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.
A list like this one organically lends itself to comedy – a genre that is built solely upon the interplay between characters and situations striving to be memorable. While it’s usually easier to identify the odd “comic-relief” cameo in dramatic and romantic films, it is considerably trickier to stand out in an out-and-out laugh riot. More so, if it’s a cult classic like Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri, arguably one of the best Bollywood comedies of all time.
Perhaps only an actor of Om Puri’s caliber could have turned what was essentially yet another offensive ‘Sardarji’ caricature into an enduring presence within a movie full of iconic roles – from the Borivali-based ‘Star Garage’ trio led by Paresh Rawal’s Baburao Ganpatrao Apte to Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s wealthy, worried grandpa Devi Prasad and Asrani’s no-nonsense Bank Manager to Gulshan Grover’s villainous Kabira (Speaking), his ‘squeeze’ (Kashmira Shah, reuniting with Grover after Yes Boss), and his trash-talking Mumbaiya sidekick immortalized by the late great Razzak Khan.
Om Puri’s Kharak Singh, ironically, stood out in an overpopulated plot not because of any witty line or set piece, but because his is a tragic – and most of all, painfully trusting – personality in a story that thrives on mistrust.
Hera Pheri is driven by the despair and desperation of everyone involved, and there is nobody more desperate than Kharak Singh. He travels all the way to Bombay in search of “Ghanshyam” (Sunil Shetty), who he had generously lent thirty thousand rupees in times of need. He now needs the money back for his sister’s wedding, and he is torn between disappointment and inherent paternal love for the soft-spoken, sincere young man. While the others in the film delve into ambiguous grey areas in pursuit of survival, Kharak Singh is the only one honest and pure enough to refrain from shortcuts and continually rely on the rooted compassion of small-town bonds. Every time he reaches Babu Bhaiya’s house in a gung-ho mood, after a bit of theatrical tomfoolery Singh inevitably softens up like a big teddy bear and ends up emotionally blackmailing Shyam by invoking memories of his unmarried sister. He humanizes the chaos around him, despite ticking all the boxes of Hindi cinema’s heightened Sikh stereotype.
In a way, he symbolizes the datedness of tradition in a film that, beneath its genre extremities, doubles up as a sympathetic migrant drama. He looks completely out of place in an environment that apparently only rewards those who have the spirit to manipulate their own destiny. Yet, Singh comes across as the kind of loyal soul that would rather perish to his own strengths than contrive to emulate the weaknesses of the big bad city. The late actor plays Kharak Singh with this kind of straight-faced, stubborn angst – one that makes viewers simultaneously approving and scornful of his actions.
In the typically nutty Priyadarshan climax, while the three amigos go about executing their harebrained passive-kidnap plan in a mammoth go-down, Kharak Singh and his sword-bearing comrades quietly watch from a dark corner, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on Shyam again. In a curiously heartwarming scene, Singh – who suddenly realizes that the villains are attacking his old friend and a frightened little girl – goes from wanting to kill Shyam to wanting to rescue him. Om Puri’s inimitable nasal tone instantly switches from angry to protective, as if he were watching a movie that presents him with an unexpected twist. He then leads his group of warriors into the battlefield with intentions designed solely to save Shyam. One can be sure that his heart – and not the fear of losing the impending money – is driving his charge.