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.
Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor (2012), the first of three outstanding collaborations with writer Juhi Chaturvedi, pulled off a rare heist by cross-breeding two of Hindi cinema's most overexploited genres – the inter-caste comedy and the social-message drama. Thanks to Dr. Baldev Chaddha (Annu Kapoor) and his "super sperm" Vicky Arora (Ayushmann Khurrana), 'Lajpat Nagar' and 'divorce' married 'sperm donation' and 'adoption' in everyday conversations across the nation in one of mainstream Bollywood's golden years. Chaturvedi's screenwriting debut – which came a year after Akshat Verma's chaotic Coen-ish irreverence in Delhi Belly – brought the Indian "script" back into the game as the star striker after an era that had relegated it to the bench under the whims of the toxic director-star stranglehold.
Chaturvedi has since become, in my opinion, the finest 'specialist' screenwriter in the country. In Vicky Donor, and the subsequent Piku as well as the recent October, every single secondary character is capable of headlining their own film. A common thread is her ability to paint the quintessential Indian parent in multiple dimensions – by presenting them not just as token symbols of new-age progressiveness, but linking them inextricably to the "culture" of the younger protagonists' stories. In each of them, they are accidentally strong figures that have had to adapt to North-Indian life after losing a partner. Whether it's the grieving mother who resists a cynical brother-in-law's jabs at her independence in October, or the overbearing widower scrutinizing his adult daughter in Piku, these are complex individuals who bolster our understanding of the film as less of a plot and more of a feeling.
It all started, however, with a memorable Sikh woman and her mother-in-law in Vicky Donor. Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia) is a single mother who thrives on reiterating – through repeated mentions of her small beauty parlour – that she is the only earning member of the family. Biji (Kamlesh Gill), her deceased husband's mother, is an old widow who, on the face of it, is the good cop to Dolly's bad cop when it comes to their beloved drifter Vicky. Dolly cribs, whines and moans about her son and his aimlessness, while Biji nullifies her angst by mollycoddling the man and believing in his "slow-burning" greatness. This might sound like a conventional Punjabi three-way – except, by subverting decades of ingrained saas-bahu hostility, Chaturvedi lays the foundation for Vicky's transformation from hot-blooded hustler to liberal hero through the very 'drops' of masculinity missing from his home. How often can you say – the sperm of a man is the hero of a film full of heroines?
He might resent Dolly's stress and Biji's chill, but he finds their equation to be a pitch-perfect example of evolution and individuality in the face of societal traditionalism. The two women aren't related to each other by blood, but they have the chemistry of a married couple. Each of them finds in the other a partner they once had – Dolly is annoyed at how laidback Biji is, and Biji, like a henpecked husband, playfully dismisses her rants. They understand, and cancel out, one another, allowing their unified love for Vicky to tide over any of their inherent differences. It's because of them that Vicky subconsciously becomes the unorthodox leader of thoughts – not unlike the deep-rooted, quirky sensitivity of young American film characters brought up by same-sex couples.
Much credit goes to Ahluwalia, one of Indian cinema's finest costume designers, and Kamlesh Gill, the "anti-dadi" in a cinematic landscape peppered with misguided seniority. Chaturvedi resists all temptations of equating progressiveness to coolness by having them succumb to 'physical comedy' (a la Farida Jalal wearing dark glasses, or Sushma Seth singing to the heavens) – a mature decision that allows us to locate humour in how their situations have created them rather than how they react to them. After spending a career communicating the essence of characters through their clothes, Ahluwalia in particular thrives on dressing their moments up with little details of Punjabi functionality – she adores her neurotic Pomeranian named Whiskey, and eventually lets the wisdom of Biji overrule many of her politically incorrect outbursts. In the hysterical scene where Ashima's Bengali (single, again) father and spinster aunt formally meet Vicky's family, she even ejects herself from the living room and leaves the decision to Biji, knowing that her bigoted tendencies need to be kept in check on important occasions.
Every night, Dolly and Biji turn the living room into their personal bar and knock back pegs of whiskey in their own peanut-filled 'mahaul' setup. Theirs is a lucid picture of empowerment even before it came into cinematic fashion. We see Dolly and Biji drinking to get drunk, ruminating on all the things they can't say to each other when they are sober. In the first such instance, we see – beyond their slurring voices and nostalgic lamenting – Biji telling Dolly honestly how much she respects her. She then only half-jokes about how she didn't get a penny of dowry from Dolly's family, prompting an emotional Dolly to point out the unfairness of this statement.
Biji immediately follows this with a mention of Vicky and his future wife – in her way, gently conditioning Dolly to recognize the broad-mindedness of her own legacy before judging whoever Vicky chooses to marry. This is Biji methodically molding Dolly into a more tolerant mother by planting seeds of self-worth in her mind, so that she too can be proud of Vicky the same way one day. As it turns out, all of this spirit-induced "brainwashing" helps, because Ashima (Yami Gautam) is not just non-Punjabi but also a divorcee and a working woman who has grown up without a mother.