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.

Irrespective of the controversial foot-in-mouth right-winger that he has transformed into, Paresh Rawal will go down in history as one of the finest character actors in Hindi cinema. Many of his roles echo a freewheeling stage credibility to qualify in this “Third Wheels” series – from the question-bombarding landlord Hasmukhlal in Judaai, an iconic double-turn in Andaz Apna Apna and the gleefully corrupt Sub-Inspector Kashinath in Mohra to even something as minor as his cameo as a soulless BCCI administrator in Ferrari ki Sawaari.

But perhaps his most underrated – and, in my opinion, his most significant – performance comes as Tukaram Patil, the “bindaas,” seasoned but deeply resentful senior police constable from Nishikant Kamat’s multi-narrative communal drama, Mumbai Meri Jaan.

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Patil, the man with a weak bladder, has been on autopilot mode all his life, and is on the verge of retirement after 36 years of unflinching service. You can be sure he has had enough time to think about his legacy – and the lack of it. He is now the respected old been-there-done-that uncle in the Force, except he hasn’t been anywhere and done anything, even within his vast capacity as a local law enforcer. From the way other constables anticipate and chuckle at his jokes – there are multiple shots of their expectant faces whenever he speaks – it is clear that he is a harmless, lazy veteran who thrives on imparting anecdotes, diffusing tension and advertising his jocular attitude to hide his domestic insecurities.

The filmmaker equips Patil with two narrative devices that force him to introspect further – the aftermath of the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and the arrival of a young, intense and idealistic junior constable in the form of Sunil Kadam (a fantastic Vijay Maurya). He has an opportunity to mentor Kadam, but he has been so insignificant in his own eyes – “I haven’t caught one serious crook all career,” he often repeats, disguising his own ineptitude with humour – that he almost feels embarrassed to teach him the ropes. Patil is essentially a good man, but one who is acutely aware of his Maharashtrian middle-class weakness, as well as his own decision to submit to the complex system early on in life.

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From the way he interacts with an increasingly disillusioned Kadam, one senses that he doesn’t really believe in his own sermons. In Kadam, he sees his thirty-year-old self, still fresh and hopeful, and yet to develop a moral compass. And in the one scene where he decides to harass a modest tea-seller (an equally memorable Irrfan Khan in one of his early roles), he exhibits all the frustrations of an adult desperate to achieve something during his city’s darkest hour. He is, in a way, the perfect prototype of the modern-day city cop – so many of whom never quite attract the spotlight and heroism they had once imagined they would.

Rawal immortalizes him in a manner that ironically requires him to imagine himself at a stage where he has not accomplished anything substantial in his acting career. His regret and resentment feels eerily real – one that eventually helps him recognize the importance of setting an example for his juniors. It is to Kamath’s credit that Patil isn’t given a filmy, crowd-pleasing climax to redeem himself. Much as life, all he is given is a parting speech. And a farewell gift.

Best Scene

There has rarely been a better monologue than Patil’s four-minute speech in Mumbai’s emotionally charged post-2005 landscape. Patil attempts to make a difference on his last day at work; the camera focuses on his face in one unbroken shot, with Kadam’s hazy figure listening in the background from behind the doorway. This is the culmination of their brief relationship – one that finally leaves a strong impression on a suspended Kadam, who wipes away his tears as he listens to a tired, old policeman mourn Mumbai’s changes in a typically lyrical yet everyman manner. He laments not only his own dehumanized career but also the city that made him this way, promising to be a better professional if he had a chance to do it all over again. “I speak like a Shayar,” he grins, again trying to diffuse the heaviness of the room. But this time, he chokes up and expresses a vulnerability that was bound to overflow in light of his beloved city’s fragmented new avatar.

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