The sidekick, the saviour: The underappreciated comic genius of Johnny Lever

In over three decades in Bollywood, Lever has redefined the idea of a jester, fracturing many a funny bone in the process. He’s been a mimicry artist, a stage performer and stand-up comic, a talk show host, and Hindi cinema’s beloved maestro of comedic acting.

By Nair Da

Baazigar was the breakout film no one expected. It cemented Shah Rukh Khan’s versatility as the anti-hero and arguably, launched him into superstardom. But as often happens with the movements of large heavenly bodies, sometimes, other satellites also attain prominence. And in this case, Baazigar also proved to be a watershed moment for Johnny Lever.

This is a Johnny Lever appreciation post.

In over three decades in Bollywood, Lever has redefined the idea of a jester, fracturing many a funny bone in the process. He’s been a mimicry artist, a stage performer and stand-up comic, a talk show host, and Hindi cinema’s beloved maestro of comedic acting. Around him, a galaxy of performers changed and cinema’s stylistic preferences and narratives have morphed but this short, dark, and raucous figure continued to pop up. Sometimes unannounced, sometimes introduced by the plot but always armed with facial contortions and gestures.

The cinema of the early ’80s – when Lever was just starting out – encompassed everything a country coming to terms with a gradually globalising world could hope for. It was a time when different genres blossomed and where the locus of laughter was either the banality of everyday life or an insertion of a self-styled comic character cavorting amidst bedlam. As the amusing counterpart of a leading man, the comedian had a signature swagger and his presence was the respite from the melodrama unfolding onscreen. And Lever greatly benefitted from this narrative.

In general, sidekicks have an interesting place in cinema, serving several roles. Whether it’s the impetuous Robin to a Batman, or a trusty companion like Sherlock’s Watson, they present an unruly and approachable echo of a more aesthetically gifted leading man. There to essentially burnish the hero’s reputation by acting as a foil, they also end up being an unlikely safety valve and saviour when the lead is at his wit’s end.

I was a fan of Lever, even before I’d seen him on the big screen.

But Lever was a different kind of sidekick. Not only did he support the leading actors but he also saved the film by playing the sidekick. When Anil Kapoor’s Deewana Mastana headed aimlessly into plot twists there was Lever as Gafur. When Kader Khan couldn’t squeeze his laconic innuendo any further in a contest with a heckling Govinda in Dulhe Raja, there was Lever as Hiralal. Even SRK’s anti-heroics in Baazigar were restored with comedic counterbalance before it headed too far into black irony, thanks to Lever’s Babulal and his brand of “Anarkali ka phone tha, ice cream khana bahut zaroori hai” amnesia. And then there was Lever reprising his role as the mute don in Golmaal 3 when Ajay Devgn’s hamming got the better of the audiences.

Lever’s comedy largely hinged on being the comedy of “What if?” – an enactment of unlikely mashups from his imagination instead of the usual crutches of situational comedy. Where Lever, the comedic chameleon convinces the audience that they don’t need a collection of performers and cast they can’t afford. After all, he is there for them, juggling different roles – exaggerated but never off-colour, boisterous but never bawdy. He is that improbable entertainer, playing an even more improbable character from his own memory.

I was a fan of Lever, even before I’d seen him on the big screen. On a balmy Mumbaiafternoon many years ago when I went to the neighbourhood music cassette store, hungrily inquiring about the sequel to his first audio recording of Hansi ke Hungaame. For me, a restless adolescent, volume two was a worthy follow-up that helped beat the ennui of doing one’s homework. On it were the usual sketches from the stage shows but the crowning glory was a cricket match sketch. The match was between a team of transgenders and an older generation of mega stars like Raj Kumar and Dev Anand. After several rounds of banter and quirky attempts at winning, the transgender team finally declares their distracting infatuation for the movie stars and concedes.

It was classic Johnny Lever – a somebody playing many somebodies. But that’s the thing about Lever, you didn’t laugh because of his facial contortions, but also because you were aware of the disguises he wore with his voice.

Over the years, the gamble paid off spectacularly and each of Lever’s performances now form the trophies in his breathless career. Four hundred movies, 13 award nominations, and six film awards later, there stood one undisputed King of Comedy. Spanning an oeuvre that was almost as impressive as his comedic stamina, Lever resurrected the shades of his favorite characters from Mumbai’s underbelly. And these weren’t just an ensemble of different cartoonish characters – several of them boasted a deficiency that they wore shamelessly as a badge of honour. The squint-eyed gangster, the deaf coconut vendor, the mute gang lord, the visually challenged cop, the incredibly incompetent servant, the vain goon who wants to be a movie star but lacks acting skills, and the incorrigibly amnesiac don.

In playing these characters, Lever reminded his audience that the very things that held them back from being glamorous, famous, or wealthy could also be the things that they were appreciated for. Essentially, telling us that our follies and foibles were nothing to be ashamed of and if heightened just enough, they could easily precipitate into hilarity. For Lever’s audience comprising the vast middle class trying to ignore the fact that their future would be dictated by powerful politicians and business tycoons, the analogy couldn’t have been more apt.

In the later years, a voluntary descent into alcoholism and personal tragedy heralded another chapter in the actor’s filmography. The two-faced clown wore the mask of hiccuping laughter but had tear-streaked cheeks under it.

This is a Johnny Lever appreciation post.

And so it came to be that a boy from the slums earned his way into the spotlight of India’s most unforgiving and elitist arena of entertainment. In Lever, Bollywood had found its funny facsimile of legendary actors who were deified in a way that didn’t risk defiling them. It was through this comedy of imitation and caricature that Johnny Lever firmly provided the ultimate backhanded compliment to the actors of yore. Lever became a celebration of silliness that transformed irritating eccentricities into convulsing tickles in countless films.

In the years since, he’s always been there to provide catharsis by proxy. In Lever, Indian cinema had found its human laugh track. Today, Lever’s film appearances have greatly reduced and he tours the country and abroad in two avatars. The first is the evangelical, more sombre self-styled preacher. And the second reprises his stage shows with unstoppable energy. For two hours, a little wider and stockier Lever, takes his audience on a rambunctious roller-coaster. His trademark traits – the comedy of “What if?”, the comedy of imitation and the comedy of caricature – spool out in rapid succession giving the audience a no-holds-barred glimpse into his brilliance.

For me, Lever will always remain the comic impresario who taught us to conceal upheaval under the tarpaulin sheet of self-deprecating humour. His comedy isn’t the saccharine humour of the Netflix era but the hyena-like yelping of banter at the neighborhood tea stall. When we look back at our lives, we’ll remember that we weren’t just hapless spectators. Instead, we were the glorious sidekicks within the larger plot of our own lives. We’ll know that because of Johnny Lever.