Come Friday, and a no-star film will drop gently into theaters. It’s called Kaamyaab, which is most likely an ironical twist on its struggling protagonist’s fate. There’s another irony here: a character actor like Sanjay Mishra, who last played the lead in the critically acclaimed Aankhon Dekhi, turning up as a hero for a change. The Gauri Khan-backed parodic movie stars Mishra (the doyen among scene-stealing small-timers) as a fading ‘character actor’ angling for a milestone finish to his so-so career. Will he ensure his footing in movie annals? Do bit players ever earn a mention in history? A resounding ‘yes’, if you go by Bollywood’s most famous sidekicks who have lit up many classics with their memorable turns and extraordinary lines that movie-goers still can’t resist. For instance, all it takes Mac Mohan is just half a line — “poore pachas hazaar” — to become one of the all-star Sholay’s most iconic characters along with the more popular Gabbar, Jai, Veeru and Basanti. Sholay, by all reckoning, is a master class in “how to write a great supporting character.” Besides Mac Mohan’s Sambha, there’s Kalia (Viju Khote), Mausi (Leela Mishra), Rahim chacha (Ak Hangal), Angrezo ke zamane ka jailor (Asrani) and of course, horse Dhanno (Basanti’s preferred vehicle).
Cliche as it may be, Sholay is just one example. Over the decades, Bollywood has thrown up dozens of charismatic side players who, through their impressive heft and presence, have become an institution unto themselves. Many viewers easily recognise and adore them. In their heyday, so sought after were they that some of them were paid at par with the reigning movie-stars. Mehmood comes to mind. And then there’s Pran. His formulaic villainy and sometimes good-guy characters are the treasures of Hindi cinema (though, in all fairness, the great star was more than a sidekick — he was a school unto himself). Not to forget Johnny Walker, Iftikhar, Viju Khote, Lalita Pawar, Rajendra Nath, Leela Mishra, David and Om Prakash (all Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedies would fall without their endearing conspiracies), Sudhir, Amjad Khan, Shakti Kapoor, the list is endless and space limited. If you aren’t already aware of these actors and their filmography, get to know a few of them here.
Guru Dutt created special situations in his films, no matter how serious and artsy, to give the Comedy King his own breezy song. Heard the lighthearted “Sar jo tera chakraye” from the otherwise grim Pyaasa or “Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji” from Mr and Mrs 55? Whether as a bumbling boozehead, petty thief or hero’s best friend, the inimitable Walker was the lifeline of every film he acted in — and tragedian Guru Dutt knew that and always gave the former bus conductor a crowd-pleasing role to suit his immense popularity.
Hindi cinema’s beloved mausi is the eternal mother figure, poor, long-suffering and un-formidable but always dignity personified. She worked from the days of Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar all the way to Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. During reruns of old movies (Awaara, Pyaasa, Ram Aur Shyam, Sholay etc), you can still catch her providing the warm and comforting maternal embrace to some of Hindi cinema’s greatest heroes. One of this writer’s favourite Leela Mishra cameos is as the hidebound Bandra lady who plonks herself into the Pereira family in Baton Baton Mein. Cast against type, this is Mishra’s most refreshingly unusual role yet.
Long typecast as the evil mother-in-law, but to call Lalita Pawar just that would be a disservice to her enormous talent. She had small but remarkably pivotal roles in Anari and Shree 420 in which her Marathi speaking insider shows kindness to the greenhorn Raj (Raj Kapoor) who has just walked into the big bad city. Because she was Hindi cinema’s stern and scheming saasu-maa, it is for the same reason that whenever she shifted to positive roles, it worked wonders. A case in point: her strict but caring nurse in Anand who tries (in vain) to discipline the fun-loving title protagonist.
Bollywood’s go-to top cop, usually the commissioner, the stylish Iftikhar is a shorthand for masala cinema of the ’70s. He was also known for occasionally playing villains. Binge-watch him: as a cop in Zanjeer, Majboor and Don and crime boss Davar in Deewaar who spots Vijay’s (Amitabh Bachchan) ascending star. Trivia: Iftikhar introduced Ashok Kumar to painting. The great Dadamoni later developed a bizarre fetish — that of painting in the buff, in his bathroom!
Rajendra Nath was to Shammi Kapoor what Prem Nath was to Raj Kapoor. A relative of the Kapoors, he was a perfect ally to Shammi’s rakish and over-the-top lover-boys. From Rajkumar to Prince, he brought the house down with his impeccable comic timing and trademark quirks. Whether playing Popatlal, Vilayatram or Pyaare, he was the beloved buffoon who made his presence felt in all sorts of madcap manner.
One of Bollywood’s originals, Om Prakash was truly a household name. He’s the old codger from Padosan, with eyes set on the dainty Saira Banu. Bhola’s uncle wasn’t so bhola (innocent), after all. He’s Amitabh Bachchan’s daddu from Namak Halaal. And he’s everyone’s favourite jijaji who becomes the butt of jokes, a victim of a harmless prank that forces him to eat humble pie in Chupke Chupke. Om Prakash died in 1998, but thanks to his unforgettable characters, he is etched in movie-goers’ memory.
When Viju Khote passed away last year, there was a flood of “we will miss you” tributes on Twitter. Ajay Devgn tweeted, “Actors like Viju Khote were institutions by themselves. Their large body of work will always be remembered.” Mourning the loss, Boman Irani wrote, “Hilarious on stage, iconic on screen and a darling of a human being in real life.” Best known as Gabbar’s trusted aide Kalia from Sholay and the bumbling Robert (aka “Rabbit”) from Andaz Apna Apna (his “sir chai mein shakkar daalne ka time ho gaya hai, sir” annoys the hell out of the timetable Mr Bajaj — “Nonsense”), actress Shubha Khote’s younger brother was vastly entertaining in the sidekick’s role.