For the fans of Urdu cinema all over the world, the news of Lehri’s death after prolonged illness came as a huge blow. The actor may not have been active on the silver screen for the last 20 years but his wit and humour had entertained generations, which is no mean feat.
Safeerullah Siddiqi aka Lehri found his true calling on stage where his one-liners left the audience in stitches. His dead-pan dialogue delivery made him popular after which he was selected to provide comic relief in Anokhi (1956). The song Mari Laila Ne Aisi Katar by newcomer Ahmed Rushdi launched him as a singing comedian, a tag which was often repeated with Rushdi providing the vocals most of the time throughout a career that spanned three decades, over 200 film appearances and nearly a dozen Nigar Awards including one Lifetime Achievement trophy.
What made Lehri the darling of the crowd was his ability to keep a straight face after making the audience hysterical with his punch lines. His co-stars in the initial years included Santosh Kumar, Darpan, Ratan Kumar as well as Syed Kamal with whom he shared amazing comic timing. He was the first actor to combine elements of comedy as well as serious acting.
In the ’60s and the early ’70s, Lehri successfully teamed up with Mohammad Ali, Waheed Murad and Nadeem. They couldn’t match his wits but happily played second fiddle to the maestro who — as Mohammad Ali once said — even made him laugh with his impromptu dialogue. In the latter part of his career, he took over character roles and was usually seen as the hapless father of the leading lady, carefree uncle of the young angry man or above all, the comic relief that didn’t have much to do with the story but was the darling of the audience.
Actor Qavi Khan remembers, “Lehri bhai was a humble person, an amazing actor and a necessity for Urdu films. We worked in many films as well as on stage together and it was always fun to have him around. On the sets, he used to ask the assistant in his usual tone hamari ishtart ki line kiya hai? (What is my starting line?) and he would remember the whole scene once he was told about it.”
What made him stand out throughout his career was his character’s importance to the story. Be it saving the protagonist from an accident in Humraaz, playing the strict father of the carefree son (Lehri in dual role) in Shehnai, the friend who always got the hero in trouble in Amber, or the old man who falls for Munawwar Zarif’s female attire in Shararat, Lehri had roles written for him, unlike many actors in the industry.
Qavi Khan says that people like Lehri make this world a better place. “My home production Roshni, which I also directed, didn’t do well at the box office. When I went to pay Lehri bhai, he said Aap bohat achay hain Qavi, aayinda mujhe 5 hazaar kum dijyega (You are very good Qavi, next time pay me Rs5,000 less). His punch lines always made you smile, both off and on screen.”
Lehri also appeared in a couple of episodes of Aangan Terha as himself and was able to hold his forte against the late Saleem Nasir, Bushra Ansari and Shakeel, playing an integral part in the arc specifically created for him by Anwar Maqsood.
Lehri had the distinction of working with renowned actors and directors of the golden era of the Pakistan film industry. During the latter part of his career, he had scaled down his appearances in films, although he continued to be active till the mid-80s.
Actor and pop singer Mohammad Ali Shehki remembers the day when Lehri suffered a stroke in a hotel in Bangkok during the shooting of two films, Sonia and Guide. “We were simultaneously shooting in Malaysia and Bangkok for both the films which were a Pak-Malaysia co-production. Nepali actress Sushma Shahi was the leading lady in the film whereas I was the lead actor. Lehri sahib was part of the cast and it was during one hot and humid day that he suffered the paralytic attack, and we had to rush him to the hospital. Although the doctors were hopeful that he would get well, the producer Yusuf Naaz decided to call off the shooting.”
Not many know but Lehri was one of the first comedians in Pakistan for whom songs were specially written. Ahmed Rushdi’s Yeh Ada Yeh Naaz Yeh Andaaz Aap Ka from the film Road to Swat and Dunya Mein Tumko Jeena Hai Agar from Shehnai were filmed on both Kamal and Lehri. Excuse Me from Bahu Rani and Dekhye Babyo from Nayee Laila Naya Majnoon had Lehri lip-syncing to Ahmed Rushdi’s amazing renditions.
Perhaps the most innovative song filmed on the great actor was Itnay Baray Jehan Main Mujh Sa Koi Nahi in Waheed Murad’s directorial venture Ishara. In that Buster Keaton-inspired song, Lehri not only danced to the playback singing of Ahmed Rushdi but also played with the instruments under the guidance of music composer Sohail Rana. Whenever in that song he lip synced to Mera Jawab Kahin Bhi Nahi, the ‘Bugs’ band – also comprising of Lehri in multiple getups – would grandly acknowledge with Waqayi Baba, which was true to his stature as the one and the only. Like the audience in the song (Lehri again in male and female guise), his fan following had no boundaries and he will be remembered as the comic genius who cheated death with his immortal comedy.