I.S. Johar — the fun-loving, unconventional actor who became India’s first BAFTA nominee

Johar might be remembered for his comical roles, but he was also an astute political satirist who spared none – Gandhi family or Zia ul-Haq.

Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur
Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur

What did you get from imposing the Emergency?

What did you get from sterilising us, playing our flute?

What did you get from pushing boat down the drain?”

These lines from the movie Nasbandi (1978) delivered by I.S. Johar, a year after the Emergency, were iconic for their blunt criticism of the Congress government that led to a ban on its screening. Johar might be remembered mostly for his comical roles, but he was also an astute political satirist who spared none. In a play, The Coronation, he took a dig at the Gandhi family by calling out the ‘coronation’ of Rajiv Gandhi, after his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Inder Sen Johar, famously known as I.S Johar, was not only anti-government — he was also against all political despots. In his play, Bhutto, he mocked General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977. His love for ridicule could also be gauged from his films like Joi Bangladesh (1971), where he depicts the story of the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in a form that blended both satire and comedy.

In the course of his career spanning three decades, Johar worked as a director, producer and actor in almost 60 films. He mostly acted in films that he had written and directed himself. His interest in films took him to Bombay where he made his acting debut with Roop K Shorey’s Ek Thi Larki (1949), for which he wrote the script.

The film, starring Motilal and Meena Shorey, went down in history for the song Lara lappa lai rakh da, which was one of Lata Mangeshkar’s first major hits and was ingrained in popular consciousness. But it was Nastik – the 1954-social melodrama rooted in Partition  – which he wrote, acted and directed that distinguished him in Bollywood.

“Look at what happened to your universe, God

How much the man has changed

Followers of Ram and Rahim, making traps of deception.”

Nastik was centered around a man who loses faith in God and religion when his parents die in the riots following Partition. The story of a priest refusing to save the protagonist’s dying brother is beautifully captured in the song above, penned by lyricist Kavi Pradeep. The movie was a fierce criticism against gatekeepers of religion and the idea of God, while vividly showing the social and political ramifications of the Partition that had personally affected Johar. It was, after all, Partition that led him to the path of pursuing a career in acting.


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I.S. Johar’s acting journey

Johar was born in Talagang (then British India), Chakwal in the state of Punjab, Pakistan, on 16 February 1920. He secured a Master’s degree in Economics and Politics and later went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Law. He was recognised as one of the most educated actors of his time. In 1947, when riots broke out during the India-Pakistan partition, he was visiting Patiala for a wedding and couldn’t return to his native place. He took up work in Jalandhar for a while before finally moving to Bombay and entering the film industry. The turn of events was all pure chance.

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, Johar appeared in some very successful movies: Shart (1954), Nagin (1954), Hum Sab Chor Hain (1956), Bewakoof (1960), Bheegi Raat (1965), Shagird (1967). He was the first Indian actor to earn a BAFTA nomination for his performance in Harry Black (1958) in the ‘Best Actor’ category. However, he lost the prize to British actor Trevor Howard. His other international films included David Lean‘s magnum opus Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), in which he played Gasim, and John Guillermin‘s Death On The Nile (1978), based on a book by Agatha Christie. He also featured in Maya, a United States television series and was part of a few Italian movies. Back home, he was honoured with Filmfare Best Comedian Award in 1971 for the movie Johny Mera Naam, in which he played the role of a comic detective.

He made his directorial debut with Shrimati Ji (1952) and wrote Afsana (1951), which was one of the earliest instances of the dual-role-mistaken-identity trope in Bollywood. He also performed in a series of comedies, influenced by the movies of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby style road comedies: Johar Mehmood in Goa (1965) and Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong (1971). The legendary Bollywood director Yash Chopra was once Johar’s assistant director.


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An actor against conventions

Johar was one of the most outrageous people to have come out of the Hindi film industry. His biting wit and caustic tongue were not just restricted to politics. In a 1983 interview given to now-defunct Sunday magazine, he talked about his adolescent experiences and sexual adventures with such candour, it can leave many people unsettled even today.

“Even without mystic experience, I was qualified to guide them because I was a suppressed sex patient myself all my life with symptoms of wet dreams, homosexuality, womanising, masturbation, impotence and even incest. The worst was my uncontrollable sexual daydreams in which I infused life into the pictures and statues of beautiful gods and goddesses, by my bhakti, to screw them,” Johar wrote this bold confession in an article titled, “My Sexual Nirvana”.

Johar’s first marriage was to former actress Rama Bains in 1943 in Lahore and ended in divorce in 1949. He later went on to marry three more times. His two children from his first marriage — a son named Anil Johar and a daughter named Ambika Johar — also entered the Hindi film industry. Johar was a fun-loving, lifelong liberal who was disparaging towards anything conventional in his movies and explicit in his off-screen conversations and memoirs.

He died in Mumbai on 10 March 1984 at age of 64.

(Edited by Monami Gogoi)