The enduring appeal of Jaaved Jaaferi, arguably India’s first celebrity dancer and standup comic, who is back with yet another season of Boogie Woogie
Jaaved Jaaferi, the straight-faced bully of Boogie Woogie, decides, in one early episode of the popular dance show, to talk about water conservation. The audience is agog. Jaaved deadpans, and talks of a day when water will replace money as the currency for ransom: “Kidnappers will demand, ‘If you want to see your son/daughter alive, come behind Purana Mandir with ten buckets of water.’”
Here’s JJ at INKtalks 2012, cracking a Lalu joke about rapidly rising inflation: “Rabri Devi: ‘Laluji, what ij inphlason?’ Lalu Prasad Yadav: ‘Suniye (Listen), let me explain. When you are married, you are 36-28-38. Now, you are 42-37-48. Everything is more. Still, your value is less. That ij the inphlason.’”
The audience is in stitches. Jaaved— if you want to call him a veteran, do so at your own risk—makes comedy look like the easiest job in the world. Comedy and dance have served as the pillars of his work. He combined them in Boogie Woogie, that ultimate dance marathon of Indian TV which has kept him up and running. The show, the first dance reality show on Indian television before the glitzier and glossier Nach Baliye and Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa came along, ran from 1995 to 2010. Now, it is back after a gap of three years with a version titled Boogie Woogie Kids’ Championship.
“Jaaved is like the elder brother, an elder statesman on Boogie Woogie,” says Ravi Behl, one of the three faces of the show along with Jaaved and his brother Naved. “People look forward to seeing him. If he’s there, it’s guaranteed fun,” he says. Jaaved’s appeal lies in his cosy versatility. “He can do a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of sad that he hasn’t yet got his proper due,” Ravi bemoans, adding, “I’m still waiting for that surprise film to come by and give him the boost he needs.”
When Jaaved himself looks back at the long slog of his career, he likes to believe that some things were just not meant to be. Hero roles, for one. He was convinced, early on, of his ‘hero material’ worth. He had all the talent— exceptional dancing skills, a booming baritone that recalled a young Big B, and not to mention, his deadpan comic timing. In 1985, Subhash Ghai sent word that he’d like him to play a villain in Meri Jung: ‘a villain who dances’. That was strange, because usually in a Hindi film, especially of those days, the hero got to sing and dance as an assertion of his heroism. “Anil Kapoor was the film’s hero,” says Jaaved. “I was the bad guy. But I had an item number of my own: Bol Baby Bol.”
Agreeing to a villainous role—not the film, he makes it clear—was his biggest regret, a “bad decision”, as it were. The industry can be cruel. It loves nothing more than reducing you to brackets. His father, Jagdeep, came to Bollywood to be a hero but ended up as a comedian.
The mystic in Jaaved also tells him to take whatever life throws at one and move on. “After that,” Jaaved goes on, “people started looking at me not as a hero, but as a villain. Today, it’s like: either he can do comedy or dance.” He offers various theories about why he couldn’t make it as a hero.
“I looked okay, I think,” he says. “Govinda came one year after me but he came in as a lead—that’s the point. As a dancer, his style was massy. Mine was more Westernised, more athletic and aggressive. I was bluntly told: ‘Yeh sab nahin chalega yahan. Public ko simple mangta hai (This won’t work here. People want simple stuff).’” Those were the days of all-powerful secretaries. “Like Dad, I wasn’t good at selling myself,” he says. “Though Dad was in the industry, I couldn’t speak the language of ‘Darling, Sirji.’ I was a PR disaster. Dad did try to push me. He tried to find me a secretary—the wise men, you know. But as they say, some are wise, some otherwise.”
Jaaved who was a choreographer, stand-up and theatre actor in his college days, went on a film-signing spree, including one in which a 60-plus Dev Anand greedily snagged the hero’s part for himself while offering the 26-year- old Jaaved a side role. “In that film, there were four young heroes,” he says of 1989’s Lashkar, “I had two solo songs. Dev saab had a family song. Nobody else had any songs.”
After that, Jaaved complains, “I never again got a ‘solo lead.’ It was always, ‘One of the leads.” His “senses of humour”—to borrow a Binglish (Bihari-English) phrase from his Crocodile Dundee character in Salaam Namaste—is on full display when he says, “The only lead role I got was in Jajantaram Mamantaram (a children’s film inspired by Gulliver’s Travels) which did pretty well. Technically, I can claim that I gave a hit as a leading man. If not a 100 crore blockbuster, I can at least say that I’ve a 100 per cent success record as a hero.”
But of late, offers have swelled. Salaam Namaste was definitely a motivator. He gave his character Feroz Khan’s style—a cowboy-gone-wrong swagger and wannabe outback Australian accent. “Eggjactly,” he says, mimicking the character that surprised everyone except Jaaved himself. For Indra Kumar’s Dhamaal, he dropped his baritone drawl to suit that of man-child Manav. Jaaved believes people with a strong voice take themselves too seriously and that very few experiment for fear of being mocked. “People with a good voice are basically very conscious. They want to use it to their maximum base potential. I, on the other hand, feel if you take your voice too seriously you lose out on the character,” he says.
Jaaved acknowledges his mimicry skills. “But I’m a principal actor,” he says, without bothering to explain further. Let’s see who all he can impersonate with flourish: Sanjay Dutt, Dharmendra and Ajit, to name a few. But there are some he can’t seem to get a hang on. “Aamir Khan, I can’t do, yet. Hrithik Roshan thoda aa jata hai (Hrithik Roshan, only to an extent). SRK and Akshay Kumar, I can do. But I don’t go out of my way. It’s not as if I sit down and do homework for it. It’s not my profession. I’m not out to be prove that I’m a better mimic than X, Y or Z.”
Mimicry is a handy skill. “It’s like being a good sportsman. A sportsman can not only run well but he can also ride a horse and dance. Similarly, every actor has to be a mimic at heart. Bachchan saab changed his voice for Agneepath and Paa. Do you think he invented those voices? There must have been some reference point in his head and he simply followed it.” Jaaved has a separate following for the Hindi version of the Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle, in which he grafted Dilip Kumar’s voice on the show’s leader General Tani. “When I’m doing mimicry, I don’t disrespect anybody. I draw my lines,” he says.
As a comedian, Javed sticks to Dad’s mantra: ‘Loud comedy works with the masses.’ “Dad says that in India subtlety doesn’t work. The uneducated don’t understand dialogue, so don’t play with language. They only understand and react to action. Groucho Marx was extremely witty, but how many people know him as opposed to, say, a Chaplin? You have to be educated to understand the Marx Brothers’ puns. There’s a Marx Brothers’ joke where a cop asks Groucho, “A hermit, eh? Then, why’s the table set for four?” Groucho replies, “That’s nothing. My alarm clock is set for eight.’ Unless you put your mind to it, you won’t get it.”
Jaaferi, who speaks rather solemnly in person, says his public persona is misleading. “I’m much more of a thinking person than people think,” he says. Perhaps, that’s why he has been wanting to turn director for the past 15 years. “We’d announced a film called Dance Master in 1990. We had a location in mind in Worli. Sangeeth and Santosh Sivan were part of it. The financiers backed out.” When he saw the recent dance hit ABCD: Any Body Can Dance, he realised that was exactly the film he had envisioned. “But that’s gone now. I’ll think of something else,” he says.