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.
Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was a definitive Hindi film for many impressionable young kids who grew up in the 1990s. It symbolizes that oft-abused term “Masala Bollywood” in the truest sense – it taught us about competition, love, family, friendships, colleges, trash-talking and ‘coming of age’ simultaneously, all within the confines of small-town India minus a multiplex-era exoticization. It had sports, hill stations, love triangles, music festivals, vamps, villains, thoughtful colour schemes (red stood for desi passion, black for Aussie-style ruthlessness), chants and redemption. But amidst its double rotis and geared “imported” cycles, it also had some of Hindi cinema’s most memorable Third Wheels.
There was a sultry Pooja Bedi, her flimsy skirt and townie accent in an unforgettable convent gold-digger avatar, Devika – long before Poo updated the anti-heroine persona through Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…’s operatic NRI prism. An entire generation of red-blooded teenagers were exposed to the classic Marilyn Monroe moment solely through Bedi’s adapted “Pehla Nasha” version. There was also her opportunistic, four-eyed ‘Mean Girls’ sidekick, Rukhsana, who smells Devika’s popularity the moment she enters the Queens College campus and commits to thriving in her slipstream with her corny “Dear”-infused niceties.
Add to this the pensive influence of Kulbhushan Kharbanda as patriarch Ramlal, the widowed father that triggers the underdog-ness of drifter-hero Sanju’s black-sheep syndrome. Or even the demure but considerable aura of Kalpana, the girl that spells her love for Sanju’s elder brother through her shy, fleeting appearances at his humble café.
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But perhaps the most enduring image of this retro pop-culture museum was that of this unsung elder brother, Ratanlal Sharma, who Kalpana rightly has coy feelings for. Immortalized by the unassuming Mamik Singh, the role was designed to infuse all the undemanding traits of an acting greenhorn; in fact the debutant, Mamik, fit the “supporting” part so sturdily that his performance might have permanently ended any ambitions of a potential solo film career. Starting as the hero’s brother back then was somewhat as fatal as beginning as the stereotypical ‘hero ka dost’. But Ratan was more than Sanju’s straight-shooting brother; he was Model College’s Great Red Hope, a holy status that lays the foundation for the film’s come-from-behind journey.
Ratan is the only sane mind engulfed by the passion of stronger personalities – he serves as the bridge between a troubled son and a single father, a steady gulf between Sanju and the Rajput hooligans, a subtle reminder to Sanju of Anjali’s unerring loyalty, and a bed-ridden motive to unite Sanju with his championship destiny. He’s the boy who seems to have matured through his father’s grief – the blue-eyed hope of a broken family – instead of going off the rails like his younger brother.
In many ways, Ratanlal Sharma is the Anil Kumble of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, who’d rather pass a dignified “Only one team played in the spirit of the game” comment than lower himself to the depths of evil Shekhar Malhotra’s unsavoury standards. He is the personification of every story’s concluding Moral-of-the-Story paragraph – the conscience of a movie that needs a rock like him to balance its multiple lessons.
A bittersweet reminder of Ratanlal’s sober legacy lies in the fact that, a relatively decent TV career aside, Mamik never really managed to capitalize on the cinematic promise displayed in his first film. Perhaps his presence might not have been considered “edgy” or scene-stealing enough by future directors – he was again cast as the elder brother of the film’s conflicted protagonist (peak Preity Zinta) in Kundan Shah’s Kya Kehna. But a sign of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’s inherent goodwill lies in his role as the coach/mentor of an awry MMA fighter (Randeep Hooda) in Do Lafzon Ki Kahani (2016), which was directed by the JJWS villain-turned-movie-director, Deepak Tijori.
The Malaysia-based film left a lot to be desired, but Mamik’s image – that of an older man driving on a younger hero to redemption – will remain ingrained in the DNA of blockbuster Hindi cinema.
It is charming to see how unlettered Ratan is in the adult language of love – as opposed to the heightened grammar of the traditionally “musical” emotion – even as Sanju teases him about a rose in his pocket during the neighbourhood’s Diwali celebrations. During the song Sheher Ki Pariyon Ke Peeche, for the first time in his life he seems to be playing second fiddle to Sanju – constantly a step behind an in-focus Aamir Khan, awkward like an adult who decides to play in a roomful of excited children for one night only. The lyrics might be about an ‘ordinary’ Anjali taunting Sanju about his posh-city-girl infatuations, but the words pretty much define the pragmatic core of Ratanlal Sharma’s principled existence.