Johnny Walker

Comedy star of Bollywood film
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The Independent Online

Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi (Johnny Walker), actor: born Indore, India 1924; married (three sons, three daughters); died Bombay 29 July 2003.

With his highly mobile face, pencil-thin moustache, squeaky voice and uncanny sense of timing, the comedian Johnny Walker entertained generations of Indian cinema-goers for nearly three decades. He was named after the famous Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker by the director who gave him his first break in Bollywood, India's film capital city of Bombay.

Walker acted in nearly 300 films, tickling audiences with brilliant performances that remain unequalled today. One of his most memorable roles was in Pyassa (The Thirsty One, 1957) in which he plays a traditional Indian head masseur who scours Bombay's streets for unsuspecting customers on whom he unleashes his dubious skills and comic antics.

Walker's roles varied from the whining urbanite singing "Bombay you are my life" in CID in 1956 to a malicious office gossip in Sanjog ("Matrimonial match") a few years later. He contorted his features, moved his lithe body and banked on his sense of timing and inherent wit to provide comic relief the like of which Indian cinema had never seen before. To the delight of all his directors, the semi-literate Walker frequently improvised with great success and, unlike latter-day comedians, steered clear of roles that belittled people or mocked accents, cultures and beliefs.

Walker was born Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi into a poor Muslim household in Indore in central India in 1924. He left school at the age of 14 when his father moved to Bombay after the textile mill where he worked closed down. Qazi was forced into becoming a bus conductor to make money for his 15-member household.

Despite his penury, Qazi believed it was his God-given duty to make people laugh. He worshipped comedians like Charlie Chaplin and fantasised about joining the film industry. In between shifts, during which he would entertain his bus passengers with comical antics, Qazi would sneak off to Bollywood's film sets to watch the well-known stars at work.

On one of these forays he did an impromptu impression for the renowned actor and screenwriter Balraj Sahni who was scripting Baazi ("Gambit") for the Bollywood film-maker Guru Dutt. Sahni liked what he saw and arranged a meeting between the budding actor and Dutt. The following morning Qazi, a teetotaller, staggered in for his appointment ostensibly drunk, unable to focus, walk or talk straight. Dutt was so impressed that he christened him Johnny Walker and gave him a role in Baazi, released in 1951. In an interview years later Walker admitted that, without this break, he might have continued entertaining bus passengers for the rest of his days.

After Baazi, Walker's credentials as a comedian were established and led to memorable roles in hits like Chori Chori ("Quietly, Stealthily", 1956), Madhumati ("Honey bee", 1958), Naya Daur ("New Wave", 1957), Mere Mehboob ("My Sweetheart") and Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam ("The master, the wife and the slave", 1962).

Walker could also squeeze pathos into his roles, as he did in the classic film Anand (1970) where he plays a stage producer who is befriended by the dying hero. He has some funny lines in the film but, on learning of the hero's death, mourns with such emotion that impressionable Indian audiences were moved to tears. "Give the credit to the writer and the director," Walker said modestly.

He retired officially in 1983, but his last film, 14 years after retiring, was the relatively lacklustre Chachi 420 ("The Crooked Aunt") in 1997, a bad imitation of the successful Hollywood comedy Mrs Doubtfire. In his later years, Walker became disenchanted with Bollywood's work culture and particularly with the lack of "pure" comedians who could entertain without resorting to vulgarity or mocking stereotypes. "These are cheap gimmicks. It is easy to make people laugh by being gauche and crude," Walker said.

Walker bemoaned the fact that the director's role, which in his days was paramount, had declined. He said,

We were in awe of him and he extracted the best from us. Today with dance directors, fight directors, art directors and directors of photography, the director's role is compartmentalised. The stars no longer respect him.

Bollywood's work ethic, too, had changed. Walker, even at the height of his fame, was expected to be on set every day, fully made up at 9am, irrespective of whether he was required or not, and had to stay on till work was completed. Today's stars dictate the schedules, rarely ever turning up on time, sometimes for days on end.

Off-screen Walker was a serious, sensitive person. Despite his high earnings, he lived simply. Walker maintained that all any individual requires is a house to live in, a telephone to stay in touch with friends and a car to move around in. "I have all three, plus a healthy, wonderful family. I am content," he said.

Kuldip Singh