India's comedy king Johnny Lever in an exclusive interview with Little India.
With his short stature and dark skin, this high school drop out, with a passion for mimicing people, does not quite fit the larger-than-life illusions Bollywood spins in its stars. But Johnny Lever can not only carry an entire movie on his shoulders and attract sold-out crowds to his one-man stage shows, he is that rare comic star who can sell a film once he signs up for it.
At a recent three-hour stage show in Atlanta, Johnny brought the house down with his impersonations of Michael Jackson and his spoof of Indians in the United States: “You have a $3 billion budget for flyovers here? Our bribe budget exceeds that!”
He has an incredibly mobile face, a lithe body that he can still contort into incredible shapes, and is often touted as the Jim Carrey of India. In an exclusive interview with Little India, Johnny Lever talks of what it means to be the undisputed comedy king of Bollywood films.
So how did it all begin?
Well I am from Andhra Pradesh and I guess mimicry, a sense of comic timing is something that is inborn. All of us are hams in some way or another, but not only can I capture the person’s essence, I have an uncanny ability to learn languages, their nuances, without understanding the language. I once spoke with an African man for 30 minutes in his language without knowing it and he had no idea I didn’t know a word. I can copy a person’s walk and mannerisms down to a T. I think it runs in the family. I was only four when I started imitating my father and grandfather. My son was only two when he was mimicking Dev Anand and the then Prime Minister Shri Narsimha Rao. My mother is an illiterate, simple woman who still speaks with a heavy south Indian accent, but the moment she sees someone, she starts imitating that person’s accent , their mannerisms. If a Punjabi woman came to see her, her accent will change while talking to her as will her mannerisms.
So it all started in the by lanes of my village, and then in school where I would imitate my school teachers. Of course, like all kids I loved movies while growing up. Though we were not allowed to see that many. I started doing stand up comedy since I was 10. The mohalla wallahs used to love it, but my father used to get very aggravated at what he thought was a sheer waste of time. I dropped out of school after 7th grade, but he got me a job at Hindustan Lever. I worked for Hindustan Lever in Bombay for 5-6 years as did my father and used to regale my colleagues with stand up comedy. When the time came to perform on stage I decided to retain the Lever bit and it caught on.
I used to perform for Kalyanji-Anandji in their charity shows and Sunil Dutt was often the chief guest. Dutt sahib saw the potential in me, and one day told Kalyanji and Anandji, “This boy has great talent and I will soon give him a break in films.” He did – with Dard Ka Rishta and I am very grateful to him. Since then I haven’t looked back. With God’s grace my work has been consistently appreciated and I have not had to struggle as hard as others.
I have always felt it is a rare mimicry artist who can also become a good actor, for the simple reason that when you imitate others so often, you lose your own individuality. Your mannerisms, voice, your acting become tinged with the combined essence of other people. Fortunately I have managed not to fall in the trap, otherwise it is easy to be stereotyped in films where you may play a clone of some star or the other.
How did the celebrities you mimicked in stage shows react?
I think this is the only area where people love you and there are no jealous or negative reactions, especially if you make sure you perform with respect. Shatrughan Sinha had heard for several months that some guy called Johnny Lever mimics him in stage shows. He asked who is this guy and was told, he is short and dark and strange, but the moment he comes on stage and starts it is as if it’s you, even his face, which doesn’t resemble you takes on your features.
So he showed up at a function where I was performing and came back stage. I was very awe struck and scrambled to offer him a chair. He said well where is this Johnny Lever? And I said shyly, I’m Johnny, Shatru ji and he said: Oh tum ho? Tabhi itna khayal rakh rahe ho (oh it’s you, no wonder you are being so hospitable) and then he smiled and said I have come only to see you. When I came on stage, I just walked across like him, copying his gait to such perfection that his jaw dropped and then spoke a dialogue in his voice. He was quite dazed. The same thing happened to Sanjeev Kumar.
I write original dialogues that these stars have not spoken, but when I speak them you will think it’s their work. I once imitated Ashok Kumar using certain words he never uses and floored this guy who knew him, He could not believe I had never met Ashok Kumar, though he kept wondering where Ashokji had spoken those words that were not a part of his vocabulary usually.
The late Johnny Walker, and later of course Mehmood Sahib, Kishore Kumar Sahib and Jagdeep Sahib. It amazed me how Johhny Walker had this one ordinary, but unique sounding voice that never changed. He delivered all his dialogues for decades in just that voice and still brought the house down. I had the honor of meeting him a few years ago and then we became neighbors. The day he said he was so proud of my performance in a film was the day I felt I had finally arrived. His children live here in the U.S. and I meet them every time I am here.
Mehmood Sahib of course came and changed comedy with his versatility, the many voices he used and he is also a very generous hearted and loving man. Kishore Kumar Sahib often called me over to his house and what a gifted artist he was. I have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with all of them. Johnny Walker always told me, don’t ever let success go to your head. It was funny initially when ever every one said, oh my God you will touch the skies, I really didn’t understand the truth in that compliment.
