The comedy king

September 19, 2021

Umar Sharif has been an icon of comedy for the past four decades

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Umar Sharif, a hugely popular stage actor, has enthralled the audiences for the last 40 years. The stage over the years became a platform for the actors to display their talent, not only as actors working within the situation of the plays, but as individuals, who could let go at the spur of the moment and instantly connect with their audiences.

This connection with the audiences should be a primary artistic concern for the performer. It gained more vitality due to the strict censorship that was and has been imposed over decades in this hugely puritanical-growing society. The façade of respectability and moral uprightness has to be maintained as never before; the rest takes care of itself. This led to the actors vying for more space to express themselves and override the strict censorial policies. This was more easily done in the theatre than in films. The movies were ruthlessly censored with nothing left except sanitised abundance. The audiences were not interested in sanctimonious replays and it was left to the theatres to add relevance and spice to the action on stage. These actors knew that the copy approved by the censors would be too limp and would evoke no response from the audiences. Both at the moral level and political, the actors created situations and characters that resonated with the given conditions.

Lahore’s theatre emerged from the shadows of the draconian censorship enforcement in the Ziaul Haq era and actors like Ali Ejaz, Rafi Khawar, Amanullah, Albela and Khalid Abbas Dar laid the foundation of a theatre that was based on improvisations to save the play from an inane, heavily-censored script that had no meat so to say.

Kamal Ahmed Rizvi, who belonged to the old school, struggled to maintain the norms of theatre by being faithful to the script and allowing addition or improvisation within limits so as not to make the script irrelevant. However, the greater response from the audiences and ever greater sanctimonious crackdown forced the following generation of actors to be more disregarding of the norms.

However, the man who stole the thunder from the Lahori actors was Umar Sharif in Karachi. He capitalised on the work done in Lahore to adlib and improvise on characters and situations where it hurt the most without being pinned down.

The culture in Karachi has been different from Lahore and the Punjab only in its external appearance; the reality at the core is the same. But it was the external mannerisms that attracted Umar Sharif the most.

Karachi, a small city at independence, became a huge metropolis with the influx of refugees in the early years of the country and then the steady settlement of the Pashtuns seeking economic opportunities in the biggest city of the country housing a port and a growing industrial set up. Its culture was a polyglot. This was sufficient ground for comedians and Umar Sharif was no exception. His greater talent made him an outstanding example of comedy meant for the people to laugh at their rulers and the growing societal values that are reflective of new trends becoming acceptable and taken for granted. People spoke less in public because of the backlash and it was left to the ‘theatre-walas’ to sneak a comment or two about the situation, thus releasing the immense oppression created in the name of political correctness and moral uprightness.

Bakra Qiston Par will remain the signature tune of Umar Sharif. The play indemnified his talent and secured his presence in the show business circles of the country. The play also ran for a very long time, which showed that it resonated with the people. Theatre in the 1960s, other than Khwaja Mueenuddin’s plays, was based mostly on adaptation. Its audience, too, was limited. Though some of these plays were very good and reached a certain level of artistic finesse, they hardly appealed to a large section of the audience. The plays or the trend that started in the late nineteen seventies had a much bigger outreach. Instead of seeking contributions and doles, the theatres was now seen as a financially viable proposition. The birth of the so-called commercial theatre owed itself to these extremely talented people.

Some of the actors have become bigger than the plays. The reasons for this are obvious. But the tradition of adlibbing and innuendo has been entrenched in our performing arts culture. With local situations, local characters and local dialects, the actors are able to take the audiences along. Umar Sharif, for years, has done this relying exclusively on his talent and dovetailing it to the developing social situations in the society.

This has been the great talent that all these actors have thrived on. Umar Sharif’s performances have been a testament to it. Though he branched off into television and the cinema the palpability of the live performance was found missing in these mediums.

The theatre, including the commercial theatre, has been the vent where people can come and release their pent up emotions, their heightened anxieties and the heartbreaks that result from the peculiarities of our society, its family structure and the embedded caste system. It is difficult to say what role it has played in keeping the tempers to a manageable level, but it has worked. In that respect, Umar Sharif’s role has been essential and primary. He can make people laugh in situations where otherwise they would have cried; relieving the pressure to make life bearable, if not thoroughly enjoyable.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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