The golden age of Pakistan’s film industry is long past. Lehri’s death on Thursday morning reminded many that such an age was once a reality. His ability to make people laugh lightened up lives through his 30-year career as a film comedian, lasting from the 1950s to the 1980s. In many cases, this ability, for a short time at least, removed furrows from brows and worries from people’s lives. This in itself was a huge achievement; Lehri – or Safirullah Siddique – his real name, will be remembered by all who saw him on screen. He won a dozen Nigar awards for his unique performances. His death, at the age of 83, in a Karachi hospital after a long period of ill-health, is also a reminder that there was once a time when Pakistani films played out before large audiences and the actors were worshipped by many. Lehri was among them, with a following of millions. Today, of course, the Lollywood-based industry no longer produces stars, or films that count as box-office hits. The virtual collapse of local film is one reason why, during the decades after the 1980s, no one rose to match the genius of Lehri as a comedian.
The manner in which his last days were spent is, however, no laughing matter. Like other artistes, Lehri received little official support or assistance. A stipend of Rs. 2,500 a month, initiated for him by Benazir Bhutto during her first tenure from 1988 to 1990, continued till his final days, but it never increased. He had also been largely forgotten, with younger people barely familiar with his name. The manner in which we treat our film stars, singers, musicians and other performers is a key reason for the collapse of the performing arts in our country. Lehri represented a time when their careers prospered, it was also a happier time for the country as a whole. We need to think of ways to bring back that time, so that the sound of unrestrained laughter can be heard more often across our towns and cities. We badly need people like Lehri to offer this to us.