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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.

Earlier this year while I watched Prosit Roy’s Pari, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what its secondary track – that of a runaway female demon developing feelings for an engaged man who gives her shelter – reminded me of. The film handled this track well. It didn’t whitewash the man, and made us at some point sympathize with the jilted demon. It also presented her as a martyr torn between her uncontrolled love and her destructive instincts – a conflict, you might say, between the humanity and the horror of the genre.

Now I remember that Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz (2002), a game changer in its time, hinged on a similar theme. But the treatment reflected the dated mood of the era it occupied. Bhatt ‘Indianized’ the Hollywood film (What Lies Beneath) that it borrowed from – the female spirit, despite being wronged, is made to be the villain because she committed suicide due to a ‘mental problem,’ while the philandering man (Dino Morea) is victimized because the story is told from the perspective of his anguished wife (Bipasha Basu). In its counterpart, Harrison Ford is revealed to be the murderer of the girl he had an affair with; a ‘cheater’ is as far and grey as a Hindi film could go for its hero.

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Suffice to say that Raaz might not have been received generously by the critics today. Furthermore, with the #MeToo movement rightfully gathering steam in the nation, a film about an angry woman failing to avenge her treatment in the afterlife because she is “unhinged,” is not the right one.

Yet, despite the skewed gender politics of what was otherwise an effective desi horror movie, it was the spirit of the murderous spirit that lent credibility to the careless plot. Malini Sharma, a fleeting actress I only remember from a few ice cream ads and a Bombay Vikings music video at the time, played the role of Malini – the disturbed, sultry stranger who threatens to expose her torrid affair with the married man if he didn’t leave his wife. She seduces him, and then rebels when he scrambles to cover up his mistake once he discovers she is a bit cuckoo.

There was something about this girl’s presence, and (a less senile) Bhatt shot her with the kind of intrigue – her striking kohl-lined eyes and curly hair accomplished an aura that the script might have otherwise failed to – that infused the famous Ooty cabin with a sense of tragic musicality. A musicality that the Bhatts would soon build an empire upon.

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It’s for this reason that, in the super-hit album (one which still plays in any self-respecting Indian auto-rickshaw today) of lilting ballads, Aap Ke Pyaar Mein stood out. It’s impossible not to associate Malini’s mysterious glances and come-hither stares with the song; Sharma was at once tender and terrifying, a combination that laid the foundation for her character’s supernatural hauntings. I’m not sure if her voice was dubbed, but it alternated between a drawl and a threatening high-pitched scramble with the kind of intimidating regularity that somewhat justifies the man’s panicked reaction. You only wish she were not given such a raw deal by the film’s writers. A reimagined end today: Bipasha Basu allows Malini to punish her husband, instead of forgiving him and repairing their marriage. At least Raaz indirectly implied that nothing less than a home-wrecking ghost is what it takes to straighten out a red-blooded Indian male.

Best Scene

There’s a moment during the song’s violin-heavy prelude in which Malini, dressed in black, strides up to him and locks lips. The camera captures this from behind his shoulder so that we can only see half of her face – closed eyes, gentle – during the act. Just as the other instruments and the vocals are about to kick in, though, in that lingering second of silence, her eyes open even as she is kissing him. She does it in a way that suggests he (and maybe the viewer) is not supposed to see this. This seemingly harmless moment expresses a moment of unfiltered madness far more than her meltdowns do. There’s a sudden wickedness to her face, almost as if she were entrapping him in her clutches. This feeling is essentially what the rest of Raaz’s expository portions struggle to communicate.

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