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.
Much before Vikram Bhatt became Hindi cinema’s scariest ongoing horror movie, he belonged to an era that operated in sync with his genre-diverse and Hollywood-inspired ambitions. Before Raaz single-handedly kicked off the age of the “horror musical,” it was Ghulam (1998) that seduced an entire generation of Indian teenagers who were blissfully unaware of On The Waterfront. Khandala and new-girl-on-the-block Rani Mukerji (and her dubbed voice) became overnight sensations, and brawling became the ultimate ‘mard ko dard’ technique to defeat bullies.
Irrespective of its obvious source material, Ghulam was a smart, undeniably entertaining movie. It extended the lovable-tapori image of Rangeela’s Aamir Khan, and designed a soundtrack that decorated a classic story in desperate need of its own cultural identity. Most of all, it turned to solid, competent actors for its background characters – stage performers like Rajit Kapoor (playing Rod Steiger’s role: the hero’s morally conflicted older brother) and a superb Mita Vashisht (Father Barry reimagined; she plays a fierce lawyer-activist, a civilized version of Dimple Kapadia’s Krantiveer avatar, much before feminism became a cinematic keyword), flashback cameos by filmy dad Dalip Tahil (as the hero’s righteous ex-freedom fighter father, a “good but weak man,” who deserted his colleagues) and an armless Ashutosh Rana (who, as Bollywood’s breakthrough new villain, defied type here), and of course a beefed-up Sharat Saxena (who intimidates and growls as the mob boss).
But perhaps Ghulam’s cleverest decision was to riff on the Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar formula – little brother Aamir sets out to take revenge for a dead sibling, and the otherwise-shady Deepak Tijori ends up being a stylish ally. They begin, again, with a daylight brawl, continuing from where they left off in Mansoor Khan’s legendary 1992 cycling drama. But it’s Tijori’s character here – not so much for his performance, but for the subversive significance of his role – that goes a long way in separating Ghulam from Elia Kazan’s original film. Tijori, as retro biker-gang leader Charlie (incidentally the name of Brando’s brother in On The Waterfront), is the “masala” in an unofficial adaptation that thrives on crowd-pleasing additions. That’s why the ridiculous long sideburns and leather jackets – there is no direct reference for Charlie, prompting Bhatt to go West-Side-Story wild with this particular device.
As a result, Tijori, for once equipped with a bad-to-good graph, looks visibly pleased to be playing a villainous hero – representing the richer, metropolitan Hollywood-ish rival to Siddharth’s grounded desi hooliganism (a la Rajput College to modest Model College) in a movie ripe with tonal contrasts. He appears in all of two scenes, surrounded by ‘chamchas’ and gender-fluid henchmen who might have been the bad guys in a Bombay-based Josh prequel.
Who can ever forget the reckless ‘Dus ka daud’ dare outside Sanpada station? A cocky Charlie challenges Sid to beat his own mark while running towards a fast train – Mukerji drops the handkerchief, going from ‘biker babe’ to heroine over this one sequence. Declared as Scene of the Year, this midnight moment became famous when it was revealed that Khan almost died while executing the stunt himself. One can’t imagine what the train driver must have been thinking while watching the one and only Aamir Khan sprinting towards him with suicidal rage.
Sid eventually rescues Charlie, setting the stage for Tijori to “redeem himself” – and show the sort of conscience that was missing from his regular black-or-white roles in the decade – at a crucial point later in the film. For many of us who grew up equating Deepak Tijori’s non-solo-hero face to automatic villainy, this was a refreshing – and emotionally confusing – scene. Why did we suddenly want Sanju to save Shekhar?