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.
I remember being all set for the late show of David Dhawan’s Mr. & Mrs. Khiladi at the town’s drive-in theatre. I was excited – it was the big-ticket Bollywood movie of the month. And there was the novelty factor: action star Akshay Kumar in a romantic comedy. For some reason, my parents had changed their minds by the evening, and we ended up going for the early-evening show of…David Dhawan’s Deewana Mastana. The two hits had released within just two weeks of each other in 1997. I wasn’t very pleased; I was in a hero-heroine mood, not a double-hero mood.
Three hours later, the writing was on the wall – Deewana Mastana was my favourite David Dhawan film of the decade. I laughed all the way home that night. Out of all the desi Dirty Rotten Scoundrels versions – Khel and Rascals being the high-profile ones – Deewana Mastana was the perfect combination of irreverent comedy, satirical drama, extravagant performances and an all-star ensemble at the peak of their self-aware best.
Anil Kapoor (as roadside romeo Raj), Govinda (as ‘baby steps’ taking, intellectually diminished Bunnu) and Juhi Chawla (as the bubbly, ever-trusting doctor Neha) headlined a cast that was powered by the core of 1990s-masala specialists: Johnny Lever, Anupam Kher, Avtar Gill, Reema Lagoo, Shakti Kapoor, Saeed Jaffrey and Himani Shivpuri. Not to mention Salman Khan and Raveena Tandon concluding the movie with cameos in the age of superstar ‘special appearances’.
Dhawan’s strengths of mid-brow family humour lay in his ability to get his actors to let their guards down. Amidst this politically incorrect parody of obsessive love, it was however the indefatigable Satish Kaushik, the ultimate third wheel of retro Hindi cinema, who stole the show in just two scenes. His character, Pappu Pager, remains one of the most iconic comic roles of David Dhawan’s heydays.
Pappu Pager is not a person; he is a genre. After all these years, he is still the most memorable embodiment of the classic bumbling-gangster avatar. He is introduced as a dreaded don at Mumbai’s infamous Mayur Mahal (a Juhu-Tara-road beachside bungalow – ‘90s Bollywood’s first-choice “villain’s lair” location), surrounded by a gang of silent sidekicks. With a robotic tone, almost as if he were memorizing the dialogues while delivering them, Pager immediately ‘insults’ someone on the phone by calling him an “Amaavas ke chamakte huye chand”. He then subverts the tapori-fied language template with gastronomically measured curses like “tamaatar ke aakhri daane,” “doodh ke fatele hisse,” “mutton ke chilke” and “kaaju ka nichla chilka”. Satya and Kallu Mama were yet to alter the cinematic underworld landscape, and Pager seemed to be spoofing Ram Gopal Varma’s vision even before it gained form.
There is rarely anything funnier than a movie villain who isn’t as dangerous as he thinks he is. Elder brother to Munnu Mobile, Pappu Pager is the definitive manifestation of this theme. In his first scene, he is humiliated by Bunnu, who comes to him to hire him as a hitman to bump off Raj. In the second scene, he is humiliated by Raj, who scoffs at him without listening to his plan to join forces and bump off Bunnu. In fact, Raj even out-cusses him with an imaginative gamut of phrases like “Shamshaan ke bujhe huye koyle” and “marey huye kauve ke pankh” – a surgical strike on his dark complexion, back in an era that didn’t hinge on the buzz kill of sensitive social media activists.
Both scenes end with him reassuring his gang that this is a rare occurrence – “sochna padega” he croons, almost as if he were paying tribute to Razzak Khan’s equally infectious ‘Fainku’ from Dhawan’s Haseena Maan Jayegi two years later. Overall, Pager was such a spectacular failure as a Mumbai gangster that he became a resounding cinematic success.
The multi-talented Satish Kaushik, also a prolific mainstream filmmaker, has made a career out of playfully caricaturing the side character with a cartoonish name – Calendar, Airport, Bankhe Bihari, Panipuri, Lalu Lal Langotia, Chanda Mama, Jumbo, Happy, Sharafat, Gullu Gulfam. With Pager, though, he immortalized himself as the final word in old-school analogue devices in an age rapidly brimming with modern, lifeless algorithms of new-age humour.