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.
Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani is essentially about an aspirational Imtiaz Ali hero trying to find compatible ground with a virtuous Rajkumar Hirani heroine. I’m not entirely exaggerating here. I say aspirational Imtiaz Ali hero not just because it’s Ranbir Kapoor or a boy who wants to travel the world, but also because his character Kabir – like most male Ali protagonists – is aching to locate turmoil in his relationship with his parents. You can sense that Kabir almost hopes for a massive generational conflict with his father and stepmother so that it becomes easier for him to leave and follow his dreams.
But that isn’t the case, as much as he seems to be subconsciously looking to assuage his guilt. Kabir wants to be a conventional Bollywood film – a patriarchal dad, a bitchy stepmom, the works – but the gentle pragmatism of his situation reminds him that he can’t be one. He behaves like he resents his father for remarrying, but this might just be an excuse to accelerate his own restlessness.
Therein lies the difference with Mukerji’s more millennial, grounded perspective. Making the parents haters is the easy thing to do – done in far more accomplished, rooted and non-grandstanding ways by movies like Udaan, Rockstar and Dil Dhadakne Do. Kabir’s father (the late Farooq Sheikh) here is instead sensible, empathetic, perceptive, non-dramatic and endlessly tolerant, while his wife (Tanvi Azmi) is equally mature about Kabir’s juvenile hostility. They are, more often that not, torn between reluctant control and inherent tenderness.
Sheikh plays the role so wonderfully, so naturally, that you wonder why more Indian storytellers don’t choose to explore this “other” side of fatherhood. Maybe this picture of fatherhood isn’t as theatrical, maybe it doesn’t fit the palette of masala sensibilities, but there is perhaps not a youngster in this country unmoved by each of the man’s three unassuming scenes with his son. When I first watched the film in 2013, I wasn’t satisfied with the ending – no self-respecting “drifter” would settle for a love that is at odds with his free spirit. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve begun to understand why Kabir (he sheds the Bunny-ness) might have been looking for a balance of ideals – he compromised a little, as did she. They reached middle ground. I’ve understood that the father is the enabler, and he is also the reason why the hero – unable to locate instability at home – goes where the wind takes him, only to eventually identify this familiar sense of security in Naina.
He feels guilty that he might have been too selfish by avoiding his father’s funeral, and by taking his old man’s advice to fly away too literally. In Naina he sees an opportunity to redefine the meaning of freedom – by belonging to someone else as much as himself. He is a more complicated go-getter than DDLJ’s Raj Malhotra, which makes his father an updated version of the path breaking “pops” Dharamvir Malhotra, who is also a part of this list.
Perhaps Mukherji’s decision stemmed from his usage of Anupam Kher as cinema’s mandatory dour and disapproving-businessman father in his first film, Wake Up Sid. Reimagining Sid in a different household, opposite a similar girl who influences him with her sense of responsibility and adult-ness, gives us the jawaani-defying Kabir Thapar.
“Of course I’m happy for you. But I’m also a little selfish, because I don’t want to lose you” – a father tells his son honestly, when asked why he is emotional about the boy moving away. It’s the look I, and many others across the world, see on our parents’ faces after visiting them, a look that they consider their duty to mask. It’s the way Farooq Sheikh says this on the night Kabir is leaving for America – almost apologetically, urging the boy to forgive him for being such an understanding father. He knows that his son is feeling sorry for him, which is why he slips in a playful “baap kaun hai?” reminder while handing him an envelope of extra money. He is aware that his son’s selfishness is far more important than his own at this moment.
This beautifully written scene will always remind us of the bittersweet-ness of being a good parent: sacrifice and satisfaction go hand in hand. It’s a necessary thought today – that of “unconditional” love and zero grudges for someone who wants to move forward, irrespective of a culture that demands otherwise. In the time of films (102 Not Out) that continue to equate nobility with an undying sense of duty, Sheikh’s final words to his son are plaque-worthy: “Go where you want, do as you please, but always remember that I’m by your side.” In short: don’t ever feel obligated to come back, no matter what happens. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that we only know this man as “Bunny’s father”. There is no other identity he’d rather have.