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.
Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal (2005) remains one of Hindi cinema's most unpretentious sports dramas, even today. Much of it had to do with the fact that it wasn't a commercially strapped biopic. The fictitious – and therefore, limitless and endearing – account of a deaf-and-mute village bowler rising to national cricketing stardom is memorable, appropriately, because of its faith in young new talent. It was an "underdog" even before the story began. It introduced us to Shreyas Talpade, yes, but the essential performance of this film was by a teenaged, national-award winning former child prodigy.
Shweta Basu Prasad, who had already charmed kiddie hearts in Vishal Bhardwaj's Makdee, played the role of Khadija, Iqbal's tenacious younger sister with acumen for the game and ears to his heart. Hailing from a poor Muslim farming household, Khadija serves as the keen eyes and measured voice of Iqbal in an environment (and sport) ripe with male privilege and politics.
The actress metamorphosed into an intelligent, geeky schoolgirl – complete with nerd glasses, wry possessiveness and braided oily pigtails – whose tiny universe revolved around the destiny of her spirited brother. Especially fascinating is the way she judges and scrutinizes Iqbal's alcoholic, washed-out journeyman coach, Mohit (Naseeruddin Shah). She goes from wary and sympathetic to fully trustful of the man, learning about life and reluctantly taking a maternal backseat once she notices their fledging chemistry.
There is redemption for both the males involved, and yet Khadija fulfills the much-maligned "Behind every successful man, there is a woman" proverb without once fulfilling the soft-submissive female stereotype – a rare gait she assumes as a reaction to that of her mother's, in an unquestionably patriarchal household. Prasad creates this strength with a bemused ease; rarely ever seeming like any written script could spell out her unconditional territorialism.
She speaks as if she were older, but not all wiser, than her years – a girl in a hurry to grow up, if only to be seen on equal footing as her brother. Though she sounds ready to be part of this adult journey, she simultaneously and quietly goes about her own education, we sense, mainly to provide context and words to his silent career in the near future.
That her own identity is irrevocably interlinked to his remains her pride, as well as her instrument for independence. Khadija is designed to be a character that matures into a best-selling author who attains fame by writing about this miraculous life – the kind that begins and ends a film with a narration of her book's lyrical passages. More than his story, it's her modest posturing that suggests that she is more than merely a cheerleader.
A natural counterpart would be the role of young Hayden Panettiere's in American football biopic Remember The Titans (2000); nine-year-old Sheryl, the assistant coach's tomboyish daughter, is a boisterous and alarmingly knowledgeable football fanatic whose passion subtly defines the foreground of the racially charged college-sport atmosphere. If Khadija were to join forces with Sheryl, you can bet they would take the male-centric sports-management universe by storm.
For long, Hindi cinema had mistaken juvenile nobility for song-and-dance-montaged squeaky-clean dialogues and "cutesy" children. With Khadija, the focus might have shifted to organic behavioral patterns and competent child artistry. Ironically, it took a character emblematic of communication to bring about this necessary change. Of course, it needed a bit of cricket – the better kind of religion – for us to sit up and take notice.
Khadija doesn't have a "special" scene. She is just always…around. Which is perhaps fitting, given that she translates all of Iqbal's feelings and victories for us without being afforded a single remarkable moment.