Kaalia, Bob Biswas and Circuit: The Side Characters Without Whom No Bollywood Plot is Kaamyaab

Bollywood

Kaalia, Bob Biswas and Circuit: The Side Characters Without Whom No Bollywood Plot is Kaamyaab

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Hardik Mehta, who won the national award for his documentary, Amdavad Ma Famous (2015), has just made his directorial feature debut with Kaamyaab. Starring Sanjay Mishra, it charts the story of an actor who has an unfulfilled wish: He wants to act in his 500th film, but that’s easier said than done. What’s most interesting about the premise of the movie is that the lead protagonist is not a hero – he’s a side actor. You know, the “character actors”, the “side heroes”, the “hero ka dost”, the men and women we often love but kinda forget.

Bollywood has had a fascinating relationship with side characters, people who occupy the frames of a film while remaining in the shadows. They don’t always have identities of their own, and end up providing comic or emotional relief most of the time. Every once in a while, a “side hero” will spring into the spotlight, and end up becoming a cult figure. Remember Kaalia from Sholay (1975)? That was Viju Khote, and you can likely recall all his roles from Zabaan Sambhalke to Andaz Apna Apna. Don Anthony from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994)? Goga Kapoor, best remembered for his role in Mahabharata.

As Bollywood took its baby steps, the ’50s and ’60s saw several stereotyped side characters, be it in the form of the poor widowed mother figure, the hapless brother, the schoolmaster who represented the voice of reason but would likely die before the interval, or the evil moneylender. Actors like Kanhaiyalal, DK Sapru, David, Mac Mohan, Iftekhar, Mukri, Leela Mishra, and Dulari fit those roles. But it was only in the ’70s that side characters finally began getting their due, because Bollywood truly embraced its masala identity during this phase. As Amitabh played the Angry Young Man, giving shape to the spirit of the age, the audience needed some respite from the loud monologues and the relentless severity. Enter, colourful side characters. Remember Pyarelal Awara from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)? The character was played by Ram Sethi, who also made appearances in other Big B vehicles such as Laawaris (1981), Yaarana (1981), and Namak Haalal (1982).

But “side characters” have risen from the forgotten corners of history.

Side characters like Asrani, Satyen Kappu, and Paintal drove the narrative forward. They aided the hero or at times stood like a rock in his path. No hero was a hero without these side characters. But could you ever really imagine them as heroes? Not really, though Asrani played the lead in a movie called Chala Murari Hero Banne (1977), which alluded to his own dreams and aspirations of becoming a hero, which never really materialised. And it became the story of every other actor playing side roles.

munna bhai

Arshad Warsi’s turn as Circuit in the Munnabhai films – far more memorable than the headlining hero.

Vinod Chopra Productions

In the crazy eighties, side characters were indispensable. Bollywood scripts were completely hero-centric and had hardcore masala elements, but this also meant that to be set apart from the crowd, you needed an identity. Some side characters had meatier roles which were often better written than the hero; for the hero would have to fall back on hoary tropes but not the side character. Take someone like Bob Christo, for instance. Christo was an Australian who fell in love with Bollywood, thus solving our “gora villain” problem. One of his most memorable appearances will be Mr India (1987), where he is beaten up by an invisible Anil Kapoor, using the idol of Lord Hanuman. Bollywood fans will also remember Yunus Parvez, who banked on his brief but unique characters like the pacifist porter Rahim Chacha in Deewar (1975) or the shayari-reciting, work-shirker Bade Babu in Golmaal (1979). His comic timing was impeccable and elevated every movie he was in. And it is difficult to imagine any of these Bollywood outings without the people who populated those frames.

This flourished well into the ’90s, when actors like Johnny Lever, Shakti Kapoor, and Kader Khan perfected their art. The era also heralded the dawn of female side characters like Guddi Maruti and Upasana Singh. While Maruti has consistently played a sidekick to many heroines, like her turn in Khiladi (1992) or the iconic Shola Aur Shabnam (1992), Singh ensured that no discussion on Judaai (1997) is complete without her character’s “abba-dabba-jabba”, a running gag throughout the film. Finally, no exposition on the ’90s can afford to ignore Deepak Shirke. The name might not be familiar but he has a cult following thanks to his appearance in Tirangaa (1993), where he played Pralaynath Gundaswami, whose missiles are destroyed by Brigadier Suryadev Singh (Raaj Kumar), the act now immortalised in a meme.

Every once in a while, a “side hero” will spring into the spotlight, and end up becoming a cult figure.

But “side characters” have risen from the forgotten corners of history. The characters we see in our films now are measured less by their screen time, and more by the impact they leave. And thanks to social media, they often find their own audience. Remember the outrage over Abhishek Bachchan being cast as Bob Biswas, in a spin-off of the eponymous character from Kahaani (2012)? That character was brought alive by Saswata Chatterjee, and probably should have been left alone. Or think about Arshad Warsi’s turn as Circuit in the Munnabhai films – far more memorable than the headlining hero. It’s the same story for Nawazuddin Siddique, Pankaj Tripathi, and Irrfan Khan, who started their careers in minor roles, but can now command a film on their own. The struggle of a generation of side characters has paid off, and you can see it in the re-ignited careers of Neena Gupta, Surekha Sikri, Deepak Dobriyal, as well as Gajraj Rao.

badhai ho

These actors started their careers in minor roles, but can now command a film on their own

AA Films

And this is what a movie like Kaamyaab reminds us. Of the circuitous route that side characters have had to take, to get to where they are now. For every Manoj Bajpayee, there has been a bunch of Pinchoo Kapoors and Gufi Paintals. For every Raghuvir Yadav, there have been Jagdish Rajs and Harish Patels. It’s been a long road to respect – but they’re finally here.

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