Article Hindi

The comical, the witty and the satirical: Remembering the many facets of IS Johar


On his birth centenary today, we look at the multi-hyphenate talent of writer, actor, director, producer Inder Sen Johar.

As Gasim in David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Who do you think is a good politician?
One who shakes your hand before elections and your confidence afterwards.

What is the difference between an average man and a playboy like you?
An average man gives a girl a present while a playboy gives her a past.​

This witty exchange was one of several from the incredibly talented actor, director, producer and writer IS Johar, when he was inviting questions from readers of Filmfare magazine, offering tongue-in-cheek answers.

Inder Sen Johar was born in what is now Pakistan and by sheer happenstance came to work in the Bombay film industry. As the story goes, Johar had come from Lahore to Patiala for a wedding, but the Partition of India took place and the ensuing violence prevented him from returning home. Interested in films, he moved to Bombay and made his acting debut with Roop K Shorey’s Ek Thi Larki (1949). The film was a big hit and Johar, who had also written the film, found himself in high demand.

In the course of his career, Johar became a director and producer and acted in almost 60 films. He mostly acted in films which he had written and directed, the first of which was Shrimatiji (1952). Starring Shyama and Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s brother, the film was a success and helped to establish Johar as a filmmaker.

The social melodrama Nastik (1954) was a story closer to home as in it the writer-director boldly explored the mayhem that accompanied Partition. The film offered a scathing critique of organized religion and its gatekeepers. Although his craft was not as sophisticated as that of some of his peers, Johar had the ability to depict serious concerns in his unique style.

With partner-in-comedy Mehmood

In the 1960s, Johar teamed up with the comedian Mehmood and made Johar-Mehmood In Goa (1965), in which two brothers separated at birth are part of the resistance against Portuguese rule and execute a series of activities against the state. This was followed by Johar-Mehmood In Hong Kong (1971), in which Mehmood played three roles — those of Mahesh, Miss Dhanwanti and Panditji. The two actors complemented each other well with Johar’s trademark poker face becoming the perfect foil to Mehmood’s exaggerated antics. Other titles with his name in them were Johar In Kashmir (1966), Johar In Bombay (1967) and Mera Naam Johar (1968).

Despite being immensely talented, it is unfortunate that IS Johar did not really get his due recognition as an actor in India. He was amongst the first to star in international projects and was nominated for a BAFTA for Harry Black (1958) in 1959. 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. On home turf, he won the Filmfare award for Best Comedian for his role in Johny Mera Naam (1970).

The fact that Johar was thoroughly anti-establishment can be gauged from the frequent weaving in of political issues in his films. But with films like Joi Bangla Desh (1971), a satirical military drama on the battle for freedom of the newly formed nation, and Nasbandi (1978), a sharp satire on the mass sterilization drive initiated by the government of Indira Gandhi, he took the critique a notch higher.

Even in the plays written by him, Johar is merciless in his attack on those in power. In a play on Bhutto, he takes on Pakistan's once powerful prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as well as on Gen Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the man who ousted Bhutto and had him hanged after a charade of a trial.

In another play titled The Coronation, Johar describes the ‘coronation’ of Rajiv Gandhi, making then prime minister Indira Gandhi and others around her the butt of his political satire.

Although we now remember IS Johar mostly for his comical roles, Hindi cinema has never again seen the likes of the incredibly talented maverick IS Johar.

Inder Sen Johar died on 10 March 1984.

Correction, 18 February 2020: IS Johar's full name was Inder Sen Johar. An earlier version of the report gave his name as Inderjeet Singh Johar.