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Johnny Walker: Comedy’s Humane Face

March 29, 2020 | By

Johnny Walker’s greatness sourced itself much deeper than the distinctiveness of his physical persona. An innate sensitivity, a humaneness informed and radiated through his being. Johnny Walker worked under a strict self-imposed regimen as to his demeanour. He was never loud. He never took recourse to slapstick and was never vulgar. He became another name for comedy in Hindi cinema. And if there were ever an idol to symbolize mirth and laughter, it would not be surprising if it resembles Johnny Walker in appearance.

Johnny Walker

Johnny Walker

Balraj Sahni sure had discerning eyes as he could visualise an artiste in Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi – a bus conductor by occupation – dreaming to become part of the world of cinema. But Guru Dutt, to whom his name was recommended, could see a little more. He had the uncanny ability of a genius, to see in the physical persona of Kazi the possibility of an adaptation that would run close in profile to the ‘Johnnie’ Walker that served as the logo of the celebrated scotch whiskey!

For us Indians, this makeover of Kazi to Johnny Walker – slightly in-drawn shoulders, a stride that appeared a little stooped, a straw fedora hat, stylized Hindi – created the archetypal urbanite whose very presence rippled humour, who seemingly had a proclivity for drinks – conveying the impression of a man always a little tipsy! Indeed, he became another name for Comedy in Hindi cinema. And if there were ever an idol to symbolize mirth and laughter, it would not be surprising if it resembles Johnny Walker in appearance.

However, Johnny Walker’s greatness sourced itself much deeper than the distinctiveness of his physical persona. An innate sensitivity, a humaneness informed and radiated through his being. Guru Dutt must have seen that too – the comedian with a humane touch and by default, apparently effortlessly! One of his kind! Mehmood also aspired to become one. He invested a lot of effort in the film Kunwara Baap and came up with a laudable performance. Yet, in a relative assessment his effort appeared a bit laboured.

Johnny Walker in Anand

Johnny Walker as Isa Bhai with Rajesh Khanna in Anand

The point will come in clear light, if we recall, or revisit, that scene in Anand, wherein Johnny Walker acting as Isa Bhai called on Anand (Rajesh Khanna) who was counting his last days. In this seven-minute scene, Johnny Walker lived at least four emotions – one emanating from the other – of surprise on discovering that Anand had cancer, his disbelief that he was in his last moments, his wearing a brave mask as he comforted Anand, and finally the catharsis! If Anand gave Rajesh a high histrionic orbit that yet remains unscaled in this genre of films, it also gave Johnny Walker an opportunity to come up with his best ever performance – sublime, philosophical with an overlay of comedy!

Johnny Walker’s versatility was linear, unlike that of Mehmood who had a much larger histrionic sweep. Besides, Johnny Walker worked under a strict self-imposed regimen as to his demeanour. He was never loud. He never took recourse to slapstick and was never vulgar. Unlike many of the comedians before or after him who believed that being loud or vulgar was the soul of wit. No one could have fantasized Johnny Walker in a song of the kind Muthu kodi kawari hada! Much later, when he was almost at the end of his acting career, he articulated his perceptions on the point, thus, “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. I opted out because comedy had become hostage to vulgarity. I acted in 300 films and the Censor Board never cut even one line.”

johnny walker 1959 kaagaz ke phool sd burman

Johnny Walker speaking at the charity premiere of Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). Seated at the back are music director SD Burman and Waheeda Rehman (Pic: SMM Ausaja Archives)

Despite his self-imposed constraints, Johnny Walker was the first comedian in Hindi cinema who enjoyed an acting space of his own. Apparently and invariably, he was the hero’s Man Friday, yet the film significantly drew on his presence for its success. Guru Dutt, his friend and mentor too, gave Johnny Walker the freedom to draw on his own varied experience while executing a role. Taxi Driver, Aar Paar, CID, Mr & Mrs 55, Chhoo Mantar, Chori Chori, Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chand, Naya Daur, Mere Mehboob are some of the better known films in which he was cast. In Chhoo Mantar, he was the main lead. His last film of note was Chachi 420 (1998) but he was just a shadow of his previous self.

