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.

A “soul sister,” if you may, of Kalki Koechlin’s Natasha Arora in Zoya Akhtar’s buddy flick Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) is Suchitra Pillai’s Priya in Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Both of them, in male-bonding parlance, are the “girlfriends from hell” – pushy, insecure, passive-aggressive, sharp and with complete control over the affable beta-male of the group (both Samir and Kabir act as the glue, the ‘middle men’ that serve as a bridge to connect the more passionate hearts of their gangs). But while Farhan presented Priya simply as a passing ‘comedic’ phase to highlight Samir’s inherent emasculation – the classic phone call that Samir stutters away in, is an indicator of her relentless toxicity – I believe Zoya, being a female storyteller, humanizes the dominant-girlfriend stereotype through Kalki very effectively in the male road movie.

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Natasha isn’t painted to be a terrible human being. In fact, at no point do we feel that she – a successful interior designer – is a liability to Abhay Deol’s Kabir. We do sense that they aren’t as compatible as he wanted them to be, but that’s down to his indecisiveness as much as her lack of boundaries. We tend to see the chic, upper class Indian city girl through a certain prism of snobbery and ignorance in Hindi films. Even their accents are exaggerated and parodied. That’s why the choice of a French performer like Kalki as Natasha subverts the caricature by confronting it head-on. It works, because we tend to see beyond her physicality, as someone who may have perhaps whipped a passive Kabir into emotional shape.

There is more to her than her privilege and insecurities, and we believe that when we see a level-headed, but slightly mollycoddled, Kabir speak about her in front of his amused friends. He, we learn, is as flawed as the fiancé he is saddled with. We are inclined to believe that the timing might not be right for them – his proposal is a “mistake” – but they could eventually end up together, for better or worse. The reason we are conditioned to ridicule her presence in Spain, when she barges into his “bachelor trip,” is because we see her through the sly chaddi-buddy eyes of the other two friends – who, incidentally, don’t loathe her as much as they doubt Kabir’s romantic conviction. Friends often tend to be territorial about each other by resenting the other’s partner – “Bagvati,” for example, is a classic device designed by a man-child who is unwilling to acknowledge the adult-ness in his friend’s life; so he naturally mocks their lifestyle and social status.

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Natasha even begins to enjoy herself a little by the end. “I had fun,” she admits at the airport, proving that she is learning about herself – and him – a little later than expected. As much as she may stand out for being completely out of depth in their environment (notice the way she ditzy-walks with her ultra-expensive purse in a rugged landscape), deep inside the three males know that she doesn’t mean badly; she just needs a little more cultural exposure. And some perspective. She isn’t a problem that cannot be solved, as much as rom-coms would like to think otherwise.  

Best Scene

On the way to the airport, Natasha insists on being taught how to drive the vintage car. The horrified look on the boys’ faces only confirms what almost every male on earth thinks about when it comes to girls driving cars. Fortunately, Zoya gently pokes fun at this myth instead of making an unnecessary gender statement – constructing a scene in which, after the initial chaos, we get a rare peek into Natasha’s ‘wild’ side. When she excitedly lip-syncs along to a teeny-bopper “rock chick” song, it is to demonstrate that Kabir and her are poles apart. They are just different people. The other two join in with her, almost as if to cheekily celebrate that they are right about Kabir making the biggest mistake of his short life.

But we also get a closer moment with Natasha, who is quite endearing as she ‘rocks’ along behind the wheels of a car she might have never imagined driving in a country that is far from her elite tastes. It’s a sweet moment, and one that ensures we don’t label her the way most movies do. Kabir, in a way, is widening her horizons – and, after somewhat of a sheltered existence, she begins to acknowledge this fact.

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