Article

How Johnny Walker got his name


The story of Rajinikanth's rise from bus conductor to superstar is well known. But long before Rajini, another bus conductor achieved fame and fortune simply by being himself. Johnny Walker was the king of comedy in one of the most serious socialist phases of Indian cinema. His glory and fame are intertwined with his name, which was an inside joke by Guru Dutt.

Shriram Iyengar

Badruddin Qazi was one of the most popular conductors in Mumbai's famed BEST transport service. It is not a familiar name for film buffs in the city. But say Johnny Walker and everyone remembers a beaming face that lit up the screen with its entry. In a period when Guru Dutt was at his sombre best, his life and films were a little lighter due to the presence of one of his best friends, Johnny Walker. 

A teetotaller, Badruddin Qazi, would never have dreamt of the importance a famous brand of Scotch whisky was to have in his life. The son of a mill worker, Qazi tried his hand at several jobs through his youth before settling in as a conductor with the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport undertaking, or BEST. An avid film buff, he would spend his spare time sneaking into movies, sometimes taking up roles as an extra on several films.

One of the many films he took up was SK Ojha's Hulchul (1951). Among the cast of the film, which starred Dilip Kumar and Nargis in the leading roles, was Balraj Sahni. A talented writer himself, Sahni would often watch the extras gather around Badruddin Qazi while he set out a full exhibition of his wit and comic timing. Sahni took a liking to the man, and promised him a role in the next film he wrote. 

The role did not come easily, or early. Often, Qazi would spot the writer during his travels on the bus, or at sets, and ask him about his promise. Balraj Sahni had just found his footing as a writer, joining the team of an upcoming director named Guru Dutt. He had been assigned to pen the script for Baazi (1951). In fact, Sahni had even written down the character of a drunkard with the comedian in mind. The only problem was convincing the director. A notoriously fickle man, Guru Dutt was never one to accept a suggestion without reason. So, the writer and the comedian hatched a plan. 

A couple of days later, as Guru Dutt sat down with Chetan Anand, Dev Anand, and Balraj Sahni for a reading of the script, the office broke out in an uproar. A drunk had wandered into the corridors, and on his first chance, burst straight into the meeting room. Before any of the assembly could react, the drunk jumped into an illogical conversation with Dev Anand. Flustered, the star could neither react nor make anything out of it. Guru Dutt watched the whole episode with glee and began laughing at the antics of the drunk.

Taking a cue, Balraj Sahni stepped in and asked the drunk to stop the act, and do a salaam to the honoured guests of the show. Sahni then went on to explain how the drunk was actually not drunk at all, and how the entire thing was an act to get a role in Guru Dutt's film.

It was Guru Dutt who then came up with the moniker Johnny Walker, based on his favourite brand of whisky. Soon, Johnny Walker became one of the blue-eyed boys of Guru Dutt's team which included Abrar Alvi, Raj Khosla, VK Murthy, and Balraj Sahni. In an interview later, Johnny Walker said, "A comedian depends mainly on three things, a good writer, perfect timing, and his own inventiveness to transform ordinary scenes."

Few understood this better than Guru Dutt himself. Abrar Alvi, in the book Ten Years with Guru Dutt is quoted as saying that Guru Dutt trusted the comedian enough to give him a scene and say, "Show us what you can do with it." 

For someone who was stereotyped as a comedian, Johnny Walker was much more. Such was his personality and charm that he would often deliver performances more memorable than the other supporting cast. From the friendly tel-maalish wallah to the rascal romeo on the streets singing about the city, Johnny Walker was the common man with some wit. His friends would range from shoeshine boys at the railway stations to stars like Dev Anand and Amitabh Bachchan. They arrived to watch him dance, smile, and make a joke out of the reality they lived.

Yet, the biggest joke the comedian cracked was an inside one. A joke where a teetotaller took the name of the most famous whisky brand to immortalise his fame.