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.

“Kachra, Firki daal!” yells Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) excitedly, who can best be described as the Virat Kohli of 1893. The term ‘firki’ feels all the more relevant today, given the recent resurgence of old-school wrist-spin – characterized by ODI leggie twins, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav – in world cricket. The filmy sides of us might imagine that both bowlers might well be analyzing video reruns of arguably India’s first famous leggie between practice sessions.

Because even after all these years, Lagaan’s reticent Kachra continues to hold a special place in our hearts. And perhaps the biggest achievement of Ashutosh Gowariker’s modern classic is the fact that we remember him more as a game-changing cricketer than a “reservation-quota” Dalit addition to a ragtag team desperate to signify unity in diversity.

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We remember the shock registering on his own face as his polio-withered hand forces the ball do magical things – a feat India’s Bhagwat Chandrashekhar was to repeat in the pace-heavy 1970s. We remember his anguished expression when he fails to hit the final ball for a six, only to realize moments later that it was in fact a no-ball. His “selection” – when he, the untouchable, strangely throws back the ball to Bhuvan and the practicing gang – is a classic sports-movie trope, and one that Gowariker integrates seamlessly into the daring social construct of the movie.

That Bhuvan fights with the rest to include him in the team is an indicator that Kachra, with all his limitations and monosyllables and reluctant gait, will be the clincher in a film full of truly memorable “third wheels”. All of them had meatier roles with fuller arcs, in accordance with their characters’ advanced social status. Gowariker employs the dismissive lens of these villagers to depict the outcast’s existence – always on the periphery, never alone in a frame, and zero insight into his life away from that famous pitch. It’s the reason we don’t see where Kachra comes from and what his domestic life is like, as compared to, say, a Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), a Goli (Daya Shankar Pandey), or the crowd-favourite, Guran (the late Rajesh Vivek). One can be sure, though, that if there were a sequel to the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, Kachra might have been one of the more dominant faces in the village of Champaner.

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The actor in question, Aditya Lakhia, played the quintessential underdog in an underdog-region by achieving an anguished balance between submissiveness and deference. Before Lagaan, Lakhia had been the floppy-haired “hero’s friend” in two very famous films – Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. I had written a short profile on this Ahmedabad resident a couple of years ago, where I learned that his mother, Meera Lakhia, was a renowned art director in the 1980s; she won the National Award for the Gujarati film, Bhavni Bhavai, Ketan Mehta’s debut, which was coincidentally a folktale about Dalits starring Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Smita Patil.

Life has come full circle for her son. Because Lakhia, too, has now returned to his roots, determined to be at the creative forefront of new-age Gujarati cinema. Wherever he goes, though, he will have ensured that the word “Kachra” has gone from being a derisive slur to an iconic term of dark-horse endearment.

 

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