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.
Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is one of the most affecting portraits of a dysfunctional family in contemporary Hindi cinema. It isn’t all North-Indian noise, melodrama and chaos; it’s even louder because of the hidden resentments, sensitive secrets, simmering tensions and a weathered kind of bickering that transcends the volume of the film’s contrasting personalities. There’s a rhythm to their spaces and emotional explosions that is often detailed and observed in novels, and one that tends to be lost in translation to screen.
The cheating husband, the hyper-sarcastic wife, the failed-author black-sheep son and the successful-author closeted son – they are bound together by a culture that doesn’t allow them to forget it’s all about loving, and never leaving, your family. The elastic, as in the case of so many suppressed middle-class households across the country, is perennially in danger of snapping.
This is why the 91-year-old patriarch Amarjeet Kapoor (Rishi Kapoor), lovingly known as “dadu,” is obsessed with the concept of dying. Dadu imagines himself to be the core that keeps the warring adults together. He knows that there is nothing like death to unify wounded souls – the film even begins with a scene in which he fakes a heart attack at the breakfast table, before he gets a real one. In a way, Dadu senses that the Kapoors are a broken lot; he pretends to die every now and then so that the others stop fighting and contemplate death rather than resent life.
While most grandparents here emotionally blackmail their kids and grandkids to get married or have babies through threats of their impending demise, Dadu weaponizes his health for something far more basic and endearing – a reunion. It’s his hospital stint that brings brothers Rahul (Fawad Khan) and Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) to visit the family home in Coonoor. He is hopeful but naïve in thinking that a formal family photograph – a picture of togetherness – will cement over the cracks and remind them of togetherness.
Then again, Dadu is at an advanced stage of his life where he simply cannot comprehend the need for conflict – his tone is playful, his demeanor cool, because he feels like the only adult in a house full of petty children. He bonds with the young, and delights in embarrassing the old – anything to diffuse a bomb that as been too long in the making.
Rishi Kapoor is delightful as the crude old man. Not unlike a foul-mouthed Alan Arkin’s Oscar-winning role in Little Miss Sunshine, his character is a reaction to a generally uptight environment: smoking doobs, perving on Mandakini’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili scene and openly insulting his friends are defense mechanisms he has obtained over the years. He isn’t senile, though he is fine with people thinking that he is. But there is more to Dadu than merely defying type.
Unlike the conventional desi grandfather, he not only says what is on his mind but also expresses himself without any ego – a habit that he wants to pass on to others in the family. He takes to technology and remains curious, and not dismissive, of the generations under him. He asks all the uncomfortable questions and doesn’t mind seeing shifty faces; his voice becomes school-teacherly and wise when he exhibits the kind of instincts and awareness that his son doesn’t think he had.
The moment occurs on the back of a genuinely heavy sequence of events that culminates with the death of Dadu’s son, Harsh (Rajat Kapoor). The filmmaker allows the mourning phase to pass off-screen, and jumps straight to a time some months later – a narrative tactic that acknowledges in the viewers a propensity to grieve the “Indian” way, by not really speaking about it. Which is why this scene, performed so beautifully by Rishi Kapoor, is exceptionally jolting. It’s not just because of what he says or the way he says it. He does everything a regular male nonagenarian isn’t supposed to do. It goes thus: A grandfather uses an iPad to send a video message to his two grandchildren abroad, in which he begs them to put aside their problems and come back to help them heal. He even sheds tears.
He is honest and heartbreaking about his feelings – a trait unknown to the stubborn traditionalists of his era. And he does this through a modern medium, too. If there were ever a cliché-debunking embodiment of Dadu, the human sans the tags, this video was it.