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.
While growing up far away from Bombay in the 1990s, I was particularly fascinated with the depiction of Bollywood within Bollywood movies. Nothing intrigued me more than watching a film being made in a film. It was, for the longest time, the closest I’d get to an actual set – a “double” ticket that allowed me to be both behind the curtains and in front of it. This is probably why David Dhawan’s Swarg (1990) held a special place in my heart. It was, for me, the first glimpse of the big-city struggler narrative, even though it was hidden within the loudness of a family drama.
More than an ageing Rajesh Khanna, the story of an intense young Govinda (as Krishna) – who goes from modest spot boy to superstar with one famous impromptu audition scene – endlessly entertained me. In it, Arun Bakshi (who I already adored, for playing the comically unfortunate umpire in the Chamatkar cricket match) plays the exasperated movie director who, tired of his lead hero’s incompetence, dares Krishna to recite the same dialogues. Bakshi breaks into applause soon after, proudly announcing his “discovery” to the world. He remained my favourite desi director on screen – till a certain Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela released.
Path-breaking soundtrack and “tapori” charms aside, Rangeela worked even as a sardonic peek into the world of Indian commercial filmmaking. Though the lights and cameras of Mili’s extra-to-heroine career is merely the backdrop to her relationship with brash Munna, you can almost hear the wheels churning in the mind of Varma’s assistant director on Rangeela, a young chap named Madhur Bhandarkar. Bhandarkar’s legacy of exploring (and ‘exposing’) glamorous professions might have just been born in this project. Incidentally, he also appears in a cameo as an assistant to the eccentric director within the movie – the subject of this article, the legendary Steven Kapoor.
It’s quite ironic that for an actor who sealed his legacy as Bollywood’s go-to “bad man,” perhaps his most enduring role is a satire on the very medium he thrived on overplaying. In just a few scenes – most of them ‘comic relief’ in context of the primary plot – Gulshan Grover immortalized the self-obsessed Hindi film director like few others before him. In fact, a cowboy-hat-wearing Sanjay Kapoor uncannily emulated his spirit in his fantastic Luck by Chance cameo. But Steven Kapoor was primarily Ram Gopal Varma’s reading of the formulaic industry that he was about to conquer. Filmmakers tend to have fun with interpretations of their own professions on screen. The “pseudo-intellectual” West-obsessed new-wave over-passionate filmmaker who is actually no wiser than his shamelessly masala movies is a classic stereotype – and Grover, villainous sense of humour intact, elevates this part into the 1995 version of a sly tweet.
Varma, who was about to change the grammar of ‘mainstream’ Bollywood, might have created the Canon-cap-wearing Steven Kapoor as a pot shot at some of his contemporaries. For a while, I was convinced that this was a dig at Shekhar Kapur, especially with the incessant “my competition is with Coppola and Spielberg!” rants. But today, 23 years later, it’s clear that Steven Kapoor was an anticipatory symbol of Varma himself – a creator convinced that he is a misunderstood genius who has not been gives his dues by an art-averse industry. In a rare instance of life imitating art, Varma has, over the last decade, turned into the caricature he had once so self-consciously chuckled at.
But this scene is still not as hilarious as his introductory shot in which, during a dance rehearsal routine, he sneaks up with his imaginary handmade frame behind his cinematographer, lost in his own universe, and eventually screams, “Cut! Cut!” – only to be calmly told that the camera isn’t even rolling. “The camera is always rolling in Steven Kapoor’s mind,” he declares, almost matter-of-factly, to his bemused collaborator who probably rolls his eyes every other minute. Varma’s love affair with the camera (angles) has never been more evident than through Kapoor’s deliciously exaggerated gait in this moment.