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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.

Pardes, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, Kal Ho Naa Ho. Many of post-liberalization India’s definitive Bollywood films devised immigration as a “character trait” that was meant to serve the central conflict of divisive romance. Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), a grown-up comment on the lavish physicality of NRI cinema, presents an ambitious young hero for whom love is only one of several feelings that feed his growing sense of first-world guilt. In fact it doesn’t even matter that Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan, in his most measured performance), a NASA project manager, supplements the American economy. When he argues with the strong-minded homegrown Gita (Gayatri Joshi), his line of debate (development statistics, cynicism, “you Indians”) reeks of armchair activism more suited to his own country’s urban sections. In this day and age, one doesn’t need to necessarily live outside India to be a “non-resident Indian”. The gap has more to do with classes than cultures.

Which is why it’s Kaveri Amma (veteran Kannada actress Kishori Ballal) – an adopted mother (nanny), memories of whom bring back Mohan from his adopted country – that lends Swades the spiritual dimension of distance. Mohan is pulled back and humbled by his need to “rescue” Kaveri Amma from the isolation he thinks she has succumbed to. In reality, though, the film languidly conveys that it’s an isolated Mohan who was the one in need of rescuing – and it’s Kaveri Amma’s life that does the needful.  

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The old lady makes for a fascinating study of maternal traditionalism. She walks the thin line between caretaker and caregiver – both to Gita, for whom she is an anchoring force of muted feminism, and to Mohan, for whom she symbolizes the final piece of an incomplete childhood puzzle. By choosing to stay with Gita rather than moving to America, she makes the story about the fiery young woman, even though the film is about the existential man. It’s not just an old lady fearful of change at an advanced stage of life; it’s also a weathered woman recognizing, and duly communicating to Mohan, that the change must first come from within.

Kishori Ballal plays her with the kind of purity that eschews cinematic manipulation. She becomes their cupid without truly aspiring to, and bears a perpetual expression of gratefulness even as she is torn between her two well-meaning children.

Best Scene

When Mohan leaves, he reserves his longest goodbye for Kaveri Amma. Much like when he arrived, she is again in tears. She has the power to emotionally manipulate him here, but all she leaves him with are the most unassuming line: “The family would be complete if you stayed.” He always imagined that she was the kind of person who rarely realizes the resonance of her own words. But this time, she knows. She knows that it is an offer he cannot refuse. And he doesn’t, eventually.

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