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.
Abbas-Mustan’s Baazigar, “loosely” inspired by the Matt Dillon-starrer A Kiss Before Dying, was a risky Bollywood film for its time. The hero, Vicky/Ajay (an edgy Shah Rukh Khan), was a cold-blooded killer out to avenge the destruction of his family. His romance with two wealthy heroines was calculated. Other than family honour and single-minded focus, there was nothing redeeming about the deceitful man. Basically, here was a film asking us to empathize with a psychopath – one that, in any other film (Darr, for example), would be presented as the unhinged villain. Which is why the cast of supporting characters in Baazigar – some as comic relief, others as victims and plot devices – is what really defined the morally compromised thriller.
There was young Shilpa Shetty making her debut as a tragic heiress who plunges to her death in the now infamous terrace sequence. Then there was perpetual “maa” for all seasons, Rakhee, who played a grief-stricken, mentally ill mother whose irreversible condition drives Vicky to murder anybody that threatens to foil his ambitious plans. There was actor-filmmaker Anant Mahadevan as Vicky’s father, whose doomed flashback (who can forget ‘Sharma Group of Industries’ becoming ‘Chopra Group of Industries’ overnight? Not to mention my learning of an all-conquering document known as ‘power of attorney’) sets the tone for Vicky’s obsession to do the same to devious tycoon Madan Chopra (the ever-reliable Dalip Tahil). There was the sincere-looking Siddharth Ray as Kajol’s admirer, Inspector Karan Saxena – the ultimate face of unrequited love and ‘third wheel’ memes. And of course there was Johnny Lever in the most Johnny Lever role possible, as ‘head servant’ Babu Lal in the Chopra household – the buffoon with a memory problem, and the comic element in a film over-dosing on dramatic heft.
Yet, it was a passing face in the movie – a loud Gujarati businessman named Bajodia Seth – that provided for two of its most iconic scenes. Veteran character actor Dinesh Hingoo, who played different variations of Parsi and Gujarati caricatures in more than 80 percent of his 300-plus Hindi film cameos, single-handedly turned Baazigar into a rip-roaring stage comedy when he was on screen. His nasal voice, combined with a vividly expressive face and clownish physicality, seldom failed to lift the fluffy portions of the archetypical Indian masala movie.
Hingoo’s full-throated ‘Kathiawari’ laughter peppers both his scenes – on the phone with Babu Lal, and during a hilarious tea-drinking nightmare on the Chopra gardens. Hingoo’s phone shenanigans in Hera Pheri are equally memorable, as is his Parsi-doctor act in Baadshah, but there was something inimitable about his chemistry with Lever here that allowed his role to puncture the sub-conscious minds of many a ‘90s Bollywood enthusiast. His laughing contest on the phone with Lever is stuff of legend – one trying to outdo the other for no good reason. No matter how juvenile these moments look in hindsight, it’s impossible to deny Hingoo the proud ownership of some of the most endearing cultural stereotypes at a time when audiences were still looking for compartmentalized emotions in a single film.
The incompetent Babu Lal accidentally serves hot water – without tea leaves – to the jovial Bajodia Seth, who is on the Chopra estate as a guest with his son to take a look at his ‘future’ daughter-in-law. Hingoo nails the crass business-talk and linguistic oddities (“Maro Galudiyo!”), before he finds himself in the unfortunate position of faking delight at every tasteless sip of the tea-water. Lever and him exchange polite chuckles every few seconds, as Hingoo’s eyes open wide with disgust every time he slurps on the cup – an expertly performed set-piece that capitalized on both the comedians’ slapstick act-within-an-act ingenuity. This is a moment that remains emblematic of Hingoo’s distinguished career – as the funnyman who made his mark as the “third wheel” of Hindi cinema’s leading funnymen.