Johnny Walker passed away in 2003. But his prime period as an actor spanned only about two decades – the ‘50s and the ‘60s, even as his most memorable performance was in the year 1971 in the film Anand. Yet Johnny Walker is not dated, he continues to enthrall. That’s a little surprising, as he was not a hero, except in one film Chhoo Mantar which did not do well at the box office. Johnny Walker’s greatness lies in the fact that he remains contemporary through his songs. Some of the songs filmed on him are classy and transcend the cinematic contexts as to their reach and impact. They stand alone, are autonomous. Their appeal is trans-generational.

The following seven songs, deconstructed in their respective cinematic, as also larger contexts, bring out this point.

Johnny Walker and Guru Dutt

Johnny Walker and Guru Dutt (Pic: Facebook)

Champee! Tel maalish

Is this not the best filmed song on Johnny Walker? And is it not Rafi’s best for him? The first three words uttered by Johnny Walker, Champee! Tel maalish, to launch the masseur that he is in this film, engage instantly and set the tone and momentum for the song that follows.

I guess Sahir’s application as he wrote this song was no less than his application in Jinhe naaz hai hind par wo kahaan hain. While Tel maalish offered balm and hope to those feeling undone by the daily trials and tribulations (the tang-aa-chuke-hain- kashm-kash-e-zindagi-se-hum types), the latter lamented the apparently irredeemable fate and dehumanizing existence of women in their oldest profession!

Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman

Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman in Pyaasa (Pic: IMDb)

And while writing Champee, Sahir wrote not only an unsurpassed advertisement for a hair oil, he also highlighted an India specific USP – a home grown equivalent of acupressure (Champee), which could have been included in the Incredible India campaign for the promotion of tourism overseas. The three lines are:

Tel mera hai mushki, ganj rahe na khushki
Jis ke sar par haath phira doon, chamke kismet uski

Promoting Indian head massage to treat alopecia and scalp dryness, Sahir recognised that as a harbinger of good luck – Jis ke sar par hath phira doon. Though one can argue as to why did not Sahir try this on his own head?

And when Sahir says Sar jo tera chakraye, ya dil dooba jaye, he is not far from the truth. Google lists the following benefits of the Indian head massage: helps prevent migraines, headaches and back pain; promotes hair growth; detoxifies the body by stimulating lymphatic drainage; relieves sleeplessness, restlessness, insomnia, anxiety and depression and boosts memory capabilities.

This song has been used as a parody in an advertisement of Navratna oil, done by Amitabh Bachchan. Sar jo tera chakraye is an iconic song and can never be equaled.

Champee! Tel maalish (Pyaasa, 1957) SD Burman/ Sahir / Mohd Rafi

Zara hat ke zara bach ke

An Ode to Bombay!

OP Nayyar drew inspiration from the tune from John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine, but did one better as he adapted it for a duet in Navketan’s CID.

The duet … Zara hat ke, zara bach ke…., on Johnny Walker and Kumkum, is arguably the best score from the film. In fact it has a claim to be the very best of OP Nayyar. No wonder that it topped the Binaca Geet Mala Chart for the year 1957.

For a cinematic impact too, this is a great song ahead of others in this film. In fact, I do not find a single song featuring Johnny Walker which is not entertaining. Not a single song.

Another observation: I find Rafi sublime, at his best, while singing for Johnny Walker. Perhaps because Johnny Walker’s persona, his on-screen demeanour and expressions exuded an air of dignified freedom and his songs too were expected to have that characteristic. It suited Rafi, for he could sing freely almost, without having to customize and mutate his voice for the hero on-screen. Rafi singing in the background, or singing for lesser heroes, or for ‘no-bodies’, was just breathtaking. And somehow Geeta Dutt seems a perfect foil to him in this duet.

Johnny Walker and Kum Kum in CID

Johnny Walker and Kum Kum in CID

This song is iconic. Its visual reminds one of what Mumbai once was, during the British colonial days and a decade or two thereafter. The horse-carriages, or Victorias as they were called, and the one shown in this song, were allowed to ply on certain select roads as late as June 2016, essentially as a relic of tourist interest. PETA thought this display of a relic amounted to cruelty to the poor horse hitched to the carriage! Little did it realize that with this a cultural distinctiveness of the city became a matter of past.

This duet is specific to Mumbai, yet it alludes to every city with a history and traditions. It alludes to my city too – Delhi – which is presently gasping for breath owing to large illegal settlements, and also owing to the millions of moving machines – the personal transports – which though expected to hasten movement and commuting bring the city to move at the pace of a snail instead!

