Will comedy in Pakistan please stand up?

June 4, 2017

As things in the entertainment world pick up pace, comedy also makes a much-needed comeback

Will comedy in Pakistan please stand up?

Take a second to assess what’s happening in the world. Tragedy and danger lurk in every corner all across the globe. Bomb blasts, racial killings, mob lynching, starvation – intolerance is spewing at an alarming rate and it has reached to such catatonic proportions that every community, religion and continent is faced with the plague that threatens the existence of all mankind: hate.

In such trying times, there are few things that keep us going. Laughter is one such thing (it really is the best medicine) and Pakistan is in desperate need of it. Unfortunately, up until a few years ago, we weren’t laughing enough.

Much like other areas of entertainment, comedy also suffered in Pakistan’s ‘dark ages’. In the sixties, Pakistani film industry was soaring with stars like Waheed Murad. The early era of Pakistan also saw musical giants such as the effervescent Nazia Hassan, the world renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the magical Madam Noor Jahan.

In much the same way, we also had some renowned gems in the world of comedy as well. Old shows such as Fifty Fifty, Alif Noon and Choti Si Duniya with the iconic character Janu German were examples of intelligent and witty comedy that was being watched by the whole country. Socio-political themes ran deep in the comedy that was being created back then.

On the other hand, a very popular means of performing comedy were the live theatre acts known as Jugatbazi, which were based primarily in the province of Punjab. In Karachi, Jugatbazi was predominantly promoted by the famous comedian and stage actor, Umer Sharif.

Moin Akhtar, another prominent name in Pakistan, also began his career with Jugat but quickly changed his direction and delivered iconic performances such as the one in Rozy, an Urdu adaptation of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie. Later he joined forces with the brilliant Anwer Maqsood to produce Loose Talk, amongst many other projects. Moin Akhtar had the power to turn everything into comic gold.

Many consider the early era of comedy in Pakistan to be the ‘Golden Days’ even though we later saw some brilliant work come through by relatively newer artists. Shows such as Sab Set Hai, Shashlik were a move away from the socio political commentary that was being made earlier. Inspired by TV shows such as Friends and Seinfeld, Pakistani content moved away from the politics and into the every day lives of people. If one pays attention, they’ll see that the comedies of nineties revolved a lot around the theme of friendship and love.

Enter 2000s, and things started slowing down. Mid 2000s saw a slump in all sorts of entertainment across the country and that is largely because of the escalating violence and an uncertain security situation that affected all of Pakistan. Gang wars and bomb blasts were at an all time high and people were simply too afraid to even step out of their homes. Naturally, that slowed things down for the world of entertainment. Theatre suffered a lot during this time period.

Comedy has, however, been on a gradual incline in the past few years and 2017, one feels, is the beginning of a new era for the genre in Pakistan. Art, music, and films are back in the limelight and thankfully, so is comedy.

"Comedy is going through it’s Renaissance period; we had the golden days and then came the dark ages where we weren’t producing good quality comedy shows or theatre in the country. However, it’s making a revival now," says Shafaat Ali, a comedian who has seen considerable fame due to his work as a mimic. Ali is one of the most well known impressionists of the country and has made people laugh over and over again with his brilliant impersonations of political figures such as PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto and MQM leader Altaf Hussain.

To be honest, political satire has been a norm for Pakistan; various political satire shows popped up as the country was going through a tough time. Shows such as Hum Sab Umeed Seh Hain, Banana News Network and 4 Man Show provided comic relief that the country was in desperate need of and comedians such as Murtaza Chaudry and Mustafa Chaudry, Mubeen Gabol, Saad Haroon, Danish Ali and Shafaat Ali himself delivered hilarious content that fed our souls.

Comedy may have seen a rough time in Pakistan but Ali is very content with the way things are now. Currently, he is hosting a segment on Geo’s Ramzan transmission that features some big names such as Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Noman Ijaz and Bushra Ansari. Also, Ali’s mimicry videos are always going viral.

"I usually do a lot of political comedy and mimicry so I get backlash all the time from people who either misunderstand me or get offended by my work. I just want to tell them that it’s important to portray their softer side to the audience. It actually benefits them in many ways," he revealed.

However, when asked if he believes that anything is lacking in comedy right now, Ali is quite optimistic. "I don’t think that anything in comedy is being neglected right now; there are many people coming forward who are introducing some great, new work. Theatre has really picked up in recent years, people have started watching plays again. TV and film is filled with comedy; it’s a good time right now."

Truly, Pakistan’s comedy today is seeing a shift from the Jugat, on to more developed forms of storytelling. One such genre that has been newly introduced to Pakistan is satirical music. While pop music giants Sajjad Ali and Awaz had introduced satire in music through songs like ‘Chief Saab’ and ‘Mr.Fraudiay’, it wasn’t till songs like Beghairat Brigade’s ‘Aalu Anday’ and Ali Gul Pir’s ‘Waderay Ka Beta’ exploded on the Internet, paving the way for more satirical music to come through. Through his songs, Pir spoke about feudalism, VIP culture, politicians and corruption while making people laugh.

But Pir believes that more than simply making people laugh, his work produces a cathartic effect that allows people to take a good look at themselves.

Many people find sexism hidden at the root of a lot of our comedy. Shows like the hit sit-com Bulbulay make people laugh but are usually centered on husband-wife issues, where the woman is usually the butt of the joke. Pakistan’s highest grossing film to date Jawani Phir Nahi Ani was also extremely sexist, with women being reduced to sexual objects or societal stereotypes.

