Moving out of the periphery of pop culture consciousness, Jaaved Jaaferi hits the reset button again as the star of Monsoon Wedding’s recent musical
Shaikh Ayaz (MUMBAI MIRROR; August 13, 2017)

"The point is, I was the last one on.” Jaaved Jaaferi’s booming voice, instantly recognisable thanks to his various avatars over the years as a film actor, funnyman, dancer and TV host, ricochets in his 17th floor apartment in Lokhandwala complex. “They had three workshops over the past year and a half. Everybody knew what they had to do. I didn’t. So, when I landed in New York I was totally raw, and, kind of, nervous. This is the first time I was doing a full-fledged musical. Eight shows a week.” He feigns exhaustion.

Jaaferi has recently returned from the US, having acted in the musical version of Mira Nair’s 2001 cult film Monsoon Wedding. The musical premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and will travel to Broadway next year. Last seen on Hindi screens as a flamboyant baddie opposite Hrithik Roshan in Bang Bang! three years ago, Jaaferi plays Lalit in the musical, the role of the bride’s father, made memorable by Naseeruddin Shah in the original.

To conjure Lalit, Jaaferi didn’t revisit Monsoon Wedding. He wanted to avoid “the whole Naseer bhai influence.” Instead, he says he channelled his inner Tevye, the Yiddish daddy from his favourite Hollywood musical, Fiddler On The Roof. As an actor, he usually starts with a point of reference — “to refer your character to something in real life.” For instance, in the 2007 comedy Dhamaal — his most prominent mainstream success yet, alongside 2005’s Salaam Namaste — he dropped his baritone completely to assume the voice of a 10-yearold.

His character Manav was a dungaree-clad, beret-sporting man-child with a penchant for getting his friends and himself into trouble. “When you play a character you try to make a new person, which obviously incorporates the way he walks, thinks, and the voice. For Manav, I took on the demeanour of Laurel & Hardy and the slouch. I gave him a lisp because we had to make him a weak character,” he says, forgetting to mention that so much of his performance in that film is more an ode to Mr Bean. Similarly, the cowboy of Salaam Namaste had shades of Crocodile Dundee and Feroz Khan.

Explaining his approach, especially with impersonation (he balks at the term “mimicry”) he says, “You have to caricature it a bit. If RK Laxman draws Mr Bachchan, he will probably extend his nose or make his eyes droop. A cartoonist takes a prominent feature of a personality and pushes it a little to make it funny.” A man of many talents, Jaaferi calls himself a keen observer of life and people. “It’s all about your power of observation. It’s like having a database. You can take from whoever you want, but make it your own. When A R Rahman takes a riff from Michael Jackson, he makes a new song.” Jaaferi has a madcap mimetic gift. He is devastatingly funny. But that’s reserved only for the camera.

In person, Jaaferi is very, very serious — even mournful. “It’s assumed that a comedian has to be funny all the time. From Chaplin to Johnny Walker saab to Mehmood saab, they were all serious people.” Spend some time with the Janus-faced star and a portrait emerges of a man who has the supple flexibility to draw from his bag of tricks and become anyone he wants. His Twitter bio reads: “Biodegradable Entertainer. Actor, producer, director, stand up comedian, choreographer, voice artist, occasional pessimist, frequent optimist. Aam Aadmi.”

The son of Jagdeep, a much-loved Bollywood comedian, humour has always been his sweet spot. But how on earth did he inherit a talent for dance? Jaaferi was the face of Boogie Woogie, the dance TV show that ran for so long, one female participant who was then 15 and is now a 33-year-old soccer mom “calls me uncle.” In fact, Jaaferi got his Bollywood break in 1985 when he landed the role of a rock-n-roll villain in Subhash Ghai’s Meri Jung. A friend dropped his “video tape” off at Ghai’s office and the next thing he knew, he was cast as the “dancing villain, a first in Hindi cinema.”

Today, looking back, Jaaferi says with a touch of regret, “It was a mistake.” His life would have turned out differently if he had been launched as a hero instead. “It was a wrong decision because at that point, villains were well-defined. Villains were bad people. Dancing was done by good people. If ever a villain danced, he was bad at it, but I could kill with dance, I was so good.” “It’s like Govinda. Govinda came in a year and half after I did. And he was also a dance guy. If I had come as a hero, I would have been somewhere in that zone.”

Post Meri Jung, he quickly got typecast. Bollywood soon put him on a musical chair and before long, he was relegated to middling multi-hero films. Over the years, Jaaferi has tried to repackage himself but all efforts to hit the reset button on a promising career have been met with mixed results. And yet, he has stuck around. Whether it was his VJ-ing days during which he did side-splitting skits on Bollywood, the zany voiceover for the dubbed version of the Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle (he reimagined General Lee as Dilip Kumar), or the “It’s different” refrain from the Maggi ad, our pop culture is somewhat incomplete without Jaaved Jaaferi’s minor presence. Now, having been around for 30 odd years — “there were some even, also,” he deadpans — what excites him most is the chance to be a “principal” actor in a film.

“I would have loved to play Boman’s (Irani) role in 3 Idiots,” instead of the real Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad (his appearance in the Raju Hirani blockbuster, was brief but important, plot-wise). By his own admission, Jaaferi is a victim of “image.” Assume, he entreats, “The director would never have cast me for Boman’s role, because I am not old enough to be Kareena’s (Kapoor) father and not too young, either.” He believes he belongs in the same space as Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui but nobody will cast him in their roles. Again, that damn “image”.

At 53, Jaaferi looks young enough to match his graduation photograph. And yet, he’s a father of three teenagers. One of them, Meezaan, is following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. Tipped to be launched by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Jaaferi observes nostalgically, “He’s coming in approximately at the same age I did — 22. The way he’s coming in is also the same. Out of the blue, you get an offer and you’re in.”

The same could be said about Jaaferi’s blink-and-you- miss-it political career. A political rookie, he contested for 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, but lost to BJP heavyweight Rajnath Singh. Joining politics was a kneejerk reaction. Even his family was surprised. “I didn’t want to be a politician. I just wanted to say I believe in this, ‘put your money where your mouth is’ kind of a thing.” He still believes in AAP’s promise of “political change”, but washes his hands of active politics. “Bachchan saab burnt his fingers in politics. I should have, perhaps, learnt my lessons.”