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.
One of the most interesting aspects of a Rajkumar Hirani film is the way he, along with co-writer Abhijat Joshi, employs unabashed caricatures to affect his stories. I usually use “caricature” as a bad word while critiquing films, but this changes in Hirani’s case. In a country like India, individuality comes at a premium; most of us do tend to categorize people into “genres” on basis of their idiosyncrasies and nature. Crude colloquialisms like “Battery,” “Rotlu,” “Chepu” and “Pheku” have been manufactured to symbolize entire breeds of distinct physical and psychological features. And caricatures, by definition, lend themselves to the form of established habits and long-term traditions. They can represent more than one person – a deep-rooted thinking of sorts – which is why Hirani often uses them as all-in-one antagonists in his socially conscious movies. This way, they can represent a whole system.
Therefore, we see older, learned and conservative characters service this over-the-top category – Boman Irani’s Doctor Asthana and Lucky Singh in the Munna Bhai series, his principal “Virus” in 3 Idiots, and Saurabh Shukla’s Tapasvi Maharaj in PK – in order to highlight the unorthodox progressiveness of our younger heroes.
However, Omi Vaidya’s Chatur Ramalingam in 3 Idiots is perhaps the only case of a fresher, teenaged caricature – a requirement in context of the type of youth-centric institution Hirani looks to expose. Chatur is the lesser villain of the film – self-aware, unapologetic and an embodiment of everything Rancho (Aamir Khan) is up against – consequently doubling up as the comic relief so that the spotlight remains squarely on Principal Virus. While the conflict in Hirani’s films are mostly inter-generational, an intra-generational Chatur represents the disease even within his contemporaries – a hypothetical male product of households run by those like Virus or Doctor Asthana (otherwise Boman Irani’s villains rear daughters in each film, so that the women can merely serve as the love interests and not a withering statement of inheritance).
Over the years, we’ve all encountered a Chatur in our childhoods – the teacher’s pet, the “chaatu,” the frontbencher, the “scholar” who is far more competitive than he ever lets on. But what Vaidya’s funny accent here does, apart from sounding hysterical and hammy, is unexpectedly lend him a hidden layer of personality. As a Tamil from Uganda and Pondicherry unversed in the country’s national language, Chatur has such a scrambled background that his only real identity becomes education and achievement – which is why he blindly subscribes to the outdated system. He is in a hurry to belong somewhere, even if it’s at the top. It is his only religion – he mugs, excels, climbs and revels in the powers of his memory (and not mind).
It might be easy to dismiss him as a shrill outlier desperate for validation, but Chatur in fact – despite a flimsy resolution designed to reward the starry heroes – humanizes the geek by sounding like such a clown. He is made to be the same student-man years later, even as a Vice President of an American company, when in reality he might have had to unlearn everything he learned at the Imperial College of Engineering to succeed abroad. If anything, he was the Fourth Idiot. Maybe if (NRI) Vaidya weren’t a complete debutant, there would be more to Chatur than meets the eye – and ear. Or even nose: given that his nickname, Silencer, was derived from his “quiet” farts, a smelly byproduct of his ambitious memory pills.
The “Balatkaar” speech Chatur unintentionally narrates on stage is now iconic for its endearing, college-level humour. Though such a scene might have been difficult to pass off in today’s hypersensitive times (rape? how dare you?), it remains harmless and important in context of the tone-deaf Engineering environment that 3 Idiots explores. But as much as Chatur defined this scene for the movie, it was another one that stood out – because it defined Chatur.
It’s the one succeeding the speech, on the terrace, when he drunkenly confronts the 3 Idiots while vowing eternal vengeance. The funny part is that his idea of revenge isn’t filmy and theatrical – it’s as endearingly South Indian as it can get. “Let’s see who is more successful in 10 years’ time!” he exclaims tearfully, marking the date dramatically, determined to out-achieve Rancho in more of a slow-burning Test-match mode than whimsical T20 mode.