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 first bawa I noticed in a mainstream Hindi film was Yezdi, the mild-mannered “chamcha” of Shah Rukh Khan’s Sunil in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. For better or worse, Yezdi – the most bullied member of the music band – was the only one who understood Sunil. He indulged him and followed him, and became the loudspeaker for Sunil’s man-child emotions.
Growing up in Ahmedabad, encouraged by the niceness of this character I made many Parsi friends in my school years. None of them were meek Yezdis, because I was far from a jittery Sunil. I grew very fond of their little cultural eccentricities: their defiant independence, artistic bend, mood swings, matriarchal mindsets and that tender, inimitable grasp over the Gujarati language.
Perhaps it was only appropriate then that the actor behind Yezdi, Kurush Deboo, was also the much-bullied Dr. Rustom Pavri in Rajkumar Hirani’s directorial debut, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., a decade later. You can almost imagine Yezdi moving out of Goa to get over Sunil’s toxic stranglehold, adopting a more ‘senior-sounding’ name, shifting into Mumbai’s Dadar Parsi Colony with his widowed father, shunning women to pursue a medical degree, and finally achieving his career goal of becoming the youngest faculty head under Dean J.C. Asthana at the city’s finest medical institution. Pavri is a bachelor who can’t imagine life without his old man.
Again, though, he is a punching bag for not just Asthana (played by fellow bawa Boman Irani) but also for tapori Munna (Sanjay Dutt), who uses poor Rustom to settle personal scores with the dean. Again, he plays a character that, despite being suppressed by everyone in his life, is the first to understand that Munna has his heart in the right place. His loyalty to Asthana is overshadowed by his ability to recognize the flawed humanity of their profession. For this, the authentic sub-thread of Rustom and his ailing ‘Pappa’ (Bomie E. Dotiwala) is perhaps the most evocative stories in context of Hindi cinema’s fleeting “minority” narratives. Their performances prove that while most other ethnicities can be ‘appropriated’ by all kinds of actors on screen, a Parsi environment is best suggested by the presence of Parsi actors.
There is a very thin line between caricaturing this culture and internalizing it. For instance, the same team of makers erred when it came to Sharman Joshi’s lead turn as Rustam Deboo – in a similar Dadar Parsi Colony situation – in Rajesh Mapuskar’s Ferrari Ki Sawaari. Joshi overdid the simpleton act as Deboo, while Deboo was a far more believable Rustom. In their poignant father-son equation, one can also find the seeds of Hirani’s Retirement Home and neglected-parents theme for Lage Raho Munna Bhai.
“Juice pivanu, Carom ramvanu, Majja ji life,” a senile Dotiwala declares while Munna and Circuit terrorize his son, and turns a potential hostage situation into an old-age anthem. The adults are both amused and spellbound by his spirit. The words hit home when Munna and gang, by playing carom in the middle of the hospital ward, manipulate Pappa into rising out of his depression and finding purpose in life’s littler things. All it takes is a sense of achievement, be it on a powdery gaming board. If anything, this scene is perhaps the most optimistic symbol of the human twilight syndrome in a country that has famously struggled to make peace with the traditionalism of fading away.