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.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Othello adaptation, Omkara (2006), widely considered to be one of the best Hindi films of this century, opens with a terrific line from its most compelling character, Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan). “Bewakoof aur Chutiye mein dhaage bhar ka pharak hota hai. Dhaage ke unge bewakoof, aur unge chutiya.” Langda is addressing his friend, a man(child) named Rajju, minutes before looting Rajju’s baarat and abducting his bride. But the actor behind Rajju might have been familiar with this observation. These words are strangely appropriate in context of the career of Deepak Dobriyal, for whom Rajju (a riff on Shakespeare’s Roderigo) was a breakthrough role. Dobriyal, in the last decade, has played characters that oscillate between these two avatars of naivety – from the Tanu Weds Manu series (Pappi Bhaiya is his calling card to the post-Omkara generation) and Hindi Medium to his darker (starring) turns in Not A Love Story and Kuldip Patwal: I Didn’t Do It.
Dobriyal, an excellent stage actor, has a very dramatic screen face. His eyes bulge out wide and his voice assumes the juvenility of a boy over-hyping a story to his friends. It’s the reason most filmmakers cast him as an impressionable sidekick – a middle-Indian simpleton – who can appear to be hilarious (or at times, disturbing) precisely because of these traits. It all started with Rajju, or Rajan Tiwari, the young man who lit the flame that burned a dynasty.
What’s remarkable about Rajju, as compared to a crowd-pleasing Pappi, is that he is a comedy who thinks he is a tragedy; he aspires to the drama of all the ‘heroes’ of the story, spending most of his time in the shadow of a villain who he believes can make him that hero. His inherently emasculated personality creates in him an urge to be taken seriously, even though he is nothing more than an outsider in a landscape full of toxic masculinity. A short film named The Manliest Man (2017), also a loose Othello take in the lawless hinterlands, even visibly pivoted on the gender dynamics theme (the title!) by setting it in a village replete with female infanticide and caste politics.
Rajju’s equation with Langda might initially evoke the regular Munna-Circuit camaraderie, but there are psychological undertones to it that only the Bard (and Bhardwaj) could have hinted at. Just as Langda idolizes Omi (Ajay Devgn) – and this, of course, goes awry – Rajju idolizes Langda to an extent where he, too, knows the buttons that need to be pressed to incite the wounded ‘sidekick’ in Langda. After all, he has experienced it all his life; perception, even in its darkest form, is a gift he has inherited from these men’s men. Dobriyal subverts this ‘chamcha’ stereotype by installing in viewers the willingness to see past his harmless tantrums. An example is the way he cackles – a laugh designed to sound clever and ‘in cahoots,’ but without explicitly offending Langda – which is all too unnerving in the best scene of the film.
A deserted bridge. Cheap country liquor. Two friends, one with a limp and the other with a ‘broken heart’. And two orphans of destiny. In one of Bhardwaj’s craftiest displays of mise-en-scène – the other being the opening moments atop a hill overlooking the soon-to-be-burgled baarat – the camera becomes both the eyes and the soundtrack, as Langda and Rajju expose their crippling vulnerabilities in vastly different ways. It begins with Rajju “performing,” like he mostly seems to do throughout the film – he is upset that Dolly won’t be his, but yet he wants to over-express his agony to the man partly responsible for his condition. He sheds tears, ones that the crocodiles in the lake below would be proud of, and tickles Langda with his ‘nautanki’. To prove his pain, he tries to emulate a Bollywood movie, and leaps into the water without knowing how to swim. Langda finds this amusing, and jumps in to rescue him.
This is all very endearing to Langda, until the shot immediately cuts to them, drenched, slightly drunk, and in a new light. Rajju taunts Langda about his own failure to become Omi’s ‘baahubali’ despite years of irrational desire. “I know everything,” he grins. Saif Ali Khan’s expression changes into a deadly glare poor Rajju is too blinded to notice. This is the turning point of the film. They laugh together, Rajju is pushed back into the water, and the shot immediately cuts to a wide distant one – Langda, a gun-clad blimp on the landscape, limps away while Rajju’s wet cries fall onto deaf, devious ears. One can almost sense the curtains close.