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.

I have forever nursed a special weakness for cool contract killers in the movies. Perhaps a deep fondness for the most popular of them all – British superspy James Bond – manifests in the way we expect such characters to bear some quintessential “genre” attributes: nonchalant, ruggedly handsome, wounded, freakishly athletic, trained in combat, charming and cold-blooded in a sort of cinematically “humane” way. For me, it was always the thrill – especially the brand that could be explained and empathized with – rather than the chill factor.

In 2012, however, much of India fell for the ultimate assassin. Rarely before had a murderously mischievous cameo, played by a veteran regional actor barely known to Bollywood enthusiasts, become such an overnight sensation. This “cool” man, though, was a grotesque and strangely delicious subversion of the romanticized template: older, pot-bellied, polite, bland and the bespectacled “every-man,” complete with the most unassuming – and therefore, wildly frightening – catchphrase. “Nomoshkar,” purred Bob Biswas (notice the cheeky superhero/villain alliteration) in Sujoy Ghosh’s atmospheric Kahaani. “Ek minute,” he winced, as if apologetically asking for a pinch of salt.

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What a sweet, lonely middle-aged chap, we’d think. Bhadraloks must be bullying him.

And with the disturbingly casual air of a grandfather fiddling with the remote, he whips out a gun and eliminates his “target”. Just like that. And then he proceeds back to the sarkaari Kolkata surroundings of an old-school Life Insurance office, back to his day job after a vastly fruitful lunch break. No explanations, no backstory, no remorse, no personality even – nothing.

Ghosh’s suspense thriller, starring Vidya Balan, was remarkable on many levels for many reasons, but none as much as the masterful invention of Bob…Bob Biswas.

Like many one-dimensional Hindi cinema aficionados who grew up nursing fantasies of Khans and Kumars and Dixits, I had never heard of Bengali actor Saswata Chatterjee – until his first Hindi-language outing with Ghosh. It was love, and fear, at first sight.

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There were times when I just felt like folding my hands and Nomoshkar-ing someone I didn’t like, instead of having to verbally communicate my caustic feelings. Which made it all the more magical to see him excel as Ranbir Kapoor’s unorthodox father/secret-agent in Anurag Basu’s shamelessly imaginative (failed) musical, Jagga Jasoos – a far cry from the chilling, unexplained, hopelessly deranged man he once symbolized. After all, it’s hard to forget the desi ingenuity of a mediocre life insurance agent gleefully taking lives on the sly – all the more if it’s a non-starry stranger in an immensely unglamorous whodunit.

Much of this memorable-character series depends largely on the filmmakers’ ingenious casting decisions, and perhaps there was none like Chatterjee’s older-Ed-Sheeran-gawkiness in recent history. A close second would be Deepti Naval’s role in NH10 – another classic case of an actor’s gentle reputation and soft-spoken stereotyping “employed” by the makers to devastating reverse effect. Bob made many of us think twice about the benign harmlessness of regular 9-to-5, and possibly sociopathic and dangerously suppressed, professionals in crowded Indian cities. Look closer, and those large, googly eyes are a little crazy – as if they’re attached to springs instead of sockets. I’m still waiting for a Bob Bond Biswas spinoff series.

Best Scene

One of his first scenes, in which he is introduced as a hapless employee being scolded by his younger boss for his bad numbers. He rubs his fingers together like a submissive puppy, unable to make eye contact, before absent-mindedly attending to a new text message – all while he is yelled at. There is something unmistakably eerie about Bob’s body language. Especially in hindsight, when we realize that the multimedia message included the photograph of his next victim, even as his boss goes at him for not “executing his targets” properly.

 

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