Johny Lever turns 65: Looking back at Baazigar, Judaai, and many of his classic moments
The man’s comedy knows no bounds, slipping into slapstick and effortlessly switching into situational in mere seconds. He’s nearing four decades of entertaining the globe, and himself turns 65 today.
Johny Lever is a gifted artist. It takes a lot to be gifted, much more than God. Tirelessness and tenacity, accompanied by practice and perseverance. Lever did that, he was something in the 80s what social media is today. He had a sharp gaze and was a keen observer, birthing comedy out of daily chores and random encounters. That’s what artists like him do, what’s dismissive for us, becomes a source of performance for them. The man’s comedy knows no bounds, slipping into slapstick and effortlessly switching into situational in mere seconds. He’s nearing four decades of entertaining the globe, and himself turns 65 today.
The journey from stage to screen happened dazzlingly and deservingly. My very first glimpse of Johny Lever was N. Chandra’s blockbuster Tezaab, he was one of Chunky Panday’s friends who was Anil Kapoor’s friend. The gang is both famished and impoverished, and an encounter with a Parsi old man (who else but the priceless Dinesh Hingoo) brings some food to their table. Given Chandra’s choice of his milieu, Lever fitted into the role to the T. You could sense this man has seen and breathed hunger and helplessness, and on celluloid, is ready to treat it as a device for comic relief.
Of course, the decade of the 90s wasn’t merely about the Khans and Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan or Alia Yagnik. The post-liberalization era also saw the rise and rise of this man, thanks to the men in white Abbas-Mustan, who call him their lucky charm. In 1992’s Khiladi, Lever played Anna, blissfully unaware of a murder at his own cottage because he’s too busy single-handedly parenting his children. The accent may be banished as caricaturist, he still owned the part, fully exploiting the absence of what we recognize today as Twitter.
The moment of glory for me, with Lever, was Baazigar, another Abbas-Mustan cheerful, contagious classic. Everything was dialed-up here, the romance, the action, the dialogues and the comedy. With an actor like Lever, there was always a room for improvisation, or rather a presidential suite. He reunited with Dinesh Hingoo for a cup of tea. Hingoo, nonchalantly buttering up the very influential Madan Chopra to get his son married off to his daughter, is all game as he sips boiling water and says this gem, ‘Bade logo ki chai aisi hi hoti hai.’ What follows next is a remarkable display of physical comedy. Lever’s character of Babu Lal hinged on forgetfulness, and yet stays strong in memories nearly three decades later too.
Judaai is guilty-pleasure at its best. Everyone involved is on a trip. There’s barely any screenplay or situations, it’s all gags, just for laughs. Lever is obsessed with films, he impersonates everyone in sight, right from Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra to Govinda. It’s hard to say how much of it must have been on paper. It all must have been in the actor’s mind.
The one performance of Lever in recent times that has stayed with me is Rohit Shetty’s All The Best, where he was obviously paying tribute to Prem Nath from Subhash Ghai’s Karz, communicating with a glass and a spoon. He regains his voice after a slap from Sanjay Dutt and unleashes a hysterical monologue. He plays to the gallery. He plays a fool. And yet, commands a respect an artist of his stature deserves.
They say everything is fair in love and war. In the case of Johny Lever, even in comedy.
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