Top 50 Memorable Bollywood Characters: Kantaben from Kal Ho Naa Ho

In Nikkhil Advani’s 2003 film, veteran Marathi actress Sulbha Arya's character might seem like a flimsy device of comedy, but at the time she was a ready instrument of the masses, designed to make them laugh at – rather than be shameful of – their own flaws
Top 50 Memorable Bollywood Characters: Kantaben from Kal Ho Naa Ho

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.

Nikkhil Advani's directorial debut with Dharma Productions, Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), is still his most successful Hindi film. And for good reason. Back in the day, it had a lot going: one of the first Hindi-language 'sync sound' movies to be shot entirely abroad, a smart rom-com with the 'King of Romance,' a love triangle with the reinvented metro-sexuality of Saif Ali Khan, an old-school tragedy thriving on tears and terminal illness, and Preity Zinta's coming-of-age performance as a terrific Bollywood lead heroine.

Most of all, it pivoted on – and parodied, Farah-Khan-style – a truckload of cultural stereotypes. Here's where producer Karan Johar's writing tapped the pulse of audiences eagerly waiting for his next blockbuster after Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. It was full of his typically spoofy motifs: the Punjabi v/s Gujarati sing-offs, the TVF-style parody of Lagaan's 'Chale Chalo,' the Pretty Woman remix, the fat-best-friend and sexy-cougar neighbours, the crass accents and heightened humour dotted the spaces between Johar's thematic stronghold over the sentimentality of an unrequited love triangle.

These portions might not have aged very well, but as a 17-year-old college kid in awe of the SRK-Johar partnership I was likely awoken to what we call "the modern multiplex era" of Hindi cinema. This was Johar trying to crystallize his fondness for Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai (2001) – a desire reflected in his handling of the casual bro-ness between two of the film's urban male protagonists. And through the comical prude-ness of the venerable Kantaben (veteran Marathi actress Sulbha Arya), it was Johar caricaturing the concept of alternate sexuality in the language of the famously conservative culture he gently scoffs at.

Kantaben might seem like a flimsy device of comedy, but at the time she was a ready instrument of the masses, designed to make them laugh at – rather than be shameful of – their own flaws. Or it could just have been Johar suitably mocking the ways of tabloid fodder.

The sub-thread goes thus: Kantaben is convinced that her 'baba' Rohit (Saif Ali Khan), who she has loyally cared for since his baby days, is now gay – thanks to his growing closeness to Aman (Shah Rukh). Little does poor Kanta know that Aman is spending all his time with Rohit to play matchmaker and help him go from 'friend-zoned' to boyfriend in Naina's eyes. Sulbha Arya is perfect as the aghast, wide-eyed 'nanny' who, due to her very Gujarati roots (cue the 'Garba' theme that punctuates her entries), believes that homosexuality is a sin. She is essentially filling in for the majority of a nation yet to digest the fact that their most successful filmmaker might in fact not be as heterosexual as the love stories he designs.

If both Rohit and Aman were unaware of her incredulousness, she might have been just another careless social statement. But Aman is shown to enjoy scandalizing her – he is entirely aware of what she thinks and feels, and rather than change her outlook, he teases her even more. One can hear Johar almost smirking through Khan's cheeky displays of 'unnatural' affection. He understands that she represents an outdated generation that is fading away, and he might as well derive some laughs out of it by playing along. In her reactions lie the seeds of Dostana (2008), just like old Jennifer's (Jaya Bachchan) story (her adopted daughter is a love-child: a product of her late husband's extramarital affair) is a prelude to the waters Johar soon tests with the uncharacteristic adult-ness of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

One can only imagine the conversation Kantaben must have had with Satish Shah (as Senior Patel), Rohit's millionaire father, who awkwardly tells his son that Kanta has kept him up to speed, and that he will make peace with the 'ways of the West' – a "damaad" instead of a "bahu," he sighs. All this in a strip club filled with women who, Patel hopes, will appeal to Rohit's "normal" masculinity.

Best Scene

Kantaben might be a regressive lady, but there's something endearing about the way she is so protective about Rohit. Her maternal instincts manifest themselves through a scene in which she desperately tries to stop Aman from gatecrashing Rohit's date with a gold-digger. "Leave him alone," she squeals. Her intentions are correct, but her perspective is not. Aman, of course, has the last laugh by delivering a filmy dialogue ("He can't belong to anyone else!") that almost knocks her out. It's just as well Kantaben was a rage in 2003. In 2018, she might have quit her job in mid-town Manhattan and joined a nunnery of closeted lesbians.

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