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Return Of The Wit

At 73, the legendary Johnny Walker, Bollywood's subaltern Fool, is back

Return Of The Wit
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Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi — 'Johnny Walker' as he named himself after a thorough investigation of the booze hierarchy — attempts to swing onto a cycle. Forty years ago when he was the Black and White philosopher-buffoon of Hindi cinema he could turn a mean trick or two on this chariot of the Indian workforce. "I used to drink tea on a cycle and even hold the handlebars with one hand and pedal with the other," he brags. "I even got an award for slow cycling where you come first if you come last! Nice, isn't it? I like that."

He grins and suddenly the thin old man in fading colour recedes from vision and there stands Johnny Walker as he used to be. The gentle balladeer of social change on the streetcorner, the happy-go-lucky footpath jokester who kept audiences humming in empathy even as the heroes got on with the more conventional business of Tragedy. "Few people have had as much fun in life as I've had," he chuckles, seated under a jamun tree in his untidy rambling bungalow strewn with the debris of a riotous grandson. Shikaar with Shammi Kapoor-"we went all over Madhya Pradesh with crates of beer and transistors, with express instructions that no one could listen to the news!" Badminton and carrom board tournaments with Guru Dutt—"we respected each other, he made films that appealed to the masses as well as the gentry" ; fishing at Powai lake—"my biggest catch is a 56 pounder, even the Mrs (Noor, sister of actress Shakila) has caught a 50 pounder!"; and cricket, football and hockey matches at the Navketan Studios. "Sports is my greatest love."

"In those days we never had a complex about our stardom," he says. "If we did not have work we'd hang around at the studios. Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were the top heroes of the time, but they were not rivals, they were best friends." At 73, Johnny Walker is on the verge of a comeback in Kamalahaasan's Chikni Chachi, scheduled for release this year. His hair is grey and the characteristic voice quavers a little. But the eyes still gleam when he voices a droll observation on the frailties of the human race. "I was one of those who retire at the height of their careers," he moans in self-parody. "I planted my flag on Everest and was content to watch others sweat it out. I never thought I would return but when Kamalahaasan and Gulzarsaab rang me up, I agreed because I respect them so much." Badruddin Jamaluddin is not a name conducive to comedy. It's a serious-sounding name, given to the second born in a conservative Muslim family of 10. The family moved from Indore — where Badruddin was born in 1924 — to Maharashtra after the textile mill in which his father was a master weaver was liquidated. 'Badru', as Bimal Roy used to call him, and his family faced terrible poverty. He became the sole earning member and would cycle 18 miles from Nasik to Deolali and back selling ice candy. In Bombay, he worked as a vegetable vendor, leaving for Pune at 11 pm to buy fresh vegetables to sell in Bombay. He sold stationery, grass, fruits, "all sorts of Rs 50 businesses", before becoming a bus conductor with BEST. For two years he cruised around the metropolis, meeting all kinds of people, one of whom took him to Illusion City.

"Johnny Walker was an effortless actor," says Dev Anand, who produced Guru Dutt's first film Baazi in which Johnny Walker was first acclaimed. "He had style and ease. Of course, he always remained himself and this became his trademark." Guru Dutt encouraged him to speak extempore, to draw from his own experiences. "There was a great deal of creative rapport between us," he smiles. Sometimes he was even a caricature of himself: Badru-turned-Johnny Walker-who-learnt-to-make-people-laugh-in-order-to-feed-his-family. In the vision of Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi (Dutt's scriptwriter) he was the Subaltern Wit, the Fool who sang as he suffered. "I have an intimate understanding of the struggles of the public. By the time I came into films my life was rich in incidents." No wonder then that when he sang of tel maalish as a cure of social dislocation or urban despair in Bombay meri jaan, millions opened their hearts to him. When he was a boy in Indore he had dreamt of the world of films. His idol was Noor Mohammad Charlie, the writer/director/actor, and he continually practised 'filmi' stunts in the belief that they were performed for real on camera. "I almost drowned learning how to swim," he recalls. In the innocent days of the mid-Fifties, the antics of the 'sharaabi' were not only hilarious but also an unequalled challenge to social propriety. In the early puritanical years of independent India, the drunk was perhaps considered so funny because his pleasures were so forbidden. He has remained a "100 per cent teetotaller" and his orthodox father was so shocked by one of his lines in a film, "mere baap dada bhi sharab peete the", that he was banned from the house for a long while. He says he's never touched a drop. "Me? Drink? Never! What sort of effect would it have on my children?" One afternoon when Johnny Walker was entertaining the actors of Hulchul (in which a friend had organised a bit part for him) with his impersonation of a drunk, he was spotted by Balraj Sahni. Sahni was then in jail for political activity and used to come to the sets everyday, to play, ironically enough, the role of a jailor. "Balrajsaab told me to barge into his friend Guru Dutt's office and show him my drunk act. Guru Dutt almost had me beaten up. Luckily Balrajsaab arrived in time to explain things. Guru Dutt was amused and wrote a role for me in Baazi."

FROM then on Johnny Walker acted in all Guru Dutt films, barring Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. B.R Chopra's Naya Daur, Nav Ketan's Taxi Driver and Bimal Boy's Madhumati, he says, were particularly fulfilling. As veteran comedian Rajendranath recalls: "When I was a struggling actor Johnny Walker was a massive box office draw. The distributors used to insist on a song for him in every film, for which they were prepared to pay extra money. And he was a thorough gentleman. But is he not an anachronism, a sepia-tinted memory from the time when cigarettes came in tins—"I used to be a heavy smoker but one day I just threw away the tin"—when cars were called "motors" and when cinema was the only source of entertainment? "In those days we used to do clean comedy. We were aware that the person who had come to the cinema had come with his wife and children...the story was the most important thing. Only after selecting a story would Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt find suitable actors! Now it's all upside down...they line up a big hero and find a story to fit in. The comedian has ceased to be a character, he's become something to fit in between scenes."

So why does he want to come back? "I opted out because comedy had become hostage to vulgarity. I acted in 300 films and the Censor Board never cut even one line." But now he feels there may be a swing away from vulgar comedy and artists like Kamalahaasan are in the forefront of that change. There is a sort of Fifties asceticism about Johnny Walker. The first comedian to become really well known to the post-Independence generation, as critic Khalid Mohammad describes him, lives by certain simple formulas. "My formula for 100 per cent peace of mind is 25 per cent money, 25 per cent health, 25 per cent social life and 25 per cent family life." Education, however, is a priority. Forced to abandon school in the 6th standard, he sent all his three sons to America to be educated. He says he never tried to get his sons any breaks in the film industry. "Whenever one of them would come to me with their plans, I would point towards America and say, "study!". In spite of this, his youngest son Nasir works in Channel V and has a role in the coming film, Dam Dum Diga Diga.

"The industry as I knew it is finished," he says. After retiring he started a business in precious and semi-precious stones which was so successful "that my poor partner died of happiness". He says he did comedy because "God gave me a face that makes people laugh, how could I go against His wishes? He snatches a hat and puts it on: "Do you think the public knows what I look like now? Or do they still see me in Black and White?"

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