HT Brunch Cover Story: Johny Johny yes papa
Life, laughter and ha-ha-ha’s to lift your spirits with the first family of Indian comedy
September 4, 2020
Shooting with the Lever family is an exercise in hearty laughter. Jamie and Jesse try to recreate the trademark Johny Lever expression and their father joins in for the heck of it. The mood is easy, fun.
“It’s our first shoot together!” says Jamie. She has already updated her Instagram followers. Jesse is about to do the same. The siblings take their Instagram uploads very seriously. So, naturally my first question is: How have they aced their social media game so well?
The reel-real game
For 32-year-old Jamie, the lockdown was a blessing in disguise. “We have been able to make fun content and spend quality time together as a family. I made videos to entertain myself, but my videos went viral!”
To glance at her ’gram is to wonder if there is anything Jamie cannot do. She is a well-known comic, having acted in movies like Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon (2015) and Housefull 4 (2019), but she is also a graceful dancer and a great singer.
Jesse, 30, is just as grateful for the mixed blessing that was the lockdown. “We have been able to spend more time together and grow spiritually,” he says. Jesse debuted as an actor in 2019 in the Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff-starrer War. He says: “Nothing is strategically planned on our social media. But we do discuss our ideas with each other.”
Their parents seldom watch their social media because they are not very familiar with it, but Johny Lever gives his inputs for screen shows and stage performances.
That does not mean their parents do not appreciate the reach of social media. The whole family celebrated when veteran singer Lata Mangeshkar and actress Rekha rang up their father to appreciate Jamie’s videos. “I think dad is the happiest when the industry or audience recognises our hard work or how genuine we are,” says Jesse.
Dad’s hard to impress
‘Dads’ can be critical quite often. “Jamie is a little apprehensive of showing her work to dad because he’s hard to impress,” says Jesse.
“We aren’t complaining, but he is a little kanjoos (stingy) with compliments,” adds Jamie
Still, when Johny Lever saw Jamie’s Usha Uthup video, “he was literally jumping in excitement,” Jesse recollects.
The siblings love the fact that their father is tough on them. It prepares them for auditions and audiences, they say.
“It is his way of protecting us from a judgmental society. A lot of people tell us, ‘Oh, you look like your father, so it will be easy for you’ and then there are people who say, ‘Oh you are not exactly like Johny Lever’,” laughs Jesse.
“We have always been taught by our parents to push our boundaries and break stereotypes,” says Jamie. “We have been fortunate, however, to not be trolled nastily so far. When people comment on our videos, we take it as constructive feedback. If anything mean is written, our fans take care of it and that makes us feel special.”
How much has their father’s approach to movies and shows affected the siblings?
“We have been taught to get work the hard way,” both say together.
“However, we knew right when we started that we needed identities distinct from our surname,” says Jesse. “In the industry, everyone needs to look good. So, I knew I had to make that happen. And we have honed ourselves creatively. It’s about surprising the audience because comparisons are inevitable.”
Playing the part
Jamie does comedy and Jesse acts. But while the siblings grew up, their roles were quite the opposite. Jesse would often accompany his father and uncle (Jimmy Moses) to stage plays and acts. “He had no jokes in mind and no content, but he had the confidence to just go on stage,” laughs Jamie. “His comedy material tanked through childhood and even in college!”
“On the other hand, comedy came very naturally to Jamie, which was a surprise for the entire family,” says Jesse.
“I have always been a late bloomer!” the sister says, cracking us all up.
“We both realised where our passions lay,” she adds.
“Oh yes, you are carrying the legacy forward,” Jesse teases.
Jesse’s actual acting debut was much before last year’s War. He had played a cameo as a child artist in Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham (2000) in a scene with Hrithik Roshan. Given his adult debut again with Hrithik, is this pair meant to be?
“I just got second time lucky, I guess,” he laughs. “(Hrithik) Sir is such a nice person to work with and he remembered me clearly from the K3G shoot.”
Family is all that matters
The hiatus between Jesse’s K3G shoot and his debut movie was for sad reasons. Jesse, the youngest of the family, had a tumour in his neck.
“I had the tumour when we were shooting for K3G, which is why I was wearing a shirt with a collar,” Jesse reveals. “I underwent treatment in the US and it definitely affected my studies. I wasn’t that great at school anyway, but my confidence as a 10-year-old had gone down drastically. However, the illness made us more spiritual as a family and our lifestyle changed. The parties stopped and with that kind of change in the house, even I had to be a good child.”
Watching her little brother suffer was tough for Jamie, too. “Dad was doing non-stop films at the time; he’d come home once in two months with gifts,” she says. “But when Jesse’s tumour was detected, dad became selective with his movies so he could spend more time with us. He stopped being just a breadwinner for the family and took on his role as a father.”
Even today, the family prays and eats together every day.
Just for gags
What are their thoughts on the latest trend of stand-up comedy and roasting?
“Roasting is a form of insult comedy. There is no right or wrong in it. But with our knowledge and background, we ensure that we do clean comedy. Nothing that comes out of our mouths is vulgar or below the belt. I want to keep the tradition set by the previous generation of comics alive. I want an entire family to be able to sit together and watch the show,” says Jamie.
The Lever surname does add a little to the pressure to keep things clean – but only because the siblings never want to embarrass their parents. “My values help me stay true to myself, so I’m not under the duress of ‘haan, trend mein hai toh mein bhi karungi.’ I’ve grown up looking up to my father’s work. It was slapstick and was appreciated. So, we listen to everyone but I bring my own bit to the platter,” says Jamie. “The important thing is the chaukaane wali baat (element of surprise) you give your audience.”
But for all comics, timing is really the thing that matters, Jamie adds. As for Jesse, experimenting is key. “I’m my director’s person and I’ll do what they want me to do,” he says.
“Agreed,” Jamie butts in and her brother nudges her.
“You always have the last word!” says Jesse.
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From HT Brunch, October 04, 2020
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