An influential Indian comedian who has been cited as an inspiration by many other comics, Johnny Lever has acted in approximately 300 films and has won two Filmfare Awards for Best Performance in a Comic Role for his work in Deewana Mastana (1997) and Dulhe Raja (1998). Hailing from a humble background, he had to drop out of school and started working odd jobs. Possessing a knack for imitating Hindi film stars, he went on to learn the craft from his mentor Pratap Jani and mimicry artist Ram Kumar. Employed with Hindustan Lever in Bombay, he would entertain his co-workers with his comic acts. This earned him the nickname Johnny Lever – a name he would adopt for his professional career on stage and in films. Performing in musical shows (orchestras), he achieved popularity with the Kalyanji-Anandji group. His talent was noticed by actor-filmmaker Sunil Dutt, who offered him his first film, Dard Ka Rishta (1982). Many films were to follow, such as Love 86 (1986), Jalwa (1987), Tezaab (1988), Jaadugar (1989), Chaalbaaz (1989), Kishen Kanhaiya (1990), Khiladi (1992), Baazigar (1993), Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), Karan Arjun (1995), Raja Hindustani (1996), Koyla (1997), Mard (1998), International Khiladi (1999), Kunwara (2000), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (2001), Awara Pagal Deewana (2002), Andaaz (2003), Deewane Hue Pagal (2005), Phir Hera Pheri (2006), Race (2008), De Dana Dan (2009), Golmaal 3 (2010), Yamla Pagla Deewana (2011), Khiladi 786 (2012), Dilwale (2015), Golmaal Again (2017), Houseful 4 (2019), and Coolie No.1 (2020). His mimicry/ comedy album, Hansee Ke Hungame, which was released in the 1980s became a hit in India as well as internationally, and he also featured in popular commercials. He has also been nominated for 13 Filmfare Awards.
He was born John Prakash Rao Janumala on 14 August 1957 in Kanigiri, Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh. The eldest of his siblings consisting of three sisters and another brother, the comedian Jimmy Moses, he grew up in Bombay’s King’s Circle area of Dharavi. He studied at the Andhra Education Society English High School till the seventh grade. However, he had to quit school due to financial problems and helped supplement the family income by selling pens and other articles on the streets of the city. As his father worked as an operator at the Hindustan Unilever plant, Johnny also joined the factory as a laborer for six years. He was inspired by watching comedians like Johnny Walker, Kishore Kumar, and Mehmood in films, and mimicry artists like Dinesh Hingoo and Nerella Venumadhav on stage. Gifted with the knack for mimicking famous Hindi film stars of the time and dancing to hit film songs, he entertained his co-workers. The story has it that once, during a Hindustan Unilever company function, he mimicked a few senior officers. It was apparently what led to his acquiring the name Johnny Lever, the name he decided to use when he entered films as well.
Making his mark in the field of stand-up comedy, he performed at musical shows (orchestras). He joined the Tabassum Hit Parade and later moved to the popular group of music director duo Kalyanji-Anandji. Quitting his job at HLL in the year 1981 to focus on shows and world tours with the Kalyanji-Anandji troupe, one of his first big tours was with Amitabh Bachchan in 1982. He was noticed by Sunil Dutt, who, impressed by his talent and potential, offered him his film Dard Ka Rishta. Even before this, he had been selected for Tum Par Hum Qurban, a film made by TV and stage compere Tabassum, in which she launched her son Hoshang Govil. The film went on to be released in 1985. Johnny Lever was already popular on account of his comedy cassette, Hasi Ke Hangame. He also featured in commercials such as for Kachua Chhap incense, directed by Shekhar Kapur. His talent was further recognized in the charity show Hope 86 in 1986, as he performed in front of leading members of the Hindi film industry.
Lever acted in many films over the decades including Tezaab (1988), Kasam (1988), and Kishen Kanhaiya (1990). He created several memorable comic characters on screen, each with particular mannerisms, quirks, and styles of dialogue delivery. His Babulal in Baazigar was the head-servant of Chopra Palace. In one scene, he decides to make a special tea for the potential groom’s family. Confident about the task at hand, though he has never made a tea in his life, he ends up serving the guests tea minus tea leaves! As Hiralal in Judaai (1997), he asks his wife on their wedding night to sing a song for him. She utters the words “Abba Dabba Jabba”. Three unsuccessful attempts later, he realizes that he has been duped by the bride’s father into marrying a girl who can only speak the three aforementioned words. As Chotta Chattri in Awara Pagal Deewana he plays a goon with a stammer, while in Aamdani Atthanni Kharcha Ruppaiya(2001) he plays Appu Khote, who is shown to belittle his wife and praise himself in all things. His foolishness is proved when he orders his wife to light the cigarette he has placed in his mouth—only he has unwittingly placed a firecracker between his lips…and the consequences are disastrous! As Pappi Bhai in Golmaal 3, he is a goon with sudden memory loss. A scene in the film shows Pappi Bhai explaining to his cronies how he managed to steal the jewel in a running car as they escape the police. Suddenly and without warning, his memory fails him, and he is simply unable to fathom why they are fleeing. In Dulhe Raja (1998), he portrayed the role of Kader Khan’s assistant to great effect. The camaraderie between the actors including Govinda, was very successful onscreen. In Khiladi (1992), he improvised on the script given to him for this Abbas-Mustan directorial. Knowing the difference between a Kannada accent and a Telugu accent, he tried a Malayali accent for his coconut-seller character, which became very successful.
Johnny Lever has also acted in films in other languages, such as the Tulu film Rang (2014), the Tamil film Anbirkku Alavillai (2011), and has also essayed a special appearance in the Telugu film Criminal (1995) directed by Mahesh Bhatt.
Winning the Filmfare Award twice, namely for his performances in Deewana Mastana (1997) and Dulhe Raja (1998), he has garnered no less than 13 Filmfare nominations in the Best Performance in a Comic Role category. These include Koi... Mil Gaya (2003), Humraaz (2002), Ajnabee (2001), Kunwara (2000), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Anari No. 1 (1999), Dulhe Raja (1998), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Deewana Mastana (1997), Judaai (1997), Raja Hindustani (1996), Karan Arjun (1995), and Baazigar (1993).
Lever’s stints on television include an episode in the sitcom Zabaan Sambhalke as Johnny Utolandand in 1993, followed by his own show on Zee TV, Johny Aala Re in 2006. He appeared as a judge on the stand-up reality show Comedy Circus, and also featured in Partners (also known as Partners Trouble Ho Gayi Double), a buddy cop comedy series, in which he played Commissioner Googol Chatterjee.
He has served as President of the Cine and TV Artist Association (CINTAA) and also the Mimicry Association of Mumbai (MAAM).
Alongside a busy film career, he has performed at thousands of live shows across the world. In one of his most memorable live performances, he impersonated Michael Jackson at the 1999 Filmfare Awards.
Married to Sujatha Lever in 1984, the couple has two children Jamie Lever and Jesse Lever. Jamie Lever has followed her father’s footsteps as an actress and comedian.
Johnny Lever remains a popular actor and artist and is considered by many to be the first stand-up comic of our times.