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.
When making a film about films, the story often tends to resemble the tale it accommodates. It’s hard to perceive the difference between reel and real; even the “real” part is technically a film that is merely pretending to narrate the culture of storytelling. It’s therefore easy to fall into the trap of fashioning every off-camera fringe personality as if it were a heightened movie trope. But Zoya Akhtar’s first film, Luck By Chance (2009), achieved that balance effortlessly.
Without compromising on the outwardly extravagant nature of filmmaking, Luck By Chance boasted of a multitude of faces that made it look as if we were getting an authoritative sneak peek into an close-walled industry by a perceptive insider. The film primarily revolved around outsiders – Farhan Akhtar appropriately featured as a wannabe hero, while the fantastic Konkona Sen Sharma and intense Arjun Mathur played his fellow struggling “actors” – but it was the matter-of-fact familiarity of its veteran showmen that this movie truly thrived on. One look at the directors, scriptwriters, narrations, meetings, auditions and outdoor shoots, and it became clear that these images and dialogues came from a place of deep observation, and not outright judgment.
What sets Zoya’s second-generation privilege apart from someone like a Farah Khan or Rohit Shetty is her ability to humanize her knowledge rather than superficially spoofing it. A perfect example is the presence of the very jolly film producer, Romy Rolly – a once-blockbuster man struggling to escape the widening chasm between quintessentially single-screen Bollywood and the shiny new-age multiplex setup. This is evident in a scene in which, when faced with two “overseas” NRI financiers and their fancy parlance (script=property), he half-seriously responds, “Oh, humaare yahaan property ko hi ‘property’ kehte hain”.
With every scene, it is obvious that the former King is swimming against the tide; he is the kind of stubborn masala-making ex-con that most film critics loathe and fear. Yet, it’s hard not to root for Romy Rolly’s life, if not exactly his artistic vision and complete disregard of modernity
We’ve seen this person morph into a low-hanging caricature in so many comedies. Here, Rishi Kapoor – who else but a member of Bollywood regality – lends Romy the kind of easy uncle-ness that, for the first time, compels us to look beyond the crass proverbs, silk shirts and curly hair. He is both funny and real because he refuses to evolve while mourning the demise of the wine-and-respect industry he once knew. And yet he is the oblivious to the fact that he is also the poster-child of nepotism, wondering why the “stars” don’t want to work with him when he is launching the directorial career of his excitable younger brother (Sanjay Kapoor).
With every scene, it is obvious that the former King is swimming against the tide; he is the kind of stubborn masala-making ex-con that most film critics loathe and fear. Yet, it’s hard not to root for Romy Rolly’s life, if not exactly his artistic vision and complete disregard of modernity. “Oye film institute, we are making a commercial movie here,” he casually scoffs, as (good sport) Anurag Kashyap passionately narrates a bleak script. His loving and luxury-loving wife (Juhi Chawla), for a change too, is no snooty vamp but a genuine partner who still cares for his ambitions. Together, they paint a picture we aren’t used to seeing. They represent the kitschy heydays of an industry that is almost always in transition – but they’re good, hard-working people. Their principles differ, and Rolly might be a hoot to have around at filmy parties after 8 PM. But he is memorable because Zoya Akhtar affords him more than one dimension. He is memorable because he knows – and doesn’t need to inform us – that they laugh behind his back.
Those working within the industry today come across such has-beens on a daily basis; a film like this makes this experience amusing and fascinating instead of shocking and nauseating. Rolly humanizes what is essentially a cartoon, and lends texture to the shiny threads he wears. If Akhtar were to make a spin-off on Rolly, it would be as authentic as an Ed Wood or The Disaster Artist. There won’t be a need for outlandish fiction and generalizations, because Rolly himself is the cumulative result of more than two decades of the sibling Akhtars’ childhood years in the house of India’s best-known screenwriter. I can only imagine the number of Rolly(s) they might have encountered in the large living room. That Zoya makes us empathize with her “memories” by integrating them into such an intricately detailed film is an admirable feat.
Superstar Ali Zaffar Khan (Hrithik Roshan) politely excuses himself from Rolly’s next project, leaving the “magnum opus” hero-less at the last moment. After the phone call, in a curiously vulnerable scene, Rolly simply sits down on his sofa and laments the shift of culture – and his lowering of status and respect – in this new industry. Rishi Kapoor performs it beautifully, aided by wife Juhi Chawla’s timely affection. At this point, all the figurative face paint is smudged away; here is an ageing professional wondering if he has anything left to offer in his domain. One can sense this is his last chance – a lot is on the line – and no amount of “hustling” seems to be helping him anymore.
This was the first and only time I checked myself for “wishing” failure upon some shamelessly mainstream low-denominator cinema. If these are the producers behind them, they deserve all the luck in the world.