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.
On the surface, Milind Dhaimade's Tu Hai Mera Sunday might appear to be a simple, feel-good and lightweight "buddy" movie. It reads that way: Five adult males from culturally diverse walks of life struggle to find a new space for their therapeutic Sunday football sessions. Each of them uses the weekly game as an escape from the existential drudgery of big-city life. But look a little deeper, and you might find that Tu Hai Mera Sunday is a deceptively perceptive, and perhaps the most definitive, "Mumbai" film of our times.
It is essentially a cheerful tragedy about a bunch of survivors who have no choice but to make the most of their stifling environment. It is about optimizing space: both physical and emotional, public and personal. We see five lives, five coming-of-age journeys, five access doors to a world we daily inhabit on packed railway platforms, cramped flats and crowded beaches – but it's the sixth life, ironically the one that sees no living, that is emblematic of Mumbai's desperate contradictions. Look no further than the lost old geezer – played so heartbreakingly by veteran writer-actor Shiv Subramaniam – that unwittingly causes the five friends to set about their eternal search for better "space".
Subramaniam, who has spent much of his Bollywood screen-time as no-nonsense tycoons, strict school principals and traditional parents, appears as a hapless dementia-afflicted man whose condition immediately appeals to the humanity in the film's (semi) protagonist, Arjun (Barun Sobti). An errant kick by him gets Arjun and his pals banned from the beach. At first, this mentally diminished man feels like a narrative device designed to bring his rat-race-winning daughter Kavya into drifter Arjun's life. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he is more than just a trigger for just another love story.
Kavya's "Appa" is the sixth sense in a film of fives. He is a cautionary tale – a reminder of a bleak future that tends to engulf those who don't stop to breathe. His illness effectively turns Kavya into a single mother, and his presence throughout the film is a sobering indicator of what Mumbai can do to those who keep changing their goalposts. Appropriately, in a film full of immigrant surnames – Punjabi, Parsi, Gujarati, Muslim and Catholic – Appa, who raises visions of the disciplined South Indian patriarch he might once been, represents a culture that thrives on old-school professionalism and cripplingly career-minded ambitions. While those like Arjun's ex-boss have meltdowns at airports, Appa's driven mind might have systematically caved in over years of mastering the city.
His dementia, unlike the archetypical Hindi cinema illness, doesn't feel inherited. The film refuses to dwell on it either. It is therefore poetic that he is indirectly the reason his daughter falls for someone who has abandoned the race in order to preserve his own sanity. Arjun course-corrects his own life the way Appa might have once needed to, which is why he feels an affinity towards the old man. And perhaps the man, too, somewhere deep within his fractured consciousness, recognizes that Arjun is precisely what Kavya needs.
Without a line of dialogue, Shiv Subramaniam, with nothing more than gurgled sounds, amplifies a city famous for making storytellers out of people. Mumbai drives the best of us crazy. Only, for many like Appa, this is no figure of speech.