KARACHI: There are many definitions of comedy. One of them is: comedy is tragedy plus time. This means, as explained in a Woody Allen movie, “the night Lincoln was shot you couldn’t joke about it, and now time has gone by and now it’s fair game.” It is hard to put Umer Sharif in a box that can best describe his brand of humour. It is definitely not difficult, though, to claim that there wouldn’t be any stage or film artist in the subcontinent who has influenced generations of comedians the way he has in the last four decades.

His presence of mind is exemplary, his wit is razor sharp, he is quick on the uptake and his observational skills are right out of the top drawer. He is a giant when it comes to providing the “best medicine” to the people in distress.

Today, Sharif is lying in a local hospital in Karachi, suffering from multiple ailments whose simultaneous treatment is not easy. As has been emphasised by the media lately, that kind of treatment can be had only in three countries — Germany, Saudi Arabia and the US. The videos that have been doing the rounds on social media of the legendary comedian appealing to Prime Minister Imran Khan to look after him are deeply disconcerting. No less painful are the rumours about a couple of other videos which hint at a family feud, not our topic here.

No human life is ordinary, but some lives need to be protected because they’re essential for the well-being of society. In that context, it is good to know that Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) Shahbaz Gill has assured that the government will lend its support to Sharif in his travel to one of the three countries. May he recover swiftly and completely!

His stage plays played on audio cassettes in shops and homes and blared through the speakers installed in minibuses

Looking back at Sharif’s career, the first startling thing that one realises is that he shot to fame at a time when comedians Moin Akhtar, Ismail Tara and Majid Jahangir were extremely popular, ruling the roost in the television industry by doing shows such as Fifty-Fifty and those written by Anwar Maqsood. Sensing that it would be no cakewalk for him to find his footing in TV, Sharif opted for the world of theatre, call it commercial stage for want of a better phrase, and found his calling in no time. He captured the Karachi audience’s attention who liked to have light, uncomplicated fun that allowed them to have a good laugh and go back home without scratching their head as to what a particular line or dialogue meant.

Interestingly, and contrary to the notion that there are different types of humour and it’s difficult to make a Karachiite chuckle on a joke uttered in Lahore, Sharif instantly became a nationwide hit. One distinctly remembers his stage plays — Bakra Qiston Per and Buddha Ghar Pe Hai being the most famous — played on audio cassettes in shops and homes in Lahore and blaring through the speakers installed in minibuses (W-11) in Karachi. It was a pretty unique phenomenon.

Subsequently, and perhaps consequently, Sharif graduated to films and his stay in Lahore as a film actor and director was reasonably fruitful — Mr 420 is an example. However, with the advent of satellite TV and exponential expansion of the electronic medium, Sharif returned to his hometown Karachi, did plays and even hosted talk shows on a few channels.

This inimitable artist hadn’t been feeling well for more than a decade. Diabetes has weakened his body. And yet, until this current situation which landed him in hospital, his humour never lost its edge.

Let’s hope and pray that, with the government support, Sharif will return to his usual healthy and witty self.

And the Sindh government could contribute to that, too.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2021

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