The quintessential comedian has disappeared from Bollywood with mainstream actors pulling the gags on the silver screen. Evidently, the likes of late Johnny Walker, Kishore Kumar, Mehmood, Asrani, Mukri, Paintal, Deven Varma and Jagdeep are missing, even Johnny Lever has somewhat faded from Bollywood. These actors made us laugh in umpteen films and there has been little recognition, few of them have passed away. Why did the change come about? Who were hit the hardest? How did they react? And lots more as you scroll down in this week’s in-depth analysis of the missing comedians in the weekly #BigStory of ETimes, which has been put together after speaking to a host of seasoned stars from Hindi cinema.
To start with, Johnny Lever blames the actors around him. “I used to get a bigger round of applause when I attended functions with the heroes and heroines of my films. Then, actors started telling filmmakers that they also want to do some light, humorous stuff. Unko comedy karni thi, lekin bhaiyya hum toh comedian hain (stressing on the word hain). Humko dekhkar toh log funerals pe bhi haste hain. Maybe what they did was human nature; perhaps even I would have done it if I was in their place.”
However, Lever is definitely not against the subtle comedy of current times but adds that it has become difficult to make people laugh. “Earlier, comedians had to explain their joke with a share of exuberance. Today, we get so many jokes on our mobile, practically every day. So you really need to have something special and exclusive in you to make people laugh. Secondly, people don’t watch films in one go- aadhi car mein, aadhi ghar pe – so how will they assimilate the joke?”
As the conversation progresses, one realizes that Johnny Lever is a very angry man. Today, Lever does several shows with his daughter across the world (the first show was staged in 1985) and this move was perhaps accentuated when down the line he didn’t find himself in several films, unlike before. “People pay as much as Rs 2,000 to come and see me and my comedy. This means that I still have so much to offer. Agreed, that I can’t play the college friend to a young hero, but does that mean that the person who can make you laugh is not included in the scheme of things? Film writers don’t create roles for us anymore, or let’s say, hardly write roles for us nowadays. Pehle, comedians would add their inputs to enhance their characters – but the basic raw material which is the script – would position them very well. Aaj woh raw material hi nahi raha. Writers of present times are working on several films together unlike in older times, when they were devoted to one film at a time. So, won’t one film’s share of humour received by them be just a fraction of what was required to register a funny character?”
“Comedians ke saath dhokha ho raha hai, satyanash ho raha hai,” laments Johnny Lever
Despite the dearth of roles, Johnny Lever has two films lined up – ‘Coolie No 1’ with Varun Dhawan and ‘Cirkus’ with Ranveer Singh. Complaining about the condition of humour in Bollywood, Johnny Lever adds, “
Haalat bigad chuke hain when it comes to comedy in Hindi movies. Almost everything is being done and finalised in quick time, speed is essential but quality is not- yet another scenario where no justice can be done to comedy. Generating comedy is a serious business and cannot be done in a hurry. And mind you, film writers are still not paid well. End result? The writing for comic characters is simply dead. The mentality is
hum khud kamayenge lekin kisiko dena nahi hai, satyanash karke rakha hua hai. Comedians ke saath dhoka ho raha hai. And now, they want us to do vulgarity in the name of humour.”
On the other hand, producer Firoz Nadiadwala, whose ‘Hera Pheri’ (2000) brought in a new dimension to comedy, is sitting on the other side of the fence. Contrary to Lever’s viewpoint, he attributes the waning of comedians to the absence of good writers like Neeraj Vora, who wrote not just the ‘Hera Pheri’ series but also ‘Welcome’ and ‘Awara Pagal Deewana’ (APD). “Comedy is a serious business. Neeraj Vora used to enact scenes to the star cast and was constantly present on the set. Director Priyadarshan would just say ‘Start, Sound, Camera, Action and Cut’. Do we have anybody like Neeraj Vora now? No. So naturally, a lot is lost in translation. We literally created Johnny Lever’s character to help Akshay Kumar and Paresh Rawal’s character to support Aftab Shivdasani in ‘APD’. Plus, a lot of pseudo-intelligence has come in. You cannot say that Asrani as the jailor and Jagdeep as Soorma Bhopali were not a relevant part of ‘Sholay’. Even in ‘Aan’, which was a tense cop drama, we put three scenes of Paresh Rawal in the first half and three of Rajpal Yadav in the second. They may look like comedians to you in the film but they were not. Can we get writers who can seamlessly weave such characters in our scripts in the coming days?”
