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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.

One of the cleverest things about Navdeep Singh’s NH10 – a brutal, bare-boned and bloody revenge thriller pivoting on a Gurgaon woman’s nightmarish encounter with an honour-killing community in rural Haryana – is its casting. Anushka Sharma does well as Meera, but it’s the littler parts that contribute to making the film a disorienting nocturnal experience. There are the males: Neil Bhoopalam as the husband Arjun, Darshan Kumar as the gang leader Satbir, and even the shifty Sushil Tyagi as the corrupt cop that misleads a hapless Meera. Which is perhaps why, for a film that hinges on the most archaic avatar of patriarchal traditionalism, it’s remarkable that a female delivers a lasting impact.

It’s not so much the character of Ammaji – the “sarpanch” of the village that proudly perpetuates the dark culture. It’s the artist playing her. That’s where the subversion lies. Nobody might have imagined Deepti Naval, one of Hindi cinema’s most elegant, soft-spoken and genteel actresses, as the fiery orchestrator of the film’s horror. Just as nobody might have ever expected a villainous-looking Mohnish Behl to play a noble family man in a Sooraj Barjatya film. In cleverer cases like NH10, the filmmaker employs the very concept of typecasting – and its preconceived nature – to inform the grammar of storytelling.

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The element of suspense lies in the fact that the sarpanch, a woman, turns out to be the chief antagonist and haunter of Meera’s fate. But the element of surprise, especially for viewers, lies in the fact that Deepti Naval is that woman. It challenges our notions of mental characterization. Even Meera, after escaping the men, automatically trusts this lady when she sees her face. She simply assumes, just like we do, that Naval is the balm to heal her wounds. Her shock rivals ours when this unassuming, kind-looking Ammaji displays the kind of ruthless rage that Meera spent the whole night dodging.

This adds to the nuances that Naval brings to the role. Ammaji’s situation isn’t black or white. Here’s a woman who is visibly trying to hide her heartbreak at having to kill her own daughter in the name of honour. She is essentially a leader who has had to sacrifice her womanhood in order to survive in, and define, a man’s world. The pressure of setting an example for the rest of the region weighs on her – which is why she vents on the only two girls (Meera and her daughter-in-law) in her vicinity. The males, ironically, remain her weakness. If the threat to her grandson’s life dilutes her power, the death of her son brings her to her knees. There’s a complexity to her feelings that Naval expresses solely through her physical reactions. The film’s final shot – of Ammaji feebly muttering to Meera that Pinky ‘needed to be punished’ – indicates the conflict of one India trying to understand the other. She says the words apologetically, less to justify her actions to Meera and more to convince her own mind of the culture that has turned her into a monster.

Best Scene

Ammaji’s transformation from maternal to murderous – on learning the significance of Meera’s identity – is superbly amplified by the absence of her hearing device. The drama of this moment is immense. She is, at first, genuinely concerned for the injured girl. She wants to help. And then, without so much as a word, she conveys three different emotions simultaneously: realization, a tinge of betrayal, and then disappointment.

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