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.

In the “Making Of” rushes of Ashwiny Iyer’s Tiwari’s debut film, Nil Battey Sannata, a soft-spoken Pankaj Tripathi admits that he sank his teeth into the role of a small-town school teacher – the playfully conservative Principal Shrivastava – because he couldn’t remember the last time he was made to drive a scooter in a non-threatening manner that didn’t require him to simultaneously brandish guns and knives. This wasn’t total exaggeration. As much as we had noticed the remarkable craft of the middle-aged actor till 2016, much of his screen-time in mainstream Hindi cinema (his Sultan Qureshi in Gangs of Wasseypur overshadowed similar avatars in Gunday, Dilwale, Global Baba) had involved gruff, hostile middle-Indian hooliganism. Therefore it is only appropriate that his gentlest character – one that is perhaps closest to his world-wise real-life temperament – finds a prime spot in this list.

Principal Shrivastava operates in the same mood universe as sweetshop owner Narrotam Mishra, the utterly laidback father of the manic-pixie heroine in Tiwari’s next, Bareilly ki Barfi. In fact, one can almost imagine Shrivastava retiring to the safety of his family business in Bareilly after a useful stint as an educator. The contrast, too, is poetic; despite the patriarchal environments, a man who spends his entire career guiding children allows his now-adult daughter to make her own mistakes. He goes from teaching to becoming a papa that doesn’t preach.

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While Nil Battey Sannata revolves around a single mother going back to school to inspire her daughter to focus on her board exams, it is Shrivastava who quietly forms the backbone of this unlikely underdog tale. Shrivastava, in his own quirky way, enables their story to take flight by simply understanding a relatively young Chanda Sahay’s (an excellent Swara Bhasker) farfetched intentions without an iota of judgment. On one hand, he maintains his authority over students in their most important year, and on the other he exhibits a private inclination to grow past his inherent conventionalism – again, without breaking character – by observing Chanda’s single-minded efforts. In so many scenes, he notices the mother-daughter couple with a fulfilled expression that the director wants us to have.  

Tripathi plays him with a flourish – upright posture, upturned chin, sarcastic taunts and measured grumpiness – that gives us a peek into our own school-master-filled childhoods. Most of us spend our campus days wondering if our teachers are human beings. We wonder if they, too, have homes and spouses and kids and hearts and kitchens. We can’t imagine them without a blackboard framing their deliberate tutelage. At some level, they are putting on a mask and enacting the role of a “teacher” – impersonal, often intimidating – as soon as they leave their houses every morning. There is always that curious distance they maintain within the four walls of India’s holy classrooms.

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Shrivastava, though, bridges that gap by being robotic enough to represent the education system and tender enough to communicate with his kids through its airy cracks. He knows his students resent him and laugh at him behind his back, and he probably counts on it. Because his language is one that gets illuminated with the power of hindsight. Only once they grow past his influence will they recognize him beyond his crisp shirts and funny walk. And they might then finally dare to offer him – now Mr. Shrivastava, with a first name – a lift home, miles away from the playground that reduced him to an adjective.

Best Scene

It’s not often one sees the multi-generational genius of Ratna Pathak Shah, Swara Bhasker and Pankaj Tripathi occupy the same frame. Which is why it isn’t surprising that across two sleeper-hit films, this is the filmmaker’s most skillfully directed scene. In it, Dr. Diwan – herself an unfussy symbol of female empowerment and independence in a place like Agra – confidently approaches Shrivastava in his office to seek admission in tenth grade for her domestic help, Chanda. Even as the doctor introduces Chanda to him, for most of the meeting he is under the impression that they are inquiring for a child.

Most other directors might have given in to the temptation of punctuating his moment of sober realization with a comical sound cue. But Tiwari trusts the talent at hand. With the background buzz of a busy school, Tripathi clicks through the phases uncannily – he jumps out of his seat ever so slightly, listens to Chanda sincerely, all the while trying to sound as dignified and less shocked as possible. He even resorts to a bit of naïve theatricality – appearing moved and wiping fake tears to distract them from his difficult decision.

One can imagine him sorting through the sarkaari red tape in his mind, even as two women emotionally blackmailing him into advertising progressiveness corner him. He is both dutiful and sympathetic – a rare, potent combination that has come to symbolize many of Pankaj Tripathi’s most memorable roles.

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