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.

There are times when actors cannot be directed. They rewrite the characters even as they are performing them. Some directors cast them precisely for this reason – to not know what to expect, and to be surprised by the life experience and perspective and unexpected shape they bring to their roles. After all, filmmakers cannot know everything; they must know when to surrender control to the artists they have chosen to trust.

To Imtiaz Ali’s credit, apart from good friend Anurag Kashyap, he seems to be one of the only storytellers around to have recognized this “acquired” essence of Piyush Mishra. And it showed, in arguably his most passionate piece of work.

On the face of it, the role of Dhingra in Rockstar was destined to be a total caricature. Even further so, when one considers that Dhingra is the closest this gloriously messy film comes to having a conventional “villain” – designed solely to make us notice the realness of Ranbir Kapoor as a musician far too talented and restless for the small-minded man he works under. But Mishra immortalizes the record-label owner in a way that at once makes him sound familiar, and yet so very different from all the other standard impersonations of shady media moguls we have seen in Hindi cinema over the decades.  

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The multitalented stage veteran is a fascinating man to have on camera. His unique style of delivering dialogues – he speaks in rapid, rat-a-tat waves of breathless half-words, as if there were a gun to his head to stop him from being overly colloquial – has become iconic in time, thanks in no small measure to Arré’s ingenious Fitoor Mishra videos.

In Rockstar, he walks the thin line between comic relief and crude traditionalist. Every time we laugh at his outdated principles and misplaced vanity (oh, that B-movie wig), we are immediately reminded that he is in fact a disease that plagues half the professional world. The more he squares off against a flawed but fiercely independent Jordan, the more it becomes obvious that Dhingra is a living, breathing metaphor of toxic masculinity, exploitation and workspace abuse.

There is a lot more to him than meets the eye. He hasn’t inherited his fortune. One can imagine his brazen attitude to be a direct result of a stark, small-town childhood that might have driven him on a rags-to-riches journey in the most unforgiving industry of the country. Often, self-made millionaires tend to be as vengeful as the circumstances that have whipped them into adulthood. As a proven boss who prides himself on spotting musical talent, Dhingra actually comes across as the kind of cocky, frank “reality show judge” prototype – a desi version of the legendary Simon Cowell, so full of himself, and depressingly right about this entitlement. His brash personality is both derivative and provocative – visibly manufactured to harden the many young souls that dare to enter the arena just like he once did.

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The beautiful thing about Mishra’s interpretation of this man, though, is one that lends texture to the director’s broad strokes. He is essentially a 1990s character operating – successfully – in 2012. For all its cultural and artistic versatilities, India is now more of a “movie soundtrack” nation than one that is captivated by solo sufi-rock careers. The Dhingras and his likes were far more relevant before the onset of the digital era. They launched pop careers and boy and girl bands with gusto, and were responsible for the establishment of entire music genres. For all means and purposes, a guy like him isn’t practically viable in the fluid modern-day landscape.

Yet, there is Jordan, a “rockstar” who doesn’t quite fit the international stereotype of a troubled stage musician, or even the sanitized Indian version of a best-selling singer. And here is Dhingra, a visionary that has very little understanding of the boy’s language and destiny. In no way do they fit together on an aesthetic level. In no way do they individually make sense. But Kapoor makes them work. And Mishra makes them shout.

Best Scene

Dhingra is merely a stepping stone for Jordan to get one step closer to the woman he loves. In the process, Jordan refuses to take the strange, conceited man seriously; he refuses to look at him as someone beyond a “necessary evil,” and therefore, as quite a foolish character who has absolutely no self-awareness. This is characterized by one of the most effortless scenes of situational comedy ever seen on the Indian screen.

Jordan visits him at his obscenely lavish bungalow. Their “meeting” takes place in the garden, while Dhingra is being given a violent oil massage by one of his muscular cronies. Kapoor struggles to keep a straight face, unable to hide his amusement at Mishra’s painful determination to keep talking even as his bones are slapped into shape. One suspects Kapoor isn’t really acting here; he is really enjoying this sight. Eventually, he bursts out laughing. There is something so routine about Dhingra’s behavior here that it’s impossible not to wonder how many “yes men” he might have entertained in this very same position over the years.

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