Johnny Walker Brought On The Laughs - In Buses & Movie Theatres
Hindi cinema’s greatest comedian, Johnny Walker would have turned 117 today (November 11). The man, who brought smiles to many faces, lived a life of hardships and struggles.
Walker was born in the winter of 1920 to a Muslim family in Indore. He was the second of the 10 children and his parents named him Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi. His father was a mill worker and when the mill closed down, the family had no option but to travel to what was then Bombay in search of work. In a new city, the father knocked on many doors but did not find a job. His wife struggled to feed the children and it is said that five died out of poverty and malnutrition.
Jammaluddin Kazi was just 10 years old when he quit school to take responsibility for the family. He did odd jobs, sometimes walked long distances to sell ice candy to children outside school, and sometimes even hawked fruits and vegetables door to door. Sometimes, he would peddle stationery on the pavement.
After a long wait, Kazi managed to get a secure, permanent job with the BEST service as a bus conductor. His posting depot was Dadar and his family finally heaved a sigh of relief.
Kazi loved his job and entertained his passengers while on duty. He had not revealed to his family that he was a big movie buff and idolised the then superstar Noor Mohammed Charlie. Kazi would narrate dialogues from Noor Mohammed’s films while punching tickets for his passengers, and they made sure never to miss the bus because they loved his style and spirit.
Kazi loved his job and his audience and firmly believed that someday, somebody would take notice of him and put him on the big screen beside his favorite actor. His wish came true, although the details of the incident are unclear.
Story number one says that Kazi worked as an extra in films on Sundays and was spotted by the great Balraj Sahni entertaining the crowd actors of Hulchul during a lunch break. Sahni liked what he saw and dragged Kazi to Guru Dutt and asked him to repeat what he was doing outside. Kazi did as he was told and Guru Dutt confirmed him for a role in Baazi.
The second story is that Kazi, who had done small roles in 20 odd films, was desperate for the big break. He heard that Guru Dutt was looking for an actor to play a drunkard in his next film and gatecrashed the latter’s office pretending to be drunk. Dutt, initially taken aback, was impressed with the young actor and signed him on the spot. The film was Baazi and Kazi was given a new name, Johnny Walker.
Post Baazi, Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker did a number of films together - Aar Paar (1954), Mr & Mrs 55 (1955) and CID (1956). It was Guru Dutt who taught Johnny Walker to ad lib on screen. His Aye dil hain mushkil jeena yahan picturised on Johnny Walker became a rage and distributors insisted that a song be picturised on him in every film.
As a result there was All line clear in Chori Chori, Sar jo tera chakray in Pyaasa, Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji in Mr & Mrs 55, Main Bambai ka babu in Naya Daur and Jungle mein morr naacha in Madhumati. And the audience waited for his songs to come.
Johnny Walker was now working with all the top banners like Navketan and HS Rawail, but his relationship with Guru Dutt was personal and special. They always improvised on scenes together, which is the reason he was terrific in all Guru Dutt films. It is said that Guru Dutt would give him a free hand in rehearsals and Johhny bhai would do something new in all the takes. Guru Dutt would look up at the light boys to check if his crew was finding it funny and then retain the best in the take.
He did not look it but Johnny Walker was a romantic at heart - which is why his romantic scenes were so effective. One day he met his future wife Noorjahan, sister of actress Shakeela, during a film shooting and it was love at first sight for both. Noorjahan’s parents were not for the wedding, so he encouraged her to elope with him and conducted a midnight nikaah. The year was 1955 and the couple never looked back.
Johnny Walker was a man of many talents. He could play all kinds of roles but people wanted to watch him as a funny man always. The forthcoming years were filled with promise. There was Pyaasa and Naya Daur (1957), Madhumati (1958), Dil Diya Dard Liya (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963) with next generation superstar Rajendra Kumar. Life was on a roll when came the sudden and sad news of the death his friend and favourite director, Guru Dutt. He had lost a soul mate and cinema would never be the same without him.
Gradually, as cinema changed and comedy became all about double meaning dialogues, as big stars finalised proposals, actors like Johnny Walker knew their time was up. He now shared screen with Dharmendra in Raja Jaani, Sunil Dutt in Zakhmee and featured in more multi-starrers in the ’80s like Shaan and Mazdoor, it became evident that his heart was clearly not in it.
Johnny Walker opted out of the big screen and also out of the public eye. This was the time when he sold his Bandra bungalow and shifted to Oshiwara. Producers kept approaching him for films but he refused and stayed away from the arc lights for 14 long years. He spent time with his family, his friends and his business.
In 1997, Kamal Haasan brought him back in Chachi 420 in a character that called for him. He played a make-up artist who moves with his bottle of alcohol. From Baazi in the ’50s to Chachi 420, Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi had travelled a full circle. Popular on screen as an alcoholic, Johnny Walker was a devout Muslim and a strict teetotaller in real life.
A simple man, he had simple dreams for his family - dreams of security and stability. In 2003, when he breathed his last, it was a normal day and suddenly he was gone. He was 79 years old.
I had met him just once when my editor had sent me to interview the veteran. I think he agreed to see me in a weak moment and was extremely courteous when I visited his Persian carpet-layered home. He sat before me for a long time, eyes down cast as I waited for him to initiate a conversation. He didn’t. He did not smile either. When his man-in-waiting brought me sherbet, he merely raised his hand and signalled me to drink which I did out of confusion. When I finished, he stood up and did salaam, which fortunately I understood was a signal for me to leave. I did.
Today as I write this piece, I wonder how he communicates with his Allah - probably with just a salaam and then downcast eyes.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. You can follow her on Twitter @bhawanasomaaya)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 11 November 2016. It is now being republished to mark Johnny Walker’s birth anniversary.)