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.
Vikramaditya Motwane is arguably contemporary Hindi cinema’s most versatile filmmaker – an all-around modern-day storyteller with a penchant of exploring concepts that go beyond tags like genres, independent or mainstream. For example, after crafting one of India’s first (and finest) survival thrillers (Trapped) last year, his fourth directorial venture, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, which is slated to release later this month, could well be the country’s first feature-length ‘amateur-superhero’ movie. A former Bhansali assistant, traces of Motwane’s talent burst upon to a very different ‘Bollywood’ scene back in 2010 with Udaan, his debut feature.
Back when Anurag Kashyap and co. were still at the relative beginning of a journey – a filmmaking language – that was to see this ‘camp’ churn out regular participants at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Udaan was one of the first to capitalize on its Un Certain Regard selection by earning overwhelming critical acclaim through its subsequent Indian theatrical release. And rightly so, because if you strip it of its clutter-breaking personality, awards and historical significance (especially for many, like myself, who hit ‘film-appreciating’ age around the same time), Udaan – based on Kashyap’s own childhood – is a beautiful, lyrical and universally relevant film that transcended its humble platform to coincide with Ranbir Kapoor’s parallel rise as commercial cinema’s coming-of-age poster boy.
We haven’t seen much of Rajat Barmecha, the young actor who plays the tortured teenaged protagonist Rohan, since Udaan. But this one role, opposite a towering Ronit Roy long before the TV actor was stereotyped as the ‘father from hell,’ shines brighter than entire career filmographies. Rohan is forced to return from his Shimla boarding school to his single, abusive, alcoholic father’s Jamshedpur ‘prison’ – and the film details his existential struggles in a hometown he had come to resent, in a strait-jacketed environment no aspiring small-town writer deserves. Much of Rohan’s gradual breaking-free moment is triggered by an assortment of important background characters – from his empathetic uncle (Ram Kapoor) to freewheeling drinking sessions with an ‘experienced’ college senior (Anand Tiwari).
Which is why his Udaan – the flight itself – is entirely catalyzed by the presence of a quiet, innocent and dutiful eight-year-old half-brother, Arjun (Aayan Boradia): a device that makes Rohan feel like he is effectively sharing his room with a flashback of his own rotten childhood. Arjun, too, has no mother around, and is primed to have his spirit killed by the monstrous father. It’s because of Arjun – a child who is unusually glum and passive, almost as if he were shocked into silence – that Rohan wakes up to the broader humanity of his situation, beyond the frustrations of his own selfish woes. The way Motwane uses young Aayan in his film is the clincher. A far cry from the over-smart, over-mature and over-written kids – those who are made to narrate ‘adult’ words with mousy voices – of Hindi cinema, Arjun’s is a rare case where his mere appearance conveys the veracity of the atmosphere. He doesn’t speak at all.
He probably has a total of five words of dialogue in the film; there are more shots of Arjun simply walking, staring, climbing stairs, observing and existing in the darker shadow of his ‘new’ brother. There are many unspoken secrets, backstories, sadness and fear in the boy’s eyes; it’s just that he is too numbed, too trained, to realize any of them. The tiny actor’s gait is such – school uniform rarely tucked in, a bag and oversized water bottle bigger than his head, a reluctant army-like discipline – that it becomes impossible for Rohan to not ‘rescue’ the kid in order to free himself. He knows that his father is using Arjun as an instrument, a second chance, to correct his “failure” to machinize Rohan – indirectly, he feels responsible for what will happen to the boy, because he didn’t allow the man to succeed at destroying him. Even when Arjun mysteriously lands up in the hospital – an event that jolts Rohan into a sort of transitional adulthood – the boy remains silent, expertly betraying the waves of paranoia and frightfulness flooding his fragile heart.
Kids are meant to scream, misbehave, chatter, cry and laugh loudly. And it is this kid’s inherent inability to do so that becomes the most disturbing – and the evocative – aspect of Rohan’s journey.
It’s not so much a scene as it is a fleeting, unfussy shot of a little boy – literally, desperately – trying to “follow” in the footsteps of his elder brother. Soon after Rohan settles into his Jamshedpur routine of leaving a house he hates every morning to attend a college he can’t care for, he realizes that there is the added responsibility of having to see Arjun hop to school behind him. For the first few instances, he is purposely dismissive of the boy. The boy, after all, is a reflection of his own past. We see Rohan wordlessly stride past the gate, across streets and sidewalks, and the kid walking, sometimes jogging, to keep up with him. This is, as Rohan later discovers, the loudest cry for help – that of mute dependence in hope of guidance – Arjun was ever able to conjure up.