'I get angry when people laugh at me'
We don't see the badshah of comedy Johny Lever on screen too often these days. The actor has limited his work to just one or two films like last Friday's Paying Guest.
Lever has made us laugh in over 200 movies, but life has not always been a bed of roses. He tells Patcy N why we don't see him that often these days, and how the laughs first began.
Tell us your role in Paying Guest.
I play a sardar, who owns a restaurant in Bangkok. He lets his house out to four paying guests. Delnaaz Paul plays my Gujarati wife. She is a good comedian herself. This is the first time I'm working with her. She's a very experienced actress. Our comic timing is great.
The film is based on a hit play of the same name.
I know director Paritosh Painter very well. I have seen many of his plays. He did not come across as a newcomer when he was directing this film.
These days, the hero provides the comedy. There is no role for comedians.
It's not like that. Comedy films are working these days. The audience are watching them more, so naturally, producers are making more comedy films. And that too, on big budgets. As soon as a big amount is involved, the producer looks for a bankable face. No producer will make a Rs 20 crore film starring Rajpal Yadav and Johny Lever, as we cannot pull an entire film on our shoulders. Yet, we do get roles. It's not that we are without work.
In the past, Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra and Jeetendra did comedy films. It's still like that. The only thing is that we don't have parallel tracks for comedians anymore. But we are all getting work.
A hero has to become a comedian to do a comic role but a comedian does not have to do anything. People laugh at him anyway. Even when I attend funerals, people look at my face and laugh. If Akshay [Kumar] went to funeral, would anyone laugh at him when they look at him?
In fact, I get angry when people laugh at me. I go to the airport and the ground hostess starts laughing at me when she sees me. I get irritated and ask them if I just did some comedy for them to laugh like that. But then I apologise because I know they must have remembered some movie scene that I did.
Image: Johny Lever
'I never realised that people would pay me for dance and mimicry'
Tell us about your early days.
I was born in Dharavi [Asia's largest slum] where Slumdog Millionaire was shot. We moved out when I turned nine.
Initially, I would dance in small programmes in my area and in school. I was very interested in dance and mimicry but I never realised that people would pay me for it. I just wanted a chance to showcase my talent.
People would give me one or two rupees when I danced or did mimicry, so I would get a decent amount of money. That's why the ochestra, where I worked, never paid me.
When I was 17, I started getting Rs 30 for a show. I was so happy when I got paid the first time. Sonu Nigam's father used to get Rs 50 for a show. He was a singer.
Later, I started working with Kalyanji-Anandji. I did stage shows with them, and get Rs 30 per show. I got my break in films there, with Dard Ka Rishta.
Image: Johny Lever
'My father came with a rubber pipe in his hand to hit me'
Was your father supportive of your shows?
I used to work in Hindustan Lever but would skip work and do shows. My father was very worried that I may lose my job so once, when I was performing at Shanmukhananda Hall (in Mumbai) -- the hall was packed with 3,000 people, including my mentors Kalyanji-Anandji -- my father came with a rubber pipe in his hand to hit me. I was very nervous but carried on with my act. When my dad saw people laughing at my jokes, he went back. But I was scared to return home, so I stayed at my friend's house and went home late at night. I sneaked into my house, ate food, and went to sleep.
When did he start supporting you?
My father got Rs 26,000 when he retired. He thought he would marry off my sisters with that money. In my area, Rs 15,000 was enough for a wedding.
During that time, I got an offer for a mosquito repellent ad. Shekhar Kapur was directing the ad. Satish Kaushik was the assistant director. I mimicked Om Prakashji's voice after the ad and got Rs 25,000. I gave that to my father and told him that he worked his whole life and got Rs 26,000 and I worked for a day and got Rs 25,000.
My father was shocked and asked me if I was doing some smuggling business. When I told him that I got paid for my acting, he never stopped me from doing shows again.
Image: Johny Lever
'Most of the film producers would not pay me'
Did you face any problems when you started acting in films?
Once Rakesh Bedi and I were working in a South Indian film. Rakesh Bedi said his dialogues, and instead of reacting to that, I was busy reading my dialogues. The director got upset and I was very scared that I may lose the film.
I could not act in front of the camera. I was good on stage where I could create things on the spur of the moment. That was how I was getting my income. My financial status was not strong at the start, so I could not devote time to learn acting in front of the camera.
Most of the film producers would not pay me. I wanted to be famous, that's why I did films. I did not mind people not paying me. I would go to the film sets in a good car. Why would the producer pay me for a small role? Most of the time, the director, producer and I would sit and drink together. Even if someone praised me, I would not charge the producer.
But soon, I started getting good jobs. My first proper role was in Baazigar in 1992. People saw my work and thought I could act.
I got Rs 3 lakh for Karan Arjun (1995), Rs 2 lakh for Ishq (1997), Rs 1.5 lakh for Aashiqui (1999). Rs 5,000 per day for Khiladi (1992) and Rs 15,000 per day for Baazigar.
Those days, I would doing too many shows. If the show was in Mumbai, and I would get Rs 50,000, I would distribute Rs 40,000 among the other artistes.
Image: Johny Lever
'Both my kids are good at stand-up comedy'
You have greatly reduced your work these days.
I had worked too much and did not have time for myself or my family. I had told my wife that I would not be able to give time to the house, as I had to take care of the financial situation. But I promised her that when all would be well, I would take a break and be with the family. And I did that.
Someday, everyone has to sit at home. So it's important to start giving time at home and create a good environment. My daughter Jamie is 21 and my son Jesse is 19. They are in college. Both of them are good at stand-up comedy but my daughter is better. She stood first at the inter-collegiate level.
Now I have started working again but not doing too much work.
We see you on Miracle Net television very often.
I give my testimony there. My son had a tumour on his neck. We went for surgery but it failed because the tumour was difficult to remove. Later, we went to New York for his surgery. I was scared as his first operation had failed. I went to church and met a pastor. He told me to go ahead, God would take care of everything. And the surgery was successful.
Plus, I had a drinking habit that I quit. I have turned to the bible and started going to church which I hardly did before. I have started preaching the word of God.
Image: Johny Lever