In connection with upcoming comedy-show by ace comic Johnny Lever, I decide to meet this talented artist at his Mumbai residence during my short visit to the city. Wading through mazes of Mumbai’s by-lanes, our car comes to a junction. A street-hawker is the sole visible wise soul there, so I ask him the directions. On hearing the name of building I am looking for, he immediately asks- "Meeting Johnny Lever?" When I nod, he grins ear to ear. May be he thinks I am bluffing- or may be he is just remembering some funny encounter with Johnny!
In person, Johnny Lever is what he is known as – a man with the funny bone! Time and again, he makes a side-splitting wisecrack backed up by some precious comic gesture. Here are the excerpts from this interview.
First, the name- is Johnny Lever your real name?
No, actually my name is John Rao but from childhood everybody called me Johnny. Later in life, I worked for six years in Hindustan Lever Company and used that reference point to adopt a stage- name ‘Johnny Lever’, which finally stuck forever.
How did you begin your journey as a comedian?
As a child, I started off by doing record- dance items (dancing on famous film-songs) on stage. In my late teens, I learnt mimicry and started doing stage-shows. Soon, I was included in Kalyanji- Anandji’s music- troupe, where I was spotted by some film- producers, who then offered me roles in films.
How did you master mimicry?
I think that is an inborn talent. Mimicry is not just about imitating, it is to portray a known character’s entire personality through subtle vocal and body gestures. My mimicry takes on actors like Ashok Kumar, Om Prakash, Shatrughan Sinha and Sanjeev Kumar became very popular
Was your transition from stage to silver screen difficult?
Yes, it was a difficult phase. On stage, you are constantly getting the audience-response and that tells whether you are doing it right or not. In front of camera, there is no such instant reaction and I always felt out of sync with the scene. Many people in the industry started passing snide remarks- "Oh, he is just a mimic. What does he know about acting?" But as the career progressed, I started staying away from mimicry and focused more on lending my individual touch to the character I was portraying. So in a way, as I kept working more, my own work taught me how to work better. Baazigar, Khiladi, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Kareeb, Anadi No. 1, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai- these were some of my memorable roles.
Once you became famous as an actor, did you feel frustrated for not being offered emotional roles? I still remember your superb tragic-comic drunkard act on TV after Bombay bomb- blasts.
The label of a comedian is hard to lose. But I don’t think negatively about that. I think that if someone else is not ready to give me such opportunity, then I must create that opportunity myself. So I am in a process of making a film, which will be a comedy but with a sentimental touch.
Did some top actors feel insecure about your scene-stealing ability?
Isn’t that natural? Even the great Amitabh Bachchan has to do something on screen to be funny but I just have to stand in the frame of the scene! Such is my face and personality, that even if I am standing solemnly at a funeral, the by-standers break into laughter! So some top stars have felt insecure in comic scenes with me but I try not to bother with such silly issues.
Who were the comedians that inspired you?
In the past, comedians like Johnny Walker, Mehmood and Kishore Kumar made their special niche- each with a very individual style of comedy. I was parti