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.
The remarkable part about the late Navin Nischol's "Bapu" in Dibakar Banerjee's charming directorial debut Khosla ka Ghosla! is the paradox of his own artistic conscience. Here's the Mahatma Gandhi and the beedi-smoking Godfather of the local Delhi theater circuit – an unflappable man who has spent 30 years of his life pretending to be several characters on stage in return for almost no money. Yet, this veteran actor, who has won 135 awards in his career, is at his most vulnerable when he is required to play a real-life role to con a notorious land-shark (Boman Irani, as Khurana) for lakhs of rupees. He is at his shakiest when he can be the protagonist of a real heist. That is, when he is actually supposed to make a difference by acting rather than acting like he is making a difference.
He is nervous because there is, literally, a lot at stake – the wronged Khosla family relies on him for personal emotions like justice and revenge. He cannot digest the fact that for once there is no partition between his audience and craft – he has spent too long trying to fool people who are paying to be fooled. This time he is being paid to simply fool people.
It of course helps that he is an experienced stage actor and not a film actor – everything is one long take, full of spontaneity and reactions and improvisation instead of scripted, conjoined action. In his first 'scene' as Mr. Sethi, the camera even follows him in one fluid motion as he goes about trying to create a first impression on the shady broker (Rajendra Sethi, as Vijendar) and walks away in a huff.
By being a wealthy Dubai landlord, he starts to realize how perhaps the most difficult task for an actor is to depict a different socioeconomic class. Time and again, Bapu, a person of modest means with a 'rented' life (his true name isn't revealed, which hints at the inherent secularity of art), is worried about accurately depicting a person of privilege and religion. The very sight of cash sends him into an existential meltdown – a subtle critique of the proud pennilessness of stage purists.
Eventually, Bapu manages to put on a virtuoso performance in installments. Unlike, say, a Saul (Carl Reiner, in Ocean's Eleven), he is not a crook to begin with. As a result, there is an extra layer of guilt that makes him less professional and more human. And an extra layer of skill. Banerjee explores this chasm between the self-righteous Bapu and indulgent Mr. Sethi by enabling everyone from his assistant (a terrific Nitesh Pandey, as Mani) to the hawk-eyed Khurana in this eccentric game of North Indian bullshitting. In Nischol, we see the jaded self-awareness of a veteran who becomes endearing precisely because he is the suave hero – and not just another character actor – of a film within the film.
"Aap broker hai ya party?" is a priceless line with innumerable connotations. It is at once dismissive and introductory. Sethi immortalizes it by showing the silver-tongued Vijendar that he means business. Nischol delivers this 'attitude' with the kind of swag that brings us viewers in on his whole façade. All along, we marvel at the fact that this entire plot has been hatched under the assumption that Khurana and his cronies are exactly the kind of uncultured predators that have never once watched a popular play featuring the legendary Bapu. And they probably never will.