Omar Sharif is brilliant and so quick on the uptake, though he says he can never do what I do, but then I can never do what he does. We are all gifted in some way or the other, and now I try to give back by advising and helping young, up and coming comedians. This gift is not mine to keep and the more you give the more you receive.
In the movie, Fiza you led a laughing club. I know a few years ago a Bombay physician had introduced this concept of getting together in a group and laughing, and it has caught on in other cities in India also. Did the director pick up the idea from that? Your role in Love ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega was amazing too.
The director may have picked up the idea except, except that when I was told, “We want to do something on the laughing club,” the camera was on and the script…did not exist! So I had to improvise and create the entire scenario and character. That happens all the time with me, but I’m not complaining as it gives me the opportunity to be creative and improve on my roles.
At the same time today, I also feel that I need a director who will inspire me and extract my best. Writing my own script at a short notice isn’t that exciting, and often I don’t give it my 100 percent.
I think Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega was the first role in a long time that was well written and they didn’t ask me to overact. I walked away with a few awards for that one. I try not to get stereotyped. Even if I am asked to play a drunk in say four films, I will work on my characters and each film will have a different kind of drunk. After all isn’t that what happens in real life, no two drunks are the same. There will always be some distinct personality trait that will set them apart from one another.
Which has been your favorite role so far?
The ones I did in Baazigar. I think people appreciated me in Baazigar. They saw me as an actor of substance. I like to work with directors who give me something new, something fresh and challenging and I have no hesitation in turning down those who want me in their movies just because my name sells. That is why I love working with Abbas Mastan. They are constantly working to extract that extra ounce of talent from you. Yet I still feel I haven’t fulfilled even half of my potential.
Are your roles always written for you or are you always expected to add on your bit?
I have always been given the complete freedom to envision and improvise on my roles, and enact them the way I want to. Often I am just given the basic guidelines and then I write my own script. I watch people all the time and lock in their behavior, their quirks in my mind and often my character takes on those traits. In retrospect isn’t it true that cinema is a larger than life representation of what we go through in real life. Still after years of doing it I now feel jaded.
I have actually stopped signing films, and am only accepting roles of substance. I enjoy working with actors like Paresh Rawal, Anupam Kher, Govinda and Shahrukh Khan. We vibe very well and often the scenes we improvise turn out even better that what was originally scripted. Co-starring with actors of such high caliber brings out the best in me as well.
You have become the comedic star to reckon with. Not since the days of Mehmood have anyone commanded such an audience. There are people who will go to see a movie just because you are in it.
Thank you. I wish however that comedians would be given the kind of respect they have abroad. The price they command, shows how well respected their talent is. I hope I will get to see the same kind of respect in my time. It is also the reason I try to be as fresh and original as I can, in each role I miss the golden era of films. It took ten years to make a film like Mughale-Azam, and that is why you can see it today and still be floored by it.
Today the script writers have no time, they are churning out scripts by the dozens, writing scenes on the run and sometimes they can’t even complete the film, because the producer runs out of money. The recent film Karz with Sunny Deol was one such example. It was released incomplete. Why do you think Jim Carrey commands such a diverse audience? Because his talent is showcased so beautifully by his film producers and directors. Here in a huge country with a huge population there is always a market for every kind of crap. Govinda is such a awesome actor but he can’t command the price that our Khans and Hritik are commanding, because he has been stereotyped by his directors as the mohalla king!
In the south they want everything to be exaggerated beyond belief. They will enact the height of loudness before you and say hey do it this way. The only film I can see again and again is Baazigar and still like myself in it. I hate myself in almost all the other roles I have done so far. But now I’m at a stage where I can turn down what I don’t like.
How does your family react to you at home?
Well, the family is like any other family, but it’s the people outside who expect me to be funny all the time. They will probably expect me to crack a joke at my funeral as well! My two kids love my films and my 14-year-old son is showing all the signs of being a good stand-up comedian. Of course my wife does have her say, if she feels something else could have been added in a role.
At the end of the day of course they are the ones closest to my heart. There was a time when I thought I could have anything I want, that things can happen as I like them. At that time when I was very successful my son was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his neck. The doctors said they couldn’t operate on it, that he may become paralyzed on one side. I believe to this day it was the power of prayer that saved him. He is perfectly fine but it taught me humility, the faith that there is a higher power above us, and how important family is, so I spend all my free time with them or listening to music.
What is in the works now?
Well I’m really excited about something we have done recently. Sahara chipped in and we have spoofed the top 12 films that were released recently and I’m playing the lead in all of them. Lagaan has become Thaakan, Devdas has become Bewadadas.
I have to finish dubbing when I get back, and then we are releasing the films in regular theatres. I am also planning to do some original comedy films that I will write or co write and act in. That is all I have accepted recently but it really is something I am looking forward to apart from my stage shows where the reaction of the audience is instant.