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.
Much like Johnny Lever, an older Ashok Saraf – a leading star of the 1980s Marathi comedy wave – lit up the Bollywood blockbuster circuit as the go-to funnyman for several movie-mad ‘90s kids. One could argue that an actor of his versatility deserved more from B-town than the ‘character artist’ tag. Saraf was among some of the most recognizable regional actors of a generation in which these real talents were often limited to “scene-stealing” cameos by show-runners of the notoriously insecure Hindi film industry. That he still became a pan-Indian household name (in Hum Paanch) was largely down to the relatively softer doors of Indian television’s golden era – which was yet to be invaded, and permanently altered, by Ekta Kapoor’s saas-bahu empire.
Perhaps it’s only poetic then that Saraf’s most memorable avatar appeared in a mainstream Hindi movie infamous for its campy avatars and meme-worthy narrative tropes. Rakesh Roshan’s Karan Arjun was the ultimate manifestation of kitschy 90s’ potboiler Bollywood. In fact, Roshan, as well as the SRK and Salman-crazy audiences, were so enamored by the movie’s ‘paisa wasool’ package that very few realized that he remade the same film two years later and called it Koyla. The only difference: the brothers reincarnated were replaced by a mute Shah Rukh’s voice being reincarnated. Saraf’s “Munshiji” in Karan Arjun and “Vedji” in Koyla were practically brothers from another mother – both starting as the villain’s money-sucking sidekicks and ending as the heroes’ sympathizers. Both shared side-splitting scenes with Lever, too, and became disillusioned with their bosses after sensing the change in the mood of the masses.
But it was the street-smart Munshiji that stole our hearts; he went from annoying uncle to perceptive soothsayer over the course of Roshan’s magnum opus. And despite being equipped with a stutter and a strange Rajasthani accent, it was his inimitable energy that ensured we remembered him – especially the way he virtually runs into every frame to air his concerns or make a point. And the way he offers his cheeks to get slapped by the big bad Thakur. He excels at these little physical eccentricities by making them look just the right kind of ridiculous.
The fence-sitting sidekick – or “glory hunters,” as sports fans might call them – was a legitimate stock character of masala moviemaking in this decade. Mostly, they were of ‘higher intellectual standing’ – shifty teachers, scholars, astrologers or fraud pandits hired by the Amrish Puri types – to signify the mental capacity to recognize the film’s tide-turning moments. They’d jump camps midway through, turn into good-hearted moles, deliver comically veiled warnings and still somehow retain our loyalties – in the process embodying the greyish ‘redemption arc’ that viewers need in a standard good-versus-evil battle. Munshiji, too, despite being a harmless caricature of sorts (the kind we aren’t supposed to take seriously), goes through this personal transformation. He picks the right team eventually, demonstrating that it’s never too late in life to open your eyes and rise above prejudice.
More like best line: “Thakur toh gyoo!”