The duet turns me nostalgic, as it must be turning the others of my generation too, takes me to the ‘70s, to the India Coffee House at Connaught Place in Delhi. For the present generation that is circumstanced in a killing hurry, the placidity and accommodation that the song inherently carries ought to stir a wistfulness to get off the fast track to be part of a life that has poise, is somewhat laidback.

The song owes its timelessness to the words of Majrooh too, who so brilliantly creates a city specific negative narrative and then proceeds to poise that with a positive counter narrative. And I wonder if any other actor – the super stars included – could have bettered Johnny Walker in the on-screen execution of this song!

Zara hat ke zara bach ke (CID, 1956) OP Nayyar / Majrooh / Mohd Rafi and Geeta Dutt

Jungle mein mor nacha

Jo dikhta hai, wo bikta hai!

Prima facie the song seems interpolated to bring in a bit of comicality, some lighter moments in an otherwise grim suspense drama on-screen. The song sits light on Johnny Walker; he carries it effortlessly with Rafi delivering the desired “inebriation” on a very pacey Salil lilt.

But the song owes its timelessness to the lyrics of Shailendra. The song entertains even if one just gives ear to it without delving deep. Shailendra however did not miss out the opportunity to slip in a vision of the times to come.

The first antara: Gori ki gol-gol akhiyan sharabi, kar chuki hain kaise-kaison ki kharabi, Inka yeh zor-zulm kisi ne na dekha. Shailendra is articulating what often transpires in man-woman togetherness at the workplace – a situation that obtains universally. How true he has come in his vision sixty years down the line, in the MeToo movement! Men high and mighty succumbing to women of charm, women of flippancy, Gori ki gol-gol akhiyan sharabi, kar chuki hain kaise-kaison ki kharabi. But Shailendra does not pronounce men guilty, he is putting as much onus on the Metoo women, Inka ye zor-zulm kisi ne na dekha! If one has to go by Shailendra’s vision, there will be yet another twist in the Metoo tale – the emergence of a counter narrative in defense of men at the receiving end resulting in WeToo!

The mukhda too is about the ways of the world! Virtuosity manifesting in isolation is of no avail – Jungle mein mor nacha kisi ne na dekha. If one needs to be noticed, even for wrong reasons, for fame/notoriety, one has to be visible – Jo dikhta hai, wo bikta hai…hum jo thodi-si peeke zara jhoome, Haye re sabne dekha.

Jungle me mor nacha……. a song forever!

Jungle mein mor nacha (Madhumati, 1958) Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Mohd Rafi

Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji

A great song cannot possibly be dissected for a relative assessment of the individual contributions. The impact is so holistic, so singular!

Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji is a great song, one of its kind. It is comically serious, its trivia being relevant timelessly; the under-the-table dealing that this duet ends with is so uniquely conceived, is so romantic and of course with no criminal culpability! I have seen it happening while in the government: these under-the-table-dealings blowing into twosome infamies or celebrations, depending on whether the romantic advances remained just licentious or consummated formally!

The on-screen execution of this duet by Johnny Walker, who would have as well passed for an archetypal clerk in the government, and the supporting actress Yasmin will easily stand comparison with the best of starry duets. Please watch for Yasmin’s facial expressions from 3.36 to 3.51: those are so much in integrity with the words,

Baatein hain nazar ki nazar se samjhaungi

Pehle pado paiyan to phir batalaungi

OP Nayyar is absolutely masterly as he creates an unabating melody crest to ride on, to get soaked in. Rafi, the sublime, turns into Johnny Walker as he sings, so completely are the two aligned! Matched brilliantly by a reparteeing Geeta in her natural vocals.

But it is Majrooh who supplies the punch, the hilarity. He turns jigar (signifying the heart in popular lingo) into a chuha (mouse) in fright; puts a value tag on the heart in love – Le le do-chaar aane, jigar mera pher de… And while doing so, he seems to be market driven, for, in a subsequent number, he raises the price tag to Paanch rupaiyah barah aana (in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi in 1959)! Majrooh appears quite a visionary, whether by inadvertence or deliberation, when he seeks and recommends, even though in a lighter vein, police help for the recovery of a heart lost, or maybe of a heartthrob – Chalo chalo thane!

Johnny Walker in Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji

A favourite of mine for over five decades.

Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji
Abhi-abhi yahin tha kidhar gaya ji
Kisi ki adaon pe mar gaya ji
Badi-badi akhiyon se darr gaya ji

Kahin maare darr ke chuha to nahin ho gaya
Kone-kone dekha na jaane kahan kho gaya
Yahan usse laaye kaahe ko bina kaam re
Jaldi-jaldi dhundho ke hone lagi shaam re

 Koi ulfat ki nazar zara pher de
Lele do-chaar aane jigar mera pher de
Aise nahin chori khulegi taqarar se
Chalo-chalo thane batayein jamadar se

 Sachchi-sachchi keh do dikhao nahin chaal re
Tune to nahin hai churaya mera maal re
Baatein hain nazar ki nazar se samjhaungi
Pehle pado paiyan to phir batalaungi

Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji Mr & Mrs 55 (1955) OP Nayyar/ Majrooh / Mohd Rafi and Geeta Dutt

Main Bambai ka babu

Johnny Walker completely dominates this quasi dance number despite the presence of a redoubtable Dilip and an irresistible Vyjayanthimala. It is a performance without a flaw whichever way we may look at it – the step movements, the body expressions, the understanding of the spirit and the sentiments of the song!

Johnny Walker had acknowledged that the movie Naya Daur was a very satisfying experience for him. He did not elaborate why, though one can guess that his role here was both different and important. It was not created to accommodate him. It was integral to the story. The Fourth Estate was an indispensable means to take the story further, to its climax. Johnny Walker represented the Fourth Estate. Johnny Walker’s satisfaction must also owe to the fact that the maker-director of the film- BR Chopra – betrayed deep insight as he delineated the role of the Press in the cinematic context. He gave due footage to it. And that was Johnny Walker’s opportunity. Chopra very well understood the Press’ proclivity for sensationalism.  He made allowance for it even though subtly.

Shakila and Johnny Walker in Aar Paar

Shakila and Johnny Walker in Aar Paar (Pic: Wikimedia)

The Fourth Estate still remains, in character, the same though in 1957, when the film was released, the reporting was by and large unbiased. India was then unipolar politically as the Congress, credited to win the country’s freedom, had an overwhelming presence. Nonetheless the song Main bambai ka babu carries a little leftist tilt. Sahir’s lyrics run down in the passing, apparently innocuously, those with means while applauding the proletariat:

Kuchh hain daulat waale kuchh hain taaqat waale

Asli waale wo hain arrey jo hain himmat waale

Sun lo, aji sun lo, ye jaadu ka tarana

Sahir also does not miss the opportunity to mention Roos and Cheen to allude to socialism.

Naya Daur has nine songs. Seven of them relate to the love story within the film.  Only two – Saathi haath badhaana and Main bambai ka babu – are direct links in the main story – the man versus the machine! While Saathi haath badhaana articulates the solidarity of a people against the common enemy that is the machine, Main bambai ka babu is an attempt to characterize the same as having the contours of a class struggle. Seen as such, Johnny Walker has a central role in the film. And Chopra was quite a visionary in his portrayal of a newspaper reporter – one who is thoroughly city-bred but has enough intellect and is also a great go-getter to cover a rural churning. No one would have responded better than Johnny Walker to this portrayal.

Main Bambai ka babu (Naya Daur, 1957) OP Nayyar/ Sahir / Mohd Rafi

Hum-tum jise kehta hai shaadi

Must thou preserve the whiff of freedom called bachelorhood?

Hum-tum jise kehta hai shaadi
You know hai poora barbadi …. the song seems borne on a whiff of free unhurried air. Give an ear to it and experience levitation – the kind of levitation that one experiences when a little tipsy! Johnny Walker seems personification of this song every which way! And he does not seem lip-syncing as he sings. He seems to have internalized Rafi; or should it be the other way? Kaifi’s words are interesting:

Jab marzi aao jab marzi jao, daalo kahin pe bhi dera
Sadkon pe gao ceetee bajao, kar do kahin bhi savera
Wah wah wah wah
Is he advocating licentiousness? Is his bachelor a hedonist? But this free floating soul seems so meekly submitting to the arm twisting of the lady, presumably his love! Love this song for its soothing pace. And also in contradistinction to the pace of other popular songs filmed on Johnny Walker.

