"Ialways made it clear that I would only do good roles from the ones that came to me, otherwise, I keep myself busy with other things,” Johnny Lever tells me in a phone conversation. The call, was one of those rare delights where time didn’t matter.
Johnny Lever and I talked for a good hour, where he opened up about his place in the industry.
“From the 90’s to 2000, I was in 95 per cent of the films produced in Bollywood. But back then, I said, there would come a time when I would be completely selective on the roles I would do. Gradually, I started doing that,” he tells me.
“Most of the time, I politely refuse roles. For good roles, which are seldom right now, I would be willing to compromise”, he says.
Very late in the conversation, I asked him about his struggle and how he started in the industry. “I used to do stand-up comedy in 1974,” he began, “Kalyanji-Anandji (music directors) did shows worldwide. Their shows had stars, and I was a small part in their troupe. I became famous from there on.”
“In 1982”, he continues, “I did an audio cassette called Johnny Lever, and (the industry) people started noticing me,” says Johnny.
It took Lever some time to get noticed in Bollywood. “Earlier in the film business, people made me do mimicry of Ambitabh (Bachchan) or Shatrughan Sinha”, Johnny shares, “I did Tezaab and many other films, but didn’t hit the big time until Baazigar. That was when people noted that I was capable of acting.”
Talking about supporting actors in comedy roles, Lever states, “There came a time in the film industry when people started watching more comedy films. Comedians came into prominence at that time (for one of many reasons). In a two-and-a-half hour film, we had an hour-and-a-half. If (the filmmaker) wanted to make someone cry, he would make them cry with laughter; if there was an action sequence, it would involve comedy. That was the trend”
“It’s a circle,” he continues, “Sooner or later it is bound to come back. In fact, it is happening right now, and in a way (to take your time and lie back) that’s the right approach”.
“Let me put it this way,” he elaborates, “One gets gluttonous easily. Take food, for example, one consumes everything too fast and greedily – fast food with overstuffed burgers, rolling rotis into bulging rolls – but the right way is to take a step back and eat with restraint. For instance, in a thali, you serve everything neatly in adequate quantities: there’s dal, vegetables, mutton, a sweet dish as well as achaar. So in a way, it’s like that. You take a step back and don’t overstuff yourself,” Lever quips and clarifies, “I became choosy after 2000.”
Talking about the old times, I ask him about heroes and villains who did their own comedy, and whether that became a cause of concern for the comedians. “At those times – in the 80s and 90s – yes, there were heroes and villains who did comedy,” he replies, “But back then the number of films made was lesser than today. So I don’t believe that is the case. Let me remind you, do you remember Shammi Kapoor and then after that Govinda? Dilip saheb (Dilip Kumar) did comedy, as did Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. But at the time when these actors did their comedy routines, wasn’t Johnny (Lever) besides them?” he questioned.
“There is one obvious difference – they have to prepare themselves for comedy; a comedian is always prepared. But this image that we have also comes with a major flaw – we can’t attend funerals. When we go there, people start laughing,” he divulges.
How much input does he have in his roles, I ask. “At times my input is prominent – especially in scenes that aren’t well written. You look at (bad) scripts and think, what did (the writer) write, yaar? You have to save yourself at that time. So we strive at the time to deliver, because on-set, the producer loses money by the minute. At that moment, we don’t have the luxury to postpone shoots,” said Lever.
“For example, in Baazigar, there was no writer (specific for my scenes)” he says, “It was purely Abbas-Mustan (the directors) and me. There was no paper on-set; during the dubbing there were no pages of the script. 80 per cent of what you see is my contribution.”
Was his flair to pull off roles at the nick of time one of the reasons he was cast so often in films, I asked. “They would say ‘Johnny bhai kar laitay hain; woh jama daitay hain’”, Lever tells me adding, “But people should not always take us for granted because we pull off scenes every time. A writer is necessary. I can’t stress this enough. A comedian adds (flair) to good writing,” he asserts.
Was it a flaw of that era that directors relied on comedians and not much on scripts?
“Yes, it was. We did (improv) a lot. It was just God Almighty’s favour that we had very few bad moments,” he humbly says, “God saves you. Sometimes one’s mind works the right way, and we pull off the scenes. Sometimes we can’t.”
“Stand-up comedians generally cannot act”, Lever continues. “They share a different dynamic with the audience. It’s a give and take (relationship) and it takes a lot of time. It took me 12 years to learn acting. Back in time, there weren’t many acting schools,” he affirms.
He remembers legends like Mehmood, Kishore Kumar, Munawar Zarif, Rangeela and Nanna while talking about his idols.
“I get a lot of love from Pakistan” he says, and continues to tell me about how his fans from across the globe – especially Pakistan – reached out to him, “People and artistes have a different relationship,” Lever stresses.
“I’ve seen a lot of Pakistani films – especially old ones with Nadeem” he later tells me, “We used to watch many films in the VCR days”.
“I did a film with Reema, Javed Sheikh and Rambo (he’s a really fine person; we talk on the phone often), he reveals.
As our conversation continued, I enquire him about the roles he cherishes. “Baazigar is one of my favourites. I was perfectly used in it,” he says adding, “Kareeb (directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra) – a film that didn’t work – gave me a chance to explore my craft. Aamdani Atthanni Kharcha Rupaiya was another good one. I won many Filmfare awards for Deewana Mastana, Dulhe Raja and won awards for Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. I think there are 10 or so films where I loved my own work.”
“Comedians should be given the liberty to perform. If a director doesn’t give one the space to do so, a comedian gets strangled” he responds me when we talk about the constraints an artist is put into.
“By the grace of God, I am a one-shot artist (but) in Tezaab, I gave 12 retakes”, he discloses, when I ask him about the most number of takes he has ever given. “And that too, for one word. I had to change my sur (a pitch in dialogue). I had on an Arab’s guise”, he says while mimicking the line. “The director told me to give one more later, but I gave it my all at the exact moment,” Lever claims saying, “You learn from every director.”
“You also have to learn about the director to give your best”, he explains later. “For example, with Rohit (Shetty, in Dilwale), I had to study him as a director – even though I’ve (literally) seen him grow in the industry.”
“With most directors, even when they say they are good with a take, and you know otherwise, you can force them to shoot your scene one more time. Itni dadagiri tou hai”, Lever jibes.
“In Rohit’s case, his personal growth has come to a level that he literally squeezes the performance out of you. Unless he says ‘fantastic take’ I keep giving it my all.” •
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