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.
Times were different when Chak De! India released back in 2007. Akshay Kumar had yet to notice the country’s problems, and there was still a wide chasm between patriotism and jingoism. Audiences, too, hadn’t been explicitly exposed to the ‘woman-oriented’ movie yet, while it was still the era of tennis star Sania Mirza and boxer Mary Kom; Sania Nehwal, PV Sindhu and the millennial icons were still to break the glass ceiling as popular sportswomen. Therefore, when the hastily assembled team of 11 spunky hockey players – each worthy of their own underdog biopic – was unleashed upon an unsuspecting country, they literally and figuratively changed the game. For once, the “superstar” was a device to introduce the real premise of the film.
Amidst the multicultural chaos, there were a few players – more athletes than actresses – who stood out. The ‘seniors’ Bindiya Naik (Shilpa Shukla) and Vidya Sharma (Vidya Malvade) were at the forefront, while Punjab’s fiery Balbir Kaur (an endearing Tanya Abrol) and glamorous Chandigarh captain Preeti Sabarwal (Sagarika Ghatge) rocked some scene-stealing lines. But even after all these years, if there’s one face that foretold the record-breaking success of Dangal almost a decade ago, it was tomboyish Haryanvi center forward, Komal Chautala.
The pint-sized Chitrashi Rawat – short hair, long attitude – lived the role instead of playing it, because of her visible experience as a national-level professional who just happened to audition for a hockey film. Much of her character’s arc is defined by her lack of teamwork with the other forward, Preeti – a girl she resents more on a ‘class’ level (Ghatge’s fair skin, bright eyes add to the image), with the urban-rural divide providing for natural conflict. Their equation is arguably the most important one in context of not just the team’s performance but also the film itself. After all, if two strikers learn to be selfless at the cost of inherently individualistic ambitions, it sets a fine example for the others to follow suit.
If you look at Chautala on a more cinematic level, she might have made for a barnstorming solo protagonist half a decade later – one that the likes of Kangana Ranaut (as Haryanvi athlete Kusum in Tanu Weds Manu: Returns) and Zaira Wasim (as young Geeta Phogat in Dangal) were hailed for in coming eras. We haven’t seen much of Rawat after this – she appeared in a minor role in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, and occupied some other unmentionable films. What’s a bit tragic is that Rawat, who halted her hockey career for the film, chose showbiz over the insurmountable struggles of operating as a female athlete at a time when the doors were just starting to open. That Rawat momentarily excelled in both fields simultaneously in 2007 is both her biggest blessing – the whole nation recognized her overnight – and her biggest curse.
Most of her scenes are alarmingly organic – like a peek into the world of early morning sprints and solitary practice sessions long before it became a Bollywood biopic staple. The writer steers clear of “comic” moments even though it might have been very tempting to channel Komal’s bindaas persona into a crowd-pleasing caricature. But the defining moment occurs when her character finally breaks type – and passes the ball. To city girl Preeti – herself a victim of casual patriarchy at the hands of a cricketer ex-boyfriend – her own name might have never sounded sweeter.