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.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), under its uncanny West-Delhi texture and sardonic tone, is a remarkably nuanced portrait of an incomplete man whose urge to steal, hoard and engage crooked father figures became an existence of rebellion against a stolen childhood and a domineering (but honest) father. Much like the versatility of the items he robs, the film has an equally authentic assortment of supporting performances and bit roles. In addition to Abhay Deol’s suitably shifty protagonist and Paresh Rawal’s unique triple role, like most of Banerjee’s movies every ‘third wheel’ lends this story more than just a run-of-the-mill North Indian personality; nobody does Delhi like Banerjee’s frequent collaborator and casting director, Atul Mongia (Khosla ka Ghosla, Queen, Titli, NH10, LSD).

There’s the superb Manu Rishi as Lucky’s ‘chamcha’ and weak-willed childhood friend Bangali, a sensational debut by the reticent Manjot Singh as a teen-aged Lucky, an evergreen Archana Puran Singh as the doctor’s two-faced housewife, Neetu Chandra as Lucky’s mild-mannered love interest Sonal, and even Anurag Arora as the hard-nosed Lucky-obsessed Inspector.

But it was a young Richa Chadha who made the most vivid impression in her Hindi film debut, three years before her ‘official breakthrough’ in Anurag Kashyap’s crime opus, Gangs of Wasseypur. The yin to sister Sonal’s yang, Chadha as Dolly shines in a performance that goes beyond the girl’s firebrand persona, crude twang and kitschy body language. She has a total of three scenes – all opposite Lucky at subsequent stages of his graph – in which she, through three distinct moods, manages to suggest an entire character and history, one that might have informed a full-blooded spin-off had Dibakar chosen to revisit this cinematic universe.

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While Sonal is the balm Lucky needs to compensate for his unorthodox lifestyle, Dolly represents almost a kindred spirit of sorts – the kind who understands him and is therefore all too wary of him seducing her sister because she knows her own (and by extension, his) limitations. After all, only a thief recognizes a thief. They connect on a subliminal level, and Lucky doesn’t want someone like Dolly to destabilize his life any further.

In her first scene, a drunken Dolly encounters Lucky at the disco she usually ‘works’ at. She flirts, coos and purrs expertly. She senses that unlike other men, he isn’t quite out of her league. Her typical West-Delhi drawl here is reminiscent of award-winning editor Namrata Rao’s eye-catching cameo in the “Sex” segment of Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD). After Lucky gets into a brawl, he drops her home and, from Sonal’s reaction, wonders how often Dolly comes back in this semi-conscious state. He feels sorry for the family. When he sees the sisters side by side, he realizes that Sonal might actually be the root he needs.

In Dolly’s second scene, she is sober, and gratefully receives him at the door, hoping that he has come for her and not Sonal. She recognizes his darting, restless eyes far more than Sonal ever will – “nobody has ever asked me what I’ve wanted before,” she says, betraying her put-on swag, while referring to his politeness at the disco. Even though this moment isn’t presented in a tragic light, it paints a sad picture, revealing to us the emotional fragility of the life she has chosen to lead. She throws herself onto him, seduced by a basic sense of decency, only to be pushed away. Once she realizes that she can’t have him, she immediately gets catty and territorial because she doesn’t want her “educated” sister to have one more unreliable person in her life. She knows he might only let Sonal down, just like she has all these years.

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The third scene shows her to be the impulsive kinds who marry just to prove a point; she is pregnant, and trying hard to show off her mollycoddled husband to her mother and sister. With Lucky at home to announce his grand plans of a restaurant business, the scene becomes an amusing “my husband is better than yours” contest between the sisters. The gold-digging mother wants to pamper the more successful son-in-law. When Dolly finally notices that Lucky is far more proactive than her partner, she gets annoyed with the man she has clearly ‘settled’ for. Despite her amusing outburst, she is torn between the one that got away and the resentment that her family can’t see through his charm.

Richa Chadha internalizes the manic-broken-pixie syndrome better than most actresses on screen. It hasn’t always worked, but that’s perhaps largely due to directors who insist on viewing her through a one-dimensional prism. As Dolly, though, she was untested and exciting, and humanized a role that many storytellers tend to overplay as harmless colour-filling stereotypes.

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