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.
For a cinematic culture that pivots on the choppy tradition-modernity dichotomy primarily through various dramatizations of the parent-child generational discord, Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge embodied the transitional social fabric of a nation better than most other classics. In a way, DDLJ remains the epitome of Indian storytelling because – young romance aside – it actually employed its "oldness" to symbolize the battle between two Bollywood eras: vintage (the heroine's 'pitaji') v/s wireless (the hero's 'pop'). The trademark of Aditya Chopra's filmography: there's always one winner, but no real loser in this battle.
Simran's immigrant father, Baldev Singh – I resist the urge to use 'Thakur' as the prefix to every Amrish Puri character – is the India our grandparents get nostalgic about: shuddh desi, proudly patriarchal/conservative, God-fearing and guests in their own foreign home. Without him, Hindi cinema would lose half its conflict.
But it's Raj's dad, Dharamvir Malhotra, the extravagant immigrant who embraces London as much as he misses his "desh," that Chopra introduces as a new-age antidote to advertise the modest progressiveness of his first film. DDLJ's love story might be all about respecting old-school values by not completely succumbing to the vogue of their fast times – a reaction constructed to bridge the gap between the defiant blood of QSQT and Maine Pyar Kiya, and the over-orthodox family-ness of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.
But it's the other love story – one that is defined by the extension of the Indian umbilical cord – that breaks ground because of the film's emotional choice between Baldev Singh's conditional love for his daughters and single parent Dharamvir's unconditional love for his son. Baldev Singh's famous "Jaa, ji le apni zindagi" parting shot is essentially a dramatic rechristening of Dharamvir's reformist-parenthood-101 attitude – one that had enabled Raj to find love on his Euro trip and then chase that love into the mustard fields of Punjab.
Anupam Kher playfully immortalizes the 'parent-cum-best-friend' prototype far before it became fashionable in every other urban multiplex drama. Over the years, successful films like Dil Chahta Hai (another "Malhotra" as Akash's sympathetic father) and Mohabbatein (Saurabh Shukla, as Sanjana's retro-cool single father) haven't managed to be as original with similar devices. Perhaps the only contemporary on-screen father on par with the importance of Kher's clutter-breaking act is the late Farooq Sheikh's beautifully gentle turn as Bunny's (Ranbir Kapoor) remarried parent in Ayan Mukerji's Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – a character that deserves a separate spot on this list.
In that sense, Dharamvir's philosophies were aspirational for 1995, especially the rarely heard before "I've worked all my life so that you don't have to," and his hyperactive encouragement of Raj to drink the temporary potion of youth – in stark contrast to, say, his strict 'anti-drifter dad' role in Mukerji's first, Wake Up Sid. His chemistry with the young, floppy-haired Shah Rukh Khan is one of the film's most enduring strengths, even as they break tradition by (perversely) celebrating Raj's horrid exam results – almost as if they were rapping the uptight knuckles of the several disciplinarian filmy (and real-life) fathers of the country, including opposing number Baldev Singh's. According to him, failing in London is far more prestigious than failing in India – a brutally satirical joke that might have been ahead of its time.
Given this country's unhealthy obsession with careers and formal education, Kher's infectious optimism may have just driven home an unintentional 'social message' in the most non-social-message drama possible – much before 3 Idiots magnified the essence of his personality into an entire film. For example, after watching DDLJ at the city drive-in theatre, I remember turning to my own father calmly and asking him to #BeLikeDharamvir if I ever flunked an exam. Needless to mention, when this unholy (and distinctly unpleasant) occasion arose a few years later in ninth grade, my father's un-cinematic behavior prompted me to curse Kher for letting me dream of liberalism and tolerance. I even tried rattling off a random "O Potchi, O Koka" – except it was met with clinical silence, instead of an upbeat "O Bobi, O Lola!"
Farhan Akhtar's tribute to this scene in Dil Chahta Hai wasn't a patch on the way a perceptive Senior Malhotra – merely by listening to the sounds of Raj's mandolin – understands his son's conflicted heart. "Kaun hai woh?," he casually asks while handing him a beer (did I imagine this?) in their verandah, to which Raj instinctively responds, "Simran" – before realizing there's no point hiding his feelings from the coolest pop in the country. The father's advice here, for post-liberalization mid-nineties India, was perhaps as iconic as Michael Stuhlbarg's similarly poignant speech to his heartbroken son (Timothee Chalamet) at the end of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name.
A parent's validation is still everything for Raj, despite his brash exterior and privileged upbringing. I'd like to imagine this scene triggered an epidemic of awkward conversations initiated by attentive fathers across India – they'd rather have their sons confide in them about first love than failed exams and doomed professional futures.