Hindustan Lever has, over the years, launched several consumer durables but one household product it should be truly proud of is none other than John Prakasa Rao Janumala, rechristened Johnny Lever by the celebrated conglomerate. Sudhir Raikar pays tribute to the living legend.
That stand-up comedy is serious business is a fact acknowledged only by its selflessly sincere practitioners. No wonder, very few performers have raised the bar for the tribe like Johnny Lever has done in his illustrious career spanning over three decades. What makes his gig so special? Well, there are scores of factors defining his unique value proposition but prime among them is his uncanny knack of weaving enduring stories around the raw material of everyday life, and, of course, his self-deprecating wittiness that makes the performance endearingly believable, more than merely comical. Johnny Lever doesn’t just narrate funny stories; he layers them with home-grown insights that stem from his astute observation of people all around him – in slums, societies, hotels, railway stations, bus stops and airports.
Johnny’s winning combo of humour and humility has room for just about everything – out-and-out hilarity, inventive exaggeration, captivating wordplay and rhymed prose, appealing absurdity, spontaneous song-n-dance routines, marvellous mimicry, subtle spoofs, poignant pathos…you name it, he has it!
There’s no other artiste – whether in films, television or the world of live shows – with his authority over India’s baffling linguistic and parochial diversity. Whether he’s playing a Kerailte, Maharashtrian, Bengali or Punjabi, he doesn't just reproduce the accent, he underlines the cultural ethos of the given region. And when he mimics someone, he becomes a living clone unlike others who simply emulate the defining mannerisms. As he swiftly moves from one character to another in enactment after enactment, you come face to face with the trials and triumphs of so many different people – a hapless guy facing the embarrassment of a nasty fall in a public place, a drunkard religiously explaining the virtues of committed alcoholism, the poignancy of the shifting bond between mother and son over time, or the imprudent self-proclaimed medial expert with his quick-fix solutions of disastrous consequences. Every character seems so real – plucked fresh for you from the garden of life.
Behind this astonishing finesse lies Johnny’s commitment to his craft which even today involves long hours of practice before the mirror as also his unassuming nature which highlights the universal fact that talent is nothing without temperament. Shekhar Sumans, Raju Srivastavas, Sunil Pals and Vir Dases of the world, please take note!
Given his aptitude and disposition, Johnny should be rated among the very best stand up artistes of all time like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and Steven Martin. That his name is not explicitly included in the coveted list is an Indian sob story of underutilised potential.
For one, the commonplace elements of his subject matter naturally draw in a huge number of rustic, undemanding audiences. Nothing wrong in that but in playing to the gallery, he’s hardly given the scope to indulge in content and style innovation. That he’s yet churned out delightfully funny stuff with unfailing regularity bears testimony to his highly fertile mind.
The second culprit is the silver screen. The Hindi film industry has invariably employed him as ‘filler’ material rather than a filmic character. Contrary to what many presume, Johnny Lever is a tremendous actor with the capability to make us laugh and cry in quick succession. It would take only one good film to prove his histrionic ability provided some maker is willing to go against the trend in casting Jonny for a full-fledged rooted character in line with the film’s central theme, not the fringe ‘funny’ roles that come his way.
Last but not the least; Johnny needs to broaden the horizon of his knowledge (and observation) bank. With more quality exposure to news and events across all walks of life – employment, business, technology, medicine, sports, political affairs and human interest stories - he would be able script and enact many more amusing stories appealing to audiences of all classes and strata. Rather than recruit a fancy research team (ask Raju Srivastava who unsuccessfully tried this option for some time), he could employ a smart, matter-of-fact personal assistant with the agility and ingenuity to provide him with relevant raw material and engage him with the right people.
As of today, he has two secretaries managing his affairs. One is his own brother Jimmy Moses, himself a stand-up comedian, a kind-hearted soul but unfortunately incapable of identifying opportunities or exploring possibilities to move up the value chain on Johnny’s behalf. The other gentleman masquerading as secretary is of little use. He doesn’t even bother to answer his cell phone calls, leave alone doing value-added homework for his employer. Johnny Bhai, you would do a super job if you become your own secretary. We are absolutely sure!
At 57, Johnny Lever hasn’t lost even an ounce of his verve and veracity. Even today, he effortlessly breaks into a Saroj Khan number with inimitable finesse – a fine blend of awesome dancing and astounding mimicry. Even today, he faithfully accommodates the unfailing and umpteen ‘once more’ requests with the enthusiasm and earnestness of a debut performance, defying mounting age and waning reflexes. We sincerely hope Johnny Lever continues to entertain us for many more years, breaking new ground and conquering new peaks in the process.