In this weekly series, Rahul Desai lists 50 of Hindi cinema’s favourite “third wheels” – that is, memorable characters whose roles are little more than fleeting cameos and little less than supporting turns – since 1990. There will be no particular order: just a colourful recollection of emblematic faces who’ve left us craving for more.

Accomplished screenwriter Abbas Tyrewala’s directorial debut, Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008), was a delightfully self-aware rom-com that, in time, would become a low-key Dil Chahta Hai for the generation after Farhan Akhtar’s genre-redefining urban buddy flick. In slight contrast though, this Aamir Khan production was populated by a bunch of young newcomers. They, too, spoke the language of the city (as opposed to “dialogues” of modernization) – and occupied a muted SoBo environment elevated by the sounds of A.R. Rahman’s rare rom-com form.

Yet, what’s most remarkable about this affable little hit is the fact that none of its new actors truly stood out for their talent or screen presence; the characters did.

Not unlike the Munna Bhai films, every fleeting role and “third wheel” served a purpose, contributing to the entertainment factor of a routine love story by subverting – and gently chuckling at – the self-serious rules of its age-old theme. Each of them will be remembered by their movie name – from the happy-go-lucky college gang of “Rats,” “Meow,” “Rotlu,” “Jiggy” and “Bombs” to the perceptive background influences of the “brother” Amit (Prateik Babbar, and his misunderstood Wake-Up-Sid-ness), arrogant fiancé Sushant (Ayaz Khan) and “girlfriend” Meghna (Manjari Phadnis, as the tragic manic pixie).

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But none more so than the members of the “Old Guard” – each of whose characters walked the thin line between sketchy caricatures and clever parodies. Everyone – from the painfully sarcastic Inspector Waghmare (Paresh Rawal), to the bumbling “Royal rejects” attempting to secure their manly rite of passage (an ingeniously cast Sohail and Arbaaz Khan), to the passive-aggressive companionship embodied by Meghna’s cynical parents (Rajat Kapoor, Kitu Gidwani) – deserved a spinoff film of their own. And at the core of this box of memorable chocolates lay the hero’s “parents” – immortalized by the real-life pair of Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah.

When I say “parents,” I of course meant the quintessential Bollywood situation of a widow who is determined to bring up her only son away from the dark shadows of the dead patriarch. Except, Tyrewala’s writing turns this tired “heavy” motif into a hilarious twist on tradition, bloodline and masculinity. The best scenes of the film have Savitri Rathore bickering with the talkative portrait of her deceased husband – an updated version of the endearing relationship between Anand Mathur (Ashok Saraf) and his dead first wife (Priya Tendulkar) in the timeless TV series, Hum Paanch.

Here, the famous Amar Singh Rathore’s legend – killed in “battle” with a rival family (“I killed 13, but the bloody 14th stabbed me in the back”) – is a loose contemporary interpretation of the original “Ranjodh ke Rathore”: a brave sixteenth-century warrior who had once single-handedly upheld the Rajput name against Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, before being deceived by his brother-in-law. While the warrior’s wife then led the Rajput forces to bring back his body, it is hinted that Savitri “escapes” to Mumbai with her baby in order to leave behind the violence, adrenaline and madness of the Rathore “khaandaan” and start afresh. All the while, Savitri unwittingly takes forward the “valiant” underdog legacy by becoming an agitated social worker in the big bad city.

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Jai has recurring dreams about himself on horseback, chasing various new-age avatars of the oppressive Mughal rule (Inspector Waghmare, Sushant) across a hot desert. Irrespective of how the original Rathore descendants reacted to Tyrewala’s alleged “bastardization” of their name, it cannot be argued that the filmmaker had a wicked sense of humour. As did the pair – who, with their impeccable comic timing, deliver one of the smartest potshots to the ancient Rajasthani obsession with monarchy and virility. And perhaps they were ahead of their time, in the sense that here was an endearing couple that became emblematic of outdated Rajput pride a full decade before the Padmavati circus; one can imagine many such Savitri(s) moving away from the men who made a nuisance of themselves over a big-budget Bollywood film.

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.

Best Scene

Savitri anxiously heads to the police station to rescue Jai from the vengeful clutches of Waghmare during a transport strike. Just as her friend’s car halts at a red light, Jai heroically rides a horse across them to the airport at the dead of night. “Wasn’t that your son?” the friend asks, incredulously. “No, he was my husband’s son,” Savitri wryly notes, finally coming to terms with the presence of his stubborn Rajput genes. Simultaneously, we see a jubilant Amar Singh Rathore celebrating within his portrait, dancing in clumsy circles, like only a deluded man would when he wins a debate against his adamant wife.

 

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