Hum-tum jise kehta hai shaadi (Kaagaz Ke Phool, 1959) SD Burman / Shailendra / Mohd Rafi

Arre na na na na na na tauba tauba

This duet – I just love it – is akin to, in its impact, the Diwali crackers knitted serially, bursting without a pause! The duet lasts about four minutes.

A quintessential Johnny Walker, wearing a fedora hat, with his stylized Hindi courting an impishly elusive Noor! Johnny Walker is just brilliant, with his expressions in complete integrity with the fun and sentiments intended in Majrooh’s words. Just behold the changing facial expression of Johnny Walker – breaking into a reflexive fulfilling huge smile the moment Noor reclines her head against his heart! And Noor is a revelation. A brilliant actress with an engaging face, certainly better than her elder sister Shakila. No wonder Johnny Walker took her to be his wife. The concluding moments of the duet when Johnny Walker is ensnared to fall in the water pond behind reminds me of the final moments of the celebrated Shammi/Rafi song, Taareef karun kya uski: Johnny Walker’s fall is as good, as enthralling.

And if Johnny Walker and Noor were made for each other, so were Rafi and Geeta in complementing playback singing. Also , this duet seems a sibling of the later day duet Jaane kahan mera jigar; the synergic effort of the same team Johnny Walker, Rafi, Geeta, Majrooh and OP Nayyar though Yasmin replaced Noor.

Arre na na na na na na tauba tauba (Aar Paar , 1954) OP Nayyar/ Majrooh / Mohd Rafi and Geeta Dutt

Guru Dutt gave classics: Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. I will take the liberty of adding one more to it: Johnny Walker! Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, a teetotaler turns ‘Johnny’ Walker to intoxicate millions of his admirers! Was this irony – the dichotomy in what he actually was and what he projected himself as – destined? Yes, for he was here to entertain which he still does much after he is gone.

The persona of Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi aka Johnny Walker takes me to the opening line of the ghazal of Agha Hashra Kashmiri, immortalized by the singing of Saigal:

Ye tasarruf Allah Allah tere maikhaane mein hai

I perceive godliness at the stage you adorn!

Johnny Walker’s benign presence on stage, that healed a bruised humanity, seems like a divine bestowal!

The legacy of Johnny Walker has timelessness about it.

More to read

Amitabh Bachchan – He Still Towers Over the Others

Kishore Kumar The Actor: A Legend’s Journey Down the Years Part 1

Zindagi Bhar Nahin Bhoolegi: Bharat Bhushan’s Unforgettable Singer-Poet Musicals

Shyam: The Big Heart behind the Swashbuckling Hero

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Born in 1950, Vijay Kumar’s ancestral roots were in Uttar Pradesh. He took early schooling in Ludhiana, Punjab; secondary school and college education in Kanpur; a post-graduate in Statistics, and much later, obtained a law degree from the Delhi University. A government job brought him to Delhi, where he had the opportunity to handle national policies on education and culture. His last professional engagement was in the Ministry of Tourism, where he was the Director, heading the division responsible for the promotion of education and skills specific to the tourism sector. Vijay Kumar is a recipient of the National Hospitality Education Award 2011-12, in recognition of his contribution towards skill development initiatives for the tourism and hospitality sector. His early childhood was shaped by a familial milieu that was quasi rural, with songs and music for every occasion. His mother had a good memory for Kabir and Tulsidas and she recited them. This music sensitization mutated into a love for the Hindi film music as he grew.
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4 thoughts on “Johnny Walker: Comedy’s Humane Face

  • Bimal Chadha

    Excellent piece !
    I recall his roles were a threat to well established Heroes. And if there was a song he overpowered others.
    Personally as I knew him a very kind hearted human being with compassion

  • A Bharat

    Johnny Walker was the ultimate gentleman comedian whose personality rose much beyond his roles. He never imitated any comedian East or West nor could he be imitated. And his song usually used to top the charts in any film. I keep remembering his scenes with the Marathi speaking Kumkum in Guru Dutt’s CID and the Gujerati speaking Shubha Khote in Shekhar’s Aakhri Dao– they are immortal. And Guru Dutt never did a better picturisation than “Jaane Kahan Mera” in Mr & Mrs 55.

    Thank you Sri Vijay Kumar for choosing my favorite personality
    and writing such a detailed account about him and his songs.

    The choice of songs is also perfect.

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