Senior actress Raakhee, wife of Gulzar who has written some terrific comedies like ‘Angoor’ for one, endorses, “Like Jagdeep and Asrani were knitted in ‘Sholay’; you need the characters of those who have been hired to make you laugh, to be knitted into the story. It’s not that such things are not happening today, but it is not frothing up because there is lack of hard work. Do we have a fantastic screenplay writer like Sachin Bhowmick? Even a child can make you laugh constantly in the film, take for example the smallest one in Gulzar saab’s ‘Parichay’.”
“I object against calling Mehmood, Asrani, Lever and others as comedians,” says Satish Kaushik
Satish Kaushik, the unforgettable Calendar in Boney Kapoor’s ‘Mr India’ (starring Anil Kapoor), pushes the envelope and laments, “Comedy is looked down upon in Bollywood. And I strongly object to the likes of Johnny Walker being called as comedians. Why are tags of villains, vamps, comedians etc given in our country? These guys were simply great actors and so are Asrani and Johnny Lever. Did you call Charlie Chaplin a comedian? Then why call me one in ‘Saajan Chale Sasural’ wherein my role was as meaty as Govinda’s? Believe it or not, comedy is the toughest to enact in contrast to any other genre. You think it’s easy to create funny characters that are believable? From Calendar to Pappu Pager to Jumbo to many other characters I did, I felt that awards should not be given in the Best Comedian league. So, once I suggested it should be ‘Best Actor in a Comic Role’ and it eventually happened.”
Like Lever, Kaushik too has no issues with the subtle comedy that has almost become the norm in Bollywood. He says, “Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao wonderfully perform light-hearted roles. Even the South industry, which gave the concept of a distinct comedian to Bollywood, is on the decline in this aspect.” Raising a few important questions he adds, “Why don’t we honour our actors who specialise in comedy? How many award functions have called them on stage? Why don’t we celebrate them? They are capable of far more than just providing comedy. I am sure Asrani, Mehmood and even others would have loved to do a serious role if he had been offered. What a fantastic role Asrani had in ‘Abhimaan’ and if you recall, Mehmood made everyone cry with his father’s role in ‘Kunwara Baap’ which most heroes would have failed to do. I am so happy with the recent film I have done with Anupam Kher. It’s directed by Vivek Agnihotri and called ‘The Last Show’ wherein Anupam and I play lead characters. I cannot forget the fantastic response I got at the premiere of the British film ‘Brick Lane’ and the subsequent reviews that followed? Surely, I wasn’t playing a comic character in ‘Brick Lane’. But how many such films are made in today’s times?”
“Mukri had lost faith in the industry,” says his daughter Naseem
The #BigStory gets a sad tone if you read what Mukri’s daughter Naseem (who also co-wrote Ratan Jain’s ‘Dhadkan’ starring Akshay Kumar-Shilpa Shetty-Suniel Shetty) has to say about Mukri’s state when he passed away. “My father had lost faith in the industry, he said ‘
jo hoga so hoga, kya kar sakte hain?’” she says, eschewing Lever’s sentiment, “The hero took over everything – comedy, romance and villainy. Add this to the fact that the films now are far shorter in length than what they were then. This era, where comedians are not given their due, is unjustified. My father’s era was identified by the director being the captain of the ship. The director never followed or surrendered to the actor’s whims and fancies – mere liye aisa kar do, mere liye waisa kar do. No wonder, ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ had two songs featured on Mukri saab – Pardah hai and Tayyab Ali Pyar Ka Dushman. People respected him so much. I remember Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra calling him as their lucky mascot. When they didn’t cast my father in two films, those bombed badly. After that, Prakash Mehra made ‘Laawaris’ and Mukri saab was not cast in it. Prakash Mehra realised this just two-three days before the release and he called my father, who replied to him ‘
Boliye, kab aana hai? Abhi aa jaun?’. A scene between Amitabh Bachchan and Mukri was shot at the last minute. That ‘Laawaris’ became a superhit is a different story but you see, it was a two-way street. My father too respected the makers. Kabhi chaaplusi nahin ki kisiki. Ab woh sab nahi hai, and that’s just because of what I said earlier- it’s all boiled down to what the hero wants. Anyway, I am so proud of my father; he did more than 500 films and had iconic dialogues like – Mucche hoon toh Nathuram jaisi hoon varna naa hoon (‘Sharabi).”
