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 stock South Indian character in a Hindi film usually speaks in the kind of cheap, derivative and generic Tamilian accent that blissfully ignorant Bollywood-loving inhabitants associate with the entire region. At this cultural juncture, well into 2018, such easy stereotypes would be considered offensive and racist in mainstream cinema, irrespective of tone or context. But back in 1992, when almost every mainstream Hindi movie was an eclectic mix of various genres, there was something about an accomplished comedian in a ‘masala’ environment that somewhat lit up overstuffed screens.
The 1990s were a far more tolerant and light-hearted decade; it enabled a brand of nonsensical, harmless cinema-scape that in fact thrived on too many cooks spoiling the broth. In this context, Abbas-Mustan’s Khiladi was perhaps the most 1990s Bollywood film ever – and it, appropriately, accommodated the inimitable Johnny Lever in the most 1990s role possible.
Lever, whose real name was John Rao, came from a Telugu-speaking family in Andhra Pradesh, and grew up in Hyderabad and then Bombay – a combination that produced arguably Bollywood’s most expressive and rubbery face of this kitschy decade. “Third-wheel comedy” was Lever and vice versa for many like me, whose early sensibilities were defined by the loud excesses of the 1990s. For once, therefore, it helped that Lever, one of the most iconic funnymen in the history of Indian cinema, was actually tailor-made for the “caricature” of ‘Anna’ in what was otherwise a college thriller – as a desperate, endearing and impoverished coconut-selling caretaker of a bungalow that becomes the scene of a murder. His was the accent that ended all accents.
Khiladi remains memorable for a variety of reasons, not least because it was action star Akshay Kumar’s first and breakthrough “Khiladi” movie. It was also the first of his two movies (the second being Hera Pheri) in which a fake kidnap plan goes dreadfully wrong, and one of the rare films in which Shakti Kapoor plays a decent, non-baddie cop. Some of the images are still embedded into my memory – from Deepak Tijori’s Vicks Nasal Stick obsession to the shot of a frightening Anant Mahadevan (who I’d later recognize as Shah Rukh Khan’s doomed dad in Baazigar) appearing from a broken window to terrorize Ayesha Jhulka, to the painfully tense scene of an injured Tijori hiding from his attackers under a jeep only to realize moments later that his friend was the occupant.
For an impressionable kid yet to identify his movie heroes, these were edge-of-the-seat moments on the big screen. Which is why, more than his similarly hammy role in Baazigar – this was the second film in which a Johnny Lever character is a witness who holds the key to the plot in a clumsy interrogation sequence – Anna’s introduction in Khiladi as an unsuspecting comic in charge of a horror-film bungalow is an instant classic. He was the only one capable of gatecrashing a genre with his Charlie-Chaplin-ish aura and somehow still looking like an organic extension of it.
Anna appears with a sickle, raising visions of unchartered waters. For a second – for a fleeting second – a silent lungi-clad Lever, earphones plugged in, transports us to an alternate universe (like, say, Hollywood) where a comedian is allowed to excel as a raging dramatist. When Kumar and his friends offer to pay “rent” for the place, the genre dam breaks, and Lever springs into characteristic action.
He cajoles, begs, humours and bows simultaneously, introducing the annoyed gang to each of his sons – future lawyer, government officer, policeman and the youngest, a future nobody, much like his doting father. Only, Lever, over the years, was to establish himself as the undisputed King of goofy nobodies. His legacy remains important, and the last of its kind, in an industry that has unceremoniously done away with the ‘Best Actor in a Comic Role’ category from popular award shows.