A few months ago, our critic Rahul Desai started a list of his favourite “third wheels” in Hindi cinema – that is, memorable characters whose roles are little more than fleeting cameos and little less than supporting turns – since 1990. There is be no particular order: just a colourful recollection of emblematic faces who’ve left us craving for more. Here we list the first ten entries:
As melodramatic Goan don Anthony Gomes in Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), Goga Kapoor tips his (mafia) hat to his own tired side-villain legacy – by playing a “softy” retro gangster who, presumably rebelling against masala movies’ favourite template, becomes a diehard fan of the film’s jittery young protagonist, Sunil (Shah Rukh Khan). He spoke like a don, but emoted like a hero. He was everything a menacing filmy outlaw wasn’t supposed to be: emotional, romantic, tragic, generous, lovelorn and – a rarity in Kapoor’s case – the boss.
Vijay Raaz’s Parabatlal Kanhaiyalal Dubey was perhaps Monsoon Wedding’s most important element. He represented not only the rare bridging of the class divide in a region notorious for dehumanizing these peripheral “lowly” figures, but also symbolized the only real outsider in an environment full of conflicted, hypocritical Punjabi insiders. That they achieved a level of honesty synonymous with his – and therefore celebrated his “small” wedding with their bigger one in the final scene – remains the film’s most enduring and remarkable achievement.
In 2012, much of India fell for the ultimate assassin. Rarely before had a murderously mischievous cameo, played by a veteran regional actor barely known to Bollywood enthusiasts, become such an overnight sensation. This “cool” man, though, was a grotesque and strangely delicious subversion of the romanticized template: older, pot-bellied, polite, bland and the bespectacled “every-man,” complete with the most unassuming – and therefore, wildly frightening – catchphrase. “Nomoshkar,” purred Bob Biswas (notice the cheeky superhero/villain alliteration) in Sujoy Ghosh’s atmospheric Kahaani. “Ek minute,” he winced, as if apologetically asking for a pinch of salt.
Subodh, over time, became more than a character; he became an adjective to address an entire breed of “stable” companions. “Don’t be such a Subodh” is a regular figure of speech even today, especially while mocking a particular brand of blandness and security in a relationship desperate for new-age pace and adventure. It isn’t complimentary, and yet it is – because he remains an aspirational figure in a country whose urban-dwelling, intellectually limited men are becoming increasingly aware of cinema’s unrealistic standards. And Hindi cinema, at least before this decade, depended so heavily on the inherent manliness of their heroes – even when they were losing and crying – that it became imperative to run down nerds and geeks in order to highlight the artificial complexities of good-looking love stories.
For long, Hindi cinema had mistaken juvenile nobility for song-and-dance-montaged squeaky-clean dialogues and “cutesy” children. With Khadija, the focus might have shifted to organic behavioral patterns and competent child artistry. Ironically, it took a character emblematic of communication to bring about this necessary change. Of course, it needed a bit of cricket – the better kind of religion – for us to sit up and take notice.
The Savitri-Amar bond, in context of the 1990s “masala” thematic threads (reincarnation, family revenge) it succeeded, remains funny because of how progressive it is – especially within the confines of a self-depreciatory cinematic romance that culminates in a classic airport dash. And who better than Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah to hold a mirror to the illnesses of mainstream storytelling and social structure? And they do so, even while reinforcing the importance of these clichés. Of telling the same story, and making a strong case – perhaps a little differently.
We’ve seen this person morph into a low-hanging caricature in so many comedies. Here, Rishi Kapoor – who else but a member of Bollywood regality – lends Romy the kind of easy uncle-ness that, for the first time, compels us to look beyond the crass proverbs, silk shirts and curly hair. He is both funny and real because he refuses to evolve while mourning the demise of the wine-and-respect industry he once knew. And yet he is the oblivious to the fact that he is also the poster-child of nepotism, wondering why the “stars” don’t want to work with him when he is launching the directorial career of his excitable younger brother (Sanjay Kapoor).
On the face of it, the role of Dhingra in Rockstar was destined to be a total caricature. Even further so, when one considers that Dhingra is the closest this gloriously messy film comes to having a conventional “villain” – designed solely to make us notice the realness of Ranbir Kapoor as a musician far too talented and restless for the small-minded man he works under. But Mishra immortalizes the record-label owner in a way that at once makes him sound familiar, and yet so very different from all the other standard impersonations of shady media moguls we have seen in Hindi cinema over the decades.
A far cry from the villainous roles he normally excelled at, an inspired Anand here represents the dying soul of the Mandwa that was unjustly taken away from Vijay’s parents. He is senile, desperate and lonesome – dismissed as a harmless nuisance in the land he once loved. He is their last connection to the past, still garnering hope for a future against all odds. A natural successor to his legacy would be Rakhee’s “Mere Karan-Arjun aayenge” routine in Rakesh Roshan’s 1995 reincarnation blockbuster, given that Nathu, too, believes that the son of the slain will return in style to reclaim the corrupted village from Kancha’s murderous hands. Not to mention the timeless and wise old mandrill Rafiki, from The Lion King, whose slow march into insanity is redeemed when Simba actually returns to avenge the death of his father. The resemblance is uncanny.
It might be easy to dismiss him as a shrill outlier desperate for validation, but Chatur in fact – despite a flimsy resolution designed to reward the starry heroes – humanizes the geek by sounding like such a clown. He is made to be the same student-man years later, even as a Vice President of an American company, when in reality he might have had to unlearn everything he learned at the Imperial College of Engineering to succeed abroad. If anything, he was the Fourth Idiot. Maybe if (NRI) Vaidya weren’t a complete debutant, there would be more to Chatur than meets the eye – and ear. Or even nose: given that his nickname, Silencer, was derived from his “quiet” farts, a smelly byproduct of his ambitious memory pills.