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.

Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do might not be in the same league as modern-day dysfunctional family classics like Monsoon Wedding, Aankhon Dekhi or Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). But the film grows on you, primarily because unlike many storytellers who choose to concentrate on the physicality and elitist overtones of urban upper class dynamics, Akhtar essentially critiques the excesses of the Karan Johar universe with a lived-in, perceptive flair routinely associated with its aforementioned earthier middle-class counterparts.

DDD humanizes the flaky “first-world problems” tag by employing a cast that makes the film seem like less of a conventional “multi-starrer” and more of a mobile ensemble piece unfurling in a transitional environment. The lavish mansions and swanky offices have been replaced by a fancy vessel that is meant to represent the futility of their pride. The cruise ship, of course, is a metaphor for an empty journey without any enduring destinations.

The wealthy Mehra family – replete with secrets, resentments, passive aggression and muted misogyny – is symbolic of an India we love to judge. It is the India that Hindi cinema often culturally appropriates under the guise of “masala” filmmaking. Akhtar, however, makes this section of society accessible by designing the family of Kamal, Neelam, Ayesha and Kabir Mehra as a mirror to our inherently flawed notion of tradition and social currency. Neelam, played to perfection by the supremely expressive Shefali Shah, is perhaps the film’s most pivotal character, because she rises above the stereotype of subservient domesticity with a brand of vulnerability that amounts to anything but weakness. She is a powerful mother but a powerless wife – a quintessential “silent sufferer,” but not to an extent that allows the superficial Kamal to revel in his cunning double life. She makes sure her withering glances and wide eyes convey far more than her probing taunts ever will.

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Mrs. Mehra isn’t the polite observer who will finally gather the courage to dramatically announce, “Keh diya, bas, keh diya” and inspire repressed housewives the world over. Instead, her submission is complicated and internal; it is laced with care and genuine love for the man she had once decided to share her life with. She can’t simply up and leave him for the sake of a film and its crowd-pleasing resolution; there is a hint of history between the two that seems to have been gobbled up by the will to prosper.

Which, for her, makes it all the more difficult to identify her own motives of tolerance – even she isn’t sure of whether she is a participant in the ‘dead’ marriage for convenience, comfort or merely crippling financial dependence. This makes it imperative for the film to equip the husband with more than just a black-and-white personality; Kamal is given an arc of self-realization and redemption that rewards Neelam with the strength – and not, as is often the real-life case, a weakness – to forgive. But never forget.

From Satya and Monsoon Wedding to Mohabbatein and Kucch Luv Jaisaa, from The Last Lear to Neeraj Ghaywan’s recent short, Juice, this fine actress has essayed various shades of familial discontent with distinction over her career. But you’d never say she was “typecast” as the first among Indian wives – in each of them, she is simultaneously her gender’s biggest ailment as well as underdog inspiration. She extends the spirit of Neelam to the rooted confines of a quietly defiant Mrs. Singh in Juice, too, thereby cementing her reputation as one of the most important performers in this country.

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If not for any of her “flawed” background characters, Hindi cinema might have never embraced the willingness to celebrate the more glamorous avatars of contemporary womanhood. For every headlining Vidya Balan and freewheeling Kangana Ranaut, there will always be a pragmatic Shefali Shah quietly addressing the moods of everyday masculinity. Because she was never the “heroine” to begin with; instead, she has invariably existed to challenge our concept of red-blooded heroism.

Best Scene

Standing in front of a mirror, on the verge of a meltdown due to her husband’s compulsive philandering, Neelam Mehra stuffs her face with cake – in her head defying his casual body-shaming quips. It is the week of her 30th wedding anniversary – an occasion that further adds to the cruel irony of her sinking ship of a life. Her son recognizes her hypocrisy, her daughter is stronger than her, and she has nowhere else to hide. She is ashamed of herself, and hopes for a lifeboat to rescue the little self-respect she has left. In the process she holds the mirror to half the country’s closeted insecurities and muted worries. This “reflection” was perhaps one of the most memorable – the most heartbreaking, lonely, frightening and deafening – cinematic moments of 2015. 

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