Earlier in 1980, on Republic Day, Rajinikanth had a hit in a double role in the gangster film Billa. Johnny, an Independence Day release in 1980, was at the other end of the sensibility spectrum. Unlike in Billa and other typical commercial films, in Johnny, the female characters did not exist merely to decorate the screen. Instead, they move the story, they decide the action of the men.
Johnny is a conman. But what occupies his life is music. Right in the first scene, Johnny is recording the folk songs of the hills. And till the end, the love for music guides him. He admires and adores Archana, a lonely singer with a magical voice played extraordinarily by Sridevi. Admiration turns into love. Archana too needs Johnny. But his dark life does not allow him to take the relationship forward. Meanwhile, love blossoms in the life of a miserly barber Vidhyasagar, again played by Rajinikanth. Bhama is the girl. Her innocence melts his heart. But only till he gets to know her fully. Vidhyasagar ends up killing her. He starts hating women. Soon, he comes to Archana's home and starts living as Johnny, who is on the run now. Vidhyasagar intends to exploit Archana. He repeatedly hurts her. Archana cries silently and is confused, but her love for Johnny is unchanged. It is pure. With a highly restrained yet powerful performance by the lead actors, the story unfolds gracefully and concludes beautifully. Only a master like Mahendran, who had total clarity on what he was doing, could have pulled off such a feat.
While normal screenplays struggle hard to achieve the desired character arc and yet languish, Johnny effortlessly presents it. The writing is exemplary. Two couples. The first: a genuine man albeit with blemishes; an innocent lady. The second: a flawed lady; a man with blemishes but with a golden heart. Their lives cross. The film features writing that builds on the intelligence of the audience. The story moves forward with minimal but impactful interactions of the characters. Every line uttered during the anchor scenes sounds natural and simple, but brings to the fore the core of the characters.
For instance, when Johnny and Archana have a chance meeting on the beach, the dialogues casually sum up their lives. The scene where Archana proposes but Johnny remains helpless, the scene where Vidhyasagar reveals his true identity to Archana and apologises… He concludes, '..I am barber by profession, murderer by accident, and now, because of you .. a human being. Thank you.. thank you very much!' There is no melodrama, there is no build up. The lines are direct, and from the heart. And yet, they elevate the art.
Johnny is also a film that tells us why Sridevi is well, Sridevi. It is easily one of her lifetime best roles. In the entire film she has only three-four pages of dialogue, none cinematic. Yet, how she scores! Sridevi speaks more with her unsaid words. She expresses her emotional trauma convincingly, not by creating a ruckus but merely by holding back tears. Archana is the soul of Johnny, and Sridevi gives life to Archana.
To this date, Johnny stands out in Rajinikanth's filmography. It is one of the last films to bank solely on his acting skills. Murattu Kalai, which released in the same year after Johnny, catapulted Rajinikanth into superstardom. The hero's trajectory changed forever. Barring a few exceptions like an Engeyo Kaeta Kural or a Sri Raghavendrar, Rajinikanth till date is part of revenge dramas, replete with hero intro songs, heavy-duty action, style with cigarettes, punch dialogues, catchy mannerisms, and so on. Basically, all the Rajini things.
Collaborating for the second time with Rajinikanth in Johnny after Mullum Malarum, Mahendran upped the challenge for the actor with a dual role. Rajinikanth gave a memorable performance, especially as Vidhyasagar the stylish, reclusive barber who undergoes a series of tribulations. Love. Betrayal. Murder. Deceit. Realisation. Sacrifice. The character has great range and depth. And Rajini sparkles as Vidhyasagar. In spite of his daring conman acts, the Johnny character needed to subtly display an underlying sense of vulnerability throughout the film. Rajini pulls that off too; sample the scene where Archana proposes to Johnny.
The film has a limited number of characters, and among them Suruli Rajan gets a considerable share. With his peculiar voice and funny body language, the actor provides solid support to Rajinikanth, especially in the initial scenes. There are a few light moments too. Bhama is central to the film. Her innocence attracts Vidhyasagar, her betrayal turns him into a killer. Deepa as Bhama deftly handled the role.
Just like with his many other films, Ilaiyaraaja complements as well as competes with the filmmaker in Johnny, delivering songs and a background score of superior quality. The movie has five songs, and only one has a male singer. Again, stressing the woman-centric nature of the film. 'En vaanile..' by Jency is among the greatest melodies of Ilaiyaraaja and is an eternal favourite. 'Oru iniya manadhu..' by Sujatha is another powerful melody. 'Aasaya kaathula ..' by SP Shailaja still haunts. It also has a Hindi avatar, 'Stereophonic Sannata..' from Shamitabh (2015). 'Kaatril endhan geetham' by S Janaki is a landmark climax song. The beauty of film is that even as the long-separated hero and heroine meet soon after the song, they do not utter even a single word. Ilaiyaraaja's music takes over, and the film ends with the caption 'Music The Life Giver'.