"My songs provide a mirror to society, that’s why people find them funny. These are problems that everyone knows about but probably never spoke about before. For instance, Jerry Seinfeld is one of the cleanest comedians. He never abuses or uses vulgarity but is still one of the most successful comedians in the world. That’s because his work is very observational. You can instantly relate to the things he’s talking about. For me, that’s one of the best forms of comedy out there. That’s what I try to do. I make songs about things which people don’t ordinarily talk about because they’re such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives. ‘Taroo Maroo’ was about a very obvious phenomenon. The staring culture in Pakistan has been around since forever but suddenly I was singing about it and that made people laugh!"

Another new branch of comedy in Pakistan is improvisational comedy. What started out as an alien concept has now become one of the most regularly consumed forms of comedy in the country. Saad Haroon brought the concept to Pakistan with the first ever improvisational comedy troupe called Blackfish and since then, we have seen various troupes emerge. The Platoon and Improvistan are just a few of the names who are attempting improvisational comedy today and are succeeding in bringing in hoards of people to their shows.

"People have become much more clear about what improv comedy is. When we first started off five or six years ago, there was a lot of confusion regarding it," reveals Akbar Chaudry, frontman for the Lol Waalay, one of the most prolific improv troupes in the country. "There is still some confusion between stand-up and improv and we find ourselves explaining to people that stand-up is scripted while improv isn’t."

And there are various other things being done in comedy. Names such as Bekaar Films are making funny, short digital videos that become instantly viral. Comedians such as Junaid Akram have digitized rants on Facebook that talk about society’s current affairs with a humourous twist. T2F regularly hosts Open Mic Nights that feature Karachi’s upcoming stand-up comedians, such as Syed Osama Sami and Shehzad Ghias.

However, amid all this technology and innovation came something that is actually centuries old. Many people find sexism hidden at the root of a lot of our comedy. Shows like the hit sit-com Bulbulay make people laugh but are usually centered on husband-wife issues, where the woman is usually the butt of the joke. Pakistan’s highest grossing film to date Jawani Phir Nahi Ani was also extremely sexist, with women being reduced to sexual objects or societal stereotypes.

Ali agrees with us. "I personally have a problem with some of the digital content I see nowadays and a lot of people are making such vines and videos that become instantly viral. However, most of these vines are very sexist and even racist at times," he said while noting that films and television are also filled with a lot of sexist content. "We have a responsibility to our society and creating content that teaches the youth to disrespect women is just not okay. It’s 2017; it’s about time we started treating women like humans and not as objects. I’m sometimes shocked to see kids as young as 9 or 10 who have access to the Internet and thus have seen these vines and videos. What legacy are we leaving behind?" he exclaimed.

The recent gaffe on stage at the Hum Awards further reflects this problem. Comedian Yasir Hussain perhaps got a little carried away when he casually joked about child molestation and sexual assault while Ahsan Khan came to collect his award for his performance in Udaari.

"The problem is that stupid comedy was being encouraged in Pakistan for too long. Suddenly, we want smart comedy but that will take time. If Yasir Hussain had said what he said 10 years ago, nobody would have batted an eyelash because we had become accustomed to this kind of crude comedy. One should be aware of what they’re joking about," shared Pir.

It’s heartening to know that big names in the world of comedy feel that comedy needs to hold some accountability and responsibility to the society. But are we becoming too sensitive as a society now?

"Absolutely not. We’re becoming more conscious now. This means that we’re walking with the world. That is a good thing. For instance, if the Yasir thing had happened abroad on an international award show, his career would have ended. Nobody would have forgotten it. Here, we’re far more forgiving. Nothing happens. All that will happen are a few headlines here and there and then things go back to the way they were.

But the good thing is that we’re asking questions. Comedy won’t evolve unless we do that. Criticism is very important for the growth of any medium," concluded Pir.

We are already witnessing the winds of change. At least there is now a well-informed dialogue around sexism and misogyny. More than that, we’re seeing female comedians take charge for the first time in Pakistan. Auratnaak was the first ever all female stand-up comedy that featured a lineup of bold female comedians who were talking about taboo topics such as menstruation and sexual harassment in the workplace, for instance.

Faiza Saleem, founder of Auratnaak as well as the first female improvisational comedy troupe, The Khawatoons, is very much aware of the problems in our society. "Comedy is a predominantly male dominated field and while not everyone is problematic, a lot of people do have an attitude with regards to women in comedy. I even find problems with the way women are depicted in comedy," explained Saleem.

Saleem also sheds light on how she continues to get stereotypical female roles of either being a mother, a wife or a daughter. "I was offered a skit at the Lux Style Awards written by Osman Khalid Butt and I told Osman that if it’s a typically stereotyped role, I’d rather not do it. But Osman assured me that he had something different planned." And he delivered. Butt wrote and produced a hilarious opening skit called LSA Guidelines that mocked the concept of award shows and the way celebrities behaved during them.

"The way to understand comedy is like this: look at who the joke is serving. If somebody is joking about something like sexual assault for instance, look at who is being made fun of in the joke. If the joke is on the perpetrator, then it’s okay. If the joke is being made from the point of view of the one being oppressed, then it’s not okay. I don’t think there should be a limit on what can be joked about but yes, comedians need to take into account that their jokes shouldn’t further offend the victims of things such as sexual assault," explained Chaudry.

And that’s why new age comedians are taking control of what they see and are trying to inject society with intelligent comedy. Saleem largely writes and produces her own content, showing women the way she thinks they should be portrayed. Pir continues to write songs that question society. Ali makes us laugh at how well he can mimic not just politicians but popular singers such as Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar, and Chaudry is busy trying to impact society with positivity and humour.

Will comedy in Pakistan please stand up?