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.
Shimit Amin hasn't directed since his severely underrated 2009 gem, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Over the years, as YRF continues to churn out formulaic entertainers with measured stars, this film has acquired a retrospective, cult-like appreciation of sorts in the annals of mainstream Hindi cinema. Jaideep Sahni's writing, especially, continues to be held as an academic example of intelligent, non-patronizing Indian storytelling in context of the physical space it occupies – the dry, soulless confines of a corporate office.
Centered upon the journey of an honest young Sikh man (Ranbir Kapoor, in his breakthrough year) navigating the shark-infested waters of a mega Computer Service Corporation, the entrepreneurially original Rocket Singh reflects its plot in form, ambition and tone. It is, in a way, the anti Guru (the Mani Ratnam film, starring Abhishek Bachchan as a Dhirubhai Ambani avatar), not just in scale but also as an effective corporate-Indian origin story. The film bears the rooted coziness of a tiny mom-and-pop shop standing out in a landscape populated with fancy glass buildings. It starts small and surprises the bigwigs with its resourceful thinking and narrative initiative. And most unusually for a low-key YRF urban drama, it thrives on the plurality of its "multi-non-starrer" cast.
From the porn-loving assembly engineer (D. Santosh) and sultry secretary (Gauhar Khan) to the spunky, shifty-eyed peon (Mukesh Bhatt) and nobly understated romantic interest (Shazahn Padamsee), the ragtag Rocket Sales Corporation symbolizes the ultimate real-world underdog – more so, given the fleeting silver-screen appearances of this talented group of actors ever since. It also presented the sharp-suited, suave villainy of Manish Chaudhary as the townie-tongued MD for the first time – a recurring, stereotypical Bollywood image that he has made his own ever since. All of them – including director and writer – should be doing far more movies than they do, but such are the odd ways of this moody industry.
But perhaps the most memorable "third wheel" of this film – which, come to think of it, could easily pass off as a dramatic The Office episode – is the bridge that connects hero and villain, employee and boss, good and bad.
Nitin Rathore, the cocky Sales manager, complete with those deviously stylish sideburns and goatee – the kind that screams out "Hustler" – is brought to life perceptively by Naveen Kaushik, who, again, we haven't seen enough of in substantial parts since then. Nitin is Harpreet Singh Bedi's eye-opening orientation program – a living, breathing nutshell of the bleak system that is supposed to inspire the disillusioned greenhorn to Rocket-like heights. Ironically, Nitin himself comes across as a hard-nosed veteran who, while rising from the very bottom to the middle, compromises on his passion to excel at a job he might have once loved; somewhere along the way, he has compensated for his modest education with a primal attitude recalibrated to fit the backsides of every new boss. He is the perfect combination of street-smartness and ego, old and young, attentiveness and dismissiveness.
As Nitin, he establishes the ground for the protagonist's modest startup venture – one that he eventually lends his Sales expertise to. This graph of his, from ignorant product to receptive senior, is the backbone of a story that depends on his natural transformation to sell the team's journey to us. After the first few scenes, where he is established as the autocratic "lesser boss" in a big setup, he gamely blends into the background once the snarling MD takes center-stage. When he becomes a valued Rocket Singh team member, the film, too, removes him from the foreground to establish the democracy of young Bedi's vision, in sync with Nitin's own chagrin of having to suddenly operate at the levels of a peon and secretary.
Towards the end, the respect in his gait is more apparent – his sideburns and moustache appear a tad more "sober" – as he comes to recognize the purist passions of a people-centric profession that he had once sold down the river. And perhaps this is what turns the antagonist, too. One can almost sense arrogant MD Puri thinking, "If the intrinsically corrupted Nitin could come of age, why can't I?"
There's no single scene, but there is a special kind of satisfaction in seeing someone like Nitin "reduce" himself to a level of basic team-play – specifically a shot in the midst of a high-spirited montage, in which he appears chuffed with himself after cutting an honest deal with a Rocket Sales client. For once, he is at peace with himself. Here, he feels like that idealistic intern all over again.