Bollywood funnyman rolls into town
The faces of many Bollywood movie fans light up when they see Johnny Lever's name in the credits of a Hindi film. Even if the film turns out to be a dud, the thinking goes, at least Lever is sure to have some rib-tickling scenes.
Fun. That's what Lever's name has long stood for in India and it is what made the 56-year-old actor — who will be in Singapore on Saturday for a performance at the University Cultural Centre — his generation's best-known funnyman.
"For 10 years, there was no Hindi film without Johnny Lever," the comedian, whose real name is John Rao, told Today last week over the phone from his home in Mumbai.
That decade-long span was the 1990s, when Lever was at his peak and there were still a host of Hindi films with comedy sub-plots in their storylines.
"Now the villains in films also play comic parts and they don't want to give credits to comedians," Lever said of an ongoing trend that has seen fewer meaty roles for gagmen.
Once a mainstay of Hindi films — where like other comedians he tended to play the bosom friend of the protagonist or a relative of the villain — Lever became a master of creating funny situations after mirthless scenes to lift the spirits of audiences. In carrying out this time-honoured role in Bollywood movies, Johnny became the latest — and perhaps last — in a line of Hindi film comedians that also boasts stellar names such as Kishore Kumar, Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Keshto Mukherjee and Jagdeep.
"I used to imitate actors like Kishore Kumar and Mehmood — how they talked, how they danced — and people used to love it," said the actor, whose stage name derives from the fact he once worked in a Hindustan Lever factory.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his short stature and lack of matinee-idol good looks, Lever made his name as stand- up comedian and impressionist starting at age 17 before getting his big break in Hindi films.
In the years since making his debut with 1981's Ye Rishta Na Toote (May This Relationship Not Come Apart), Lever has appeared in about 300 films. Now the host of the TV comedy show Johnny Ala Re (Here Cometh Johnny) on Zee TV, Lever still dabbles in film but is nowhere near as prolific as he once was.
"I do films very selectively as I have to turn down roles where I'm asked to do routine comedy work," he said.
Among his forthcoming films are Full and Final, Hera Pheri (Part 3) and Kash Tum Hote (I Wish You Were There).
As for what comedy fans can expect from this weekend's show — his first here in seven years — Lever said simply: "Singapore, get ready to have total fun."
Published in Today dated Nov 2, 2006
PS: The sad news is that Johnny's Singapore show has been postponed indefinitely. One just hopes it will not be cancelled.