We took the opportunity to ask Naseem to tell us how yesteryear comedians were in real life. Pat came the reply, “My father was strict, he didn’t want me to watch films when I was young.” While Farida Jalal adds, “Johnny Walker saab was pretty quiet, in fact, a very serious man.
Unko gussa bhi aata tha jahan zaroori hota tha. He had a lovely, sprawling bungalow at Carter Road. Mehmood bhaijaan was very sweet and I don’t think anyone from the comedy clan enjoyed the importance that he commanded. And, Johnny Lever is such a sweet man; he deserves a lot more than what’s he getting now. He would have me in splits during ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai‘. He used to enact some scenes from his shows and make us howl with laughter.” Amit Kumar is also sold over Lever’s antics. “Whenever he comes home, I go rolling on the floor,” says Kishore Kumar’s son.
“Mehmood was paid more than the hero”
Speaking about the lost generation of comedians in Bollywood, Farida Jalal shares, “It’s sad that we don’t have the era of iconic comedians any longer, Mehmood bhaijaan was paid more than the hero. Every comedian was given as much respect as the hero. Lekin aaj we are told by the makers that these are the times of realistic films. We can hardly do anything but carry on. Would anybody make a ‘Padosan’ today, wherein Kishoreda and Mehmood bhaijaan played the heroes, despite Sunil Dutt being in it? Nobody would, but if made, I bet it would run well.”
Going right back to the man from the 50s, who was largely instrumental in establishing a fixed slot for the comedian in most of yesteryear films, Nasirr opens up about his father Johnny Walker. “I know that many will give you several other reasons on kyun comedians ka daur khatam ho gaya, but I am sure I feel differently. I feel that there is nobody today who aspires to be a comedian. Ask any youngster who is auditioning for TV, web shows or films – he will tell you that he wants to become a hero. The youth is going all out to make their biceps and triceps, ironically they enjoy watching comedians from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s but somewhere after ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ released and became a rage; the goal of the youth became to only be a leading man in movies,” says Nasirr.
“No hard work done in writing, so how will you laugh?” says Jagdeep’s son
Jagdeep’s son Naved Jafri, who rates his dad’s performance in ‘Qurbani’, ‘Ustad Hi Ustad’, ‘Sholay’ and ‘Dildaar’ as the best, hints that the lack of hard work has prevented talent from mushrooming in the comedy genre. “You can’t imagine the hard work that comedians put in those days. Hence their humour was never shallow. Take my father’s work in Feroz Khan‘s ‘Qurbani’ for an example. Do you know that he lifted the character from the owner of an Irani restaurant in Mumbai’s Mahim area after observing him for days and days?”
Extremely unhappy with the new trend of not having trademark comedians in Hindi films, Salim Khan who co-wrote the likes of ‘Sholay’, ‘Deewar’ and ‘Trishul’ with Javed Akhtar, tells ETimes, ”
Writers hi nahi hai jo comedians ke characters ko script mein bithake, unko justice de sake. There were writers in those days because people read a lot. If you don’t read, I can’t understand how will you write well?” Just a quick question to today’s parents whose kids are above 8: When did you last tell your kid to read a Tintin or Laurel & Hardy comic?”
According to Farida Jalal, “We have no other option but to go ahead and embrace the era of no-comedians, howsoever grudgingly. Let’s just hope that in our forward journey, we meet the likes of Mehmood, Mukri, Deven Varma and many more.”
On the other hand, Naved points out that there is no cohesiveness in the present-day industry. “Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha used to come home and sit for hours, sometimes even sitting aaram se on the floor. Ditto for Johnny Walker, who was also my father’s friend,” he says. Naved adds that he doesn’t enjoy today’s comedy, which according to him, is quite poker-faced.
Are the writers of today not able to flesh out the character of a comedian because they see only negativity and agendas around them growing by the minute in the uncertain and aggressive times we live in? After all, your surroundings reflect upon your thoughts when you write. Jalal shoots back, “You nailed it!”