The hero’s best friend. The hero’s sidekick. The side-hero. No matter what you call them, they have left an indelible mark on our film industry. Almost as much as Bollywood films need heroines to have a balanced story, they need the side-heroes.
They provide a much needed break from the hero’s rivalry with the villain, and the hero’s romance with the heroine. The side-hero often gets to mouth the funnier lines, play a much more layered-character than the hero, and create an empathetic character, which the audience likes to get behind. The last factor is a primary reason why side-heroes are often killed off by the villain. It’s a time tested formula- kill a likeable character, and the audience wants nothing more than the villain’s ass getting kicked. The often one-dimensional hero does the honors, and proves himself virtuous.
Over the years, we have had many side-heroes in Bollywood, who went on to become even more iconic characters than the heroes or villains of the film. We remember Mahmood and Kishore Kumar more than Sunil Dutt in Padosan. It was no fault of Dutt’s, however; Mahmood and Kishore Kumar just had roles which allowed them to show off their antics. Kishore Kumar, in fact, was one of the first actors who made the ‘hero’s best friend’ trope his own. Mahmood also played similar roles quite a few times in his career, but he is more remembered for his comedy, rather than playing a parallel lead.
Pran was another actor who played such roles with elan. Even though he started off as a dreaded villain in Bollywood (so much so that people had stopped naming their kids Pran at the time), he soon gained enough popularity to play positive roles. His portrayal of Sher Khan in Zanjeer was one of the first times he played a good guy in Bollywood, although Amitabh Bachchan was still the ‘hero’. He played another supporting role in Don, but his impact on the film’s story was far lesser than that in Zanjeer. Pran saab, as he was fondly known, was just such a brilliant actor that he could switch from black to white in an instant.
A hero in Bollywood was supposed to be righteous, truthful, and dripping with virtues. The side-hero, however, was not bound by any such prerequisites. Hence, a side-hero could be a multi-dimensional, sometimes even an edgy, character. However, the main motive of a side-hero’s existence was just ensuring the well-being of the hero. We know little to nothing about the side-hero’s life other than his undying dedication to his best friend.
This can be best explained with the help of two examples. The first is Satish Kaushik’s immortal turn as Calendar in Mr. India. He is just as important to the kids as Anil Kapoor, sticks with the hero till the very end, and shows humour, and bravery in equal measures. Yet, we know nothing about him. Not even why he is peculiarly called Calendar. The second is Deepak Tijori’s role from Aashiqui. His character’s only motivation was supporting Rahul Roy in his quest for love.
Govinda was one of those actors, who always had a sidekick. Throughout his spate of hits in the 90’s, Govinda had an array of side-heroes. Sometimes it would be Shakti Kapoor, sometimes Harish Kumar, sometimes Kader Khan, and even Chunky Pandey on a couple of occasions. In fact, Govinda and David Dhawan considered Harish to be their lucky charm, and ensured he had some part in the film, whether or not the script calls for it.
In the modern era, supporting roles started getting a little more meat. Call it Rani Mukerjee’s stardom, or working with YRF, but even though she played a supporting role in Veer Zaara, she actually got a backstory of her own. Even when 90% of her scenes were only in the second half of the film, we actually get to know her a little more than an average supporting character in Bollywood.
More recently, Arshad Warsi has almost made a career out of playing the side-hero. Most of his biggest hits have been films where he has played second fiddle to the main lead. Be it the Munnabhai series, or the Golmaal series, Warsi thrives in playing the side-hero. It’s almost beyond comprehension, as he is a fine actor, and he has proved it with films like Jolly LLB and Iraada. Maybe he is in his zone, while playing the sidekick. Same goes for Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub- a brilliant actor, with theatre pedigree, who has only done supporting roles so far. We haven’t even tested his potential as a leading man yet. But given his unconventional looks, much like Warsi, he might be destined to forever be slotted into such roles.
It is not such a bad place to be. Nawazuddin Siddiqui actually started off from there and eventually made it as a leading man in Bollywood. He still plays supporting roles to bigger names, but once in a while, we are treated to a Gangs of Wasseypur, and a Maanjhi, where the actor gets to show off his skills in more central roles. There’s no reason why Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub can’t have a similar trajectory. Equal likelihood is of him fading away like Javed Jaffrey- a gifted talent whose talents Bollywood could never utilise.