samantha Ruth Prabhu
Samantha is South India’s superstar and a highly bankable name. From romantic roles like Ye Maaya Chesave to Kaththi, she has always been a part of major potboilers which grossed big numbers at the box office.
This year though, she made her Hindi digital debut as Raji in The Family Man (Season 2) as the antagonist, the role as a rebel leader.
Her fierce expressions and action yet vulnerability is what stays with us after the series. She balances both these aspects so effectively.
It will be fascinating to see her in Tamil movies Shaakunthalam and Kaathu Vaakula Rendu Kaadhal in future projects.
Abhishek Bachchan is on a roll in terms of reinventing himself as an actor, From playing the ‘voice of reason’ in Manmarziyaan to playing a split personality patient in Breathe: Into The Shadows.
Now, Bachchan has changed career dynamics by portraying a contract killer in Bob Biswas. It’s a role that we have not seen him depict before.
We not only see him exude a chilling presence, but he presents a humanised version of a brutal being. He strikes a perfect balance between both characteristics.
In future works, we will see him in the societal comedy, Dasvi where he plays an uneducated politician. He is reinventing himself and how.
Konkona Sen Sharma
Konkona is a rare talent who not only has mastered the craft of acting in commercial and art-house styles, but also has a polished craft of filmmaking.
This year, Sharma scores highly. In Ajeeb Daastaans, she plays a Dalit who falls in love with her Co-worker who is of a higher-caste. Her formidable depiction is a punch to all societal, cultural and gender disparities within our community.
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 marks her first full acting role in the OTT space. She plays a Social Services Director who safeguards patients during the 2008 Mumbai Attacks. A very emotionally challenging role performed with authenticity.
In The Rapist, she plays a criminology professor and rape survivor who questions the justice system. A heartbreaking yet powerful character essayed fabulously. Konkona will next be seen in Kuttey by Vishal Bhardwaj’s son, Aasmaan.
Kangana Ranaut is among the most powerful performers in Hindi cinema. Since her initial days in Gangster, she has moulded into a plethora of roles. Titles like Tanu Weds Manu and Queen are game-changers.
Ranaut has played formidable historical figures in movies like Manikarnika in the past, but her portrayal as Jayalalithaa in Thalaivii is extraordinary. Playing the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu – she is a force to be reckoned with.
Kangana will also be releasing her maiden production Tiku Weds Sheru. She will also be seen as an air-force pilot in Tejas and Hindu goddess Sita. We are certainly excited to see these future projects!
Notable names: Manav Kaul, Jessica Chastain, Supriya Pathak, Suriya, Amruta Subhash, Hina Khan, Dulquer Salmaan, Olivia Colman, Sanam Saeed, Satyajeet Dubey, Sara Ali Khan, Tom Holland, Aayush Sharma, Arvind Swamy, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Vaani Kapoor, Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Abhimanyu Dassani, Mrunal Thakur, Pranutan Bahl, Janhvi Kapoor and Sanya Malhotra.
Watch some of our interactions with the Game-Changers: