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.
Ritesh Batra's first film, The Lunchbox (2013), remains one of the most poignant and understated portraits of urban isolation in Hindi cinema. It tells the story of a lonely housewife named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) who, due to a goof-up in Mumbai's famed 'Dabba' service system, begins to exchange letters with a lonely widower named Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). The letters aren't friendly or flirty; they're emotionally intelligent and observational, touching upon the kind of scenes and aspects of everyday life one would associate a Jerry Pinto novel with.
Every afternoon, while tucking into a tiffin meant to reach her husband, Saajan reads her letter as if it were a lunch-time book – eventually even thanking her for "letting me into your dreams". Every evening, after receiving the empty tiffin box, Ila reads his letters instead of dreaming through a quick post-lunch nap.
Batra is delicate in his filmmaking – a gentle background score seeps in only when the two protagonists are thinking (twice in bathrooms, when Ila smells her cheating husband's shirt and Saajan discovers that he smells like his grandfather), or narrating stories about those closest to them.
One of those stories is about Mrs. Deshpande, a Maharashtrian woman who lives in the Malad East flat right above hers. "Aunty," as Ila calls her, is a faceless neighbour who we only hear and never see. The two chat, gossip, exchange recipes and listen to '90s audiocassettes through their grilled windows – we hardly see any modern means of communication, including phones and computers, in The Lunchbox. Aunty is one of two friends of a subsequent, older generation – the other being Saajan – whose vocal presence becomes a daily part of Ila's routine.
From the blunt (and nosy) familiarity of her voice, though, it is clear that the older woman considers herself to be somewhat of a "mentor" to Ila because of the figurative similarity of their situations. Mrs. Deshpande's husband has been in a coma for 15 years, and Ila is the only respite she gets from being willingly stuck in a one-sided marriage. Ila's marriage is in a coma, too. Her husband barely speaks to her, and Aunty might imagine Ila to be well on her way to a future that she knows all too well – if anything, she feels like their expertly synced kitchen routines are probably training Ila towards the inevitable reality of detachment. She wants to know what Ila is cooking, what she's thinking and even when she's giggling – not to mention conditioning Ila to her kind of filmy music, which plays on a device someone like Ila has no business being as nostalgic about. In essence, this is Aunty inadvertently causing Ila to age into her world rather than de-ageing herself to enter Ila's world.
On her part, Ila, still only maybe a decade into her marriage, addresses Mrs. Deshpande with an informal term (Aunty) that clearly highlights their generational gap – to perhaps remind herself of the fact that, as much as she empathizes or even admires her neighbour, there are miles to go before succumbing to the domestic machinations of fate. Which is why it's somewhat poetic that it's Mrs. Deshpande that incepts the idea of writing a 'thank you' letter to this unknown man – triggering off a sequence of exchanges that, ironically, Ila never tells her about.
She is the one who urges Ila to find the right words initially, treating it as a brief bout of harmless entertainment that a television set might otherwise afford her. This is, in a way, also her window to the outside world, beyond her husband who stares at the ceiling fan, beyond his medicines and diapers. Ila doesn't even tell her about her husband's infidelity – a psychological concept that a tireless lady devoted to a man in vegetative state might never grasp.
It's also telling that Ila bears the same look of existential haplessness on her face when she reads Saajan's definitive letter – in which he realizes that he's too old for her – that she does when Aunty excitedly tells her about her adventure of cleaning a rotating ceiling fan. It's this hopelessness of the older lady that plays a key in making Ila want Saajan's level of hopeful oldness. Saajan, she must think, is still a bit younger than Mrs. Deshpande – and while one of them is more than happy to dilute her youth, the other is reluctant to steal it away. One represents the tediousness of her reality, while the other represents an escape so farfetched that he fears he might become that tediousness (like Mr. Deshpande, and like Ila's dying father).
The "middle-class" voice of Mrs. Deshpande – that of veteran Marathi actress Bharati Achrekar's – is another clever device. For those growing up in the 1990s, this depicts a thoughtful circularity to her role as the lovable titular character of the TV series, Shrimati Sharma Na Kehti Thi – a music-countdown-meets-domestic-comedy show about a Bollywood-obsessed housewife in which every other character of her environment is heard off-screen.
Personally, I adored her even more as news anchor Juhi Chawla's star-struck mother in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani; she merely extends her teenager-in-adult-body image by being a fan-girl of Shah Rukh Khan, who plays the charming rival news anchor. She makes for the perfect anti-parent – a lady whose voice is old, but manner of speaking isn't. A trait that might have lulled Ila into – and jolted her out of – an existence beyond her ears.