A former colleague of mine once described the recently departed humourist and actor Umer Sharif as ‘Karachi personified: edgy, irreverent, busy and tense, with a constant stream of nervous energy running through it.’
Indeed, as a vast, thickly populated and cosmopolitan port-city, Karachi often baffles people arriving here from the more ethnically homogeneous regions of the country. The city’s edginess, nervous energy and its self-consumed aloofness is deeply ingrained in the psyche of its inhabitants.
One of its most famous residents was Umer Sharif. Born into a lower-middle class Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) family in 1955, Sharif lived more than half of his life in what was then called Lalukhet (now Liaquatabad).
This once scantily populated area became inhabited by Urdu-speaking refugees arriving from India after 1947. By the 1970s, Lalukhet had become notorious as the hotbed of political violence. Consequently, it also became a bastion of Mohajir nationalism in the 1980s.
Umer Sharif personified Karachi in many ways, including the fortunes of the city’s Mohajir nationalism over the last four decades
In 1993, while speaking to a group of journalists after inaugurating a theatre in Lahore, Sharif said that when he was living in Lalukhet, it was impossible for any young man there to avoid politics. I was visiting Lahore at the time and was present at the ceremony as a reporter. I asked him if he was also involved in the riots against the Z.A. Bhutto regime that erupted across Karachi in 1977. Sharif dodged the question.
Instead, he shared a story. He said, “During the campaigning phase of the 1977 election, when Bhutto Sahib visited Lalukhet, residents of the area started waving shoes at him. After seeing this, Bhutto took the megaphone and said, “Yes, yes, I know the price of shoes has increased. But don’t worry, I will resolve this issue.” Sharif then broke into loud laughter.
Starting out as a 14-year-old wannabe actor, Sharif initially struggled. Things began to look up when, from 1980, he started to record stand-up monologues and release them on audio cassettes.
A bulk of his jokes revolved around his life in Lalukhet. Using the everyday Urdu spoken on the streets of Karachi, Sharif celebrated the oddities of ‘Lalukheti’ youth by explaining them as people who were always ready to riot at the drop of a hat.
One of his early 1980s jokes was that, when folk in Western countries saw a bird, they would say, ‘Oh look, such a nice bird.’ But when a Lalukheti saw a bird, he would immediately try to capture it so he could eat it! The nature of his material was so deeply rooted in how everyday life unfolded for common Karachiites, that the city’s non-Mohajir groups became fans as well.
In 1984, he coined perhaps one of his most famous expressions: ‘burger.’ Before the modern burger became famous across classes in the country, it was initially seen as a rich kid’s indulgence. So, by ‘burger’, Sharif meant a rich youth who spoke English or Urdu in an American accent.
While explaining where one could find these ‘burgers’, Sharif popularised another expression: ‘Clifton Bridge ke uss paar [on the other side of Clifton Bridge].’ Beyond the southern end of the Clifton Bridge in Karachi are some of the city’s most ‘posh’ localities.
An enthusiastic meat-eater, Sharif was also amused by the idea of dieting that was being popularised by ‘burgers’. On his fifth ‘cassette album’ (1985), Sharif explored the trend through a joke that went something like this: ‘This is what dieting is. Burger families get together for dinner. They take out a kebab from the fridge and put it on a plate. The whole family then stares at the kebab and says, “Wow, what a kebab!” They then put the kebab back in the fridge and go their own ways.’
By 1985, in his stand-up routines, he had begun to include satirical takes on the social mannerisms of Karachi’s other ethnic communities as well. But he often got into trouble for this, especially during a period in which the city was witnessing increasing tensions between its ethnic groups. In 1987, he was confronted by a hostile group of Gujarati-speaking Memons for ‘insulting their community.’ Ironically, Memons were Sharif’s earliest patrons.
In 1987, in a bid to make enough money so he could break out from Lalukhet that was often under curfew, Sharif took the most popular monologues from his audio albums and turned them into dialogues for a stage play called Bakra Qiston Pe. It wasn’t ‘proper theatre’ as such. The story was loose and the actors simply delivered one hilarious dialogue after another, with Sharif taking centre stage.
The humour was sociological, not political. Learning from how audio cassettes had aided him to reach a wide audience, he got the play video-taped. Soon, video recordings of the play were being rented out with such rapidity, that he began to churn out one play after another. Now he had enough money to escape Lalukhet and explore the possibility of living in areas where the ‘burgers’ lived.
He then ventured into Urdu cinema, even though the industry had been devastated by the Gen Zia dictatorship (1977-88). In 1992, he produced, wrote, directed and starred in Mr 420. The script was largely drawn from his stage plays, but people flocked to watch it. It was a box-office smash.
Sharif had entered his Midas-touch period. By now, pirated video copies of his stage plays had become popular in India as well. Sharif said, “Video recordings of my plays are selling like hashish in India!” He got to experience this when he first visited India in the mid-1990s. He was immediately offered contracts to do films there, which he accepted.
The late Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray wasn’t happy. As it turned out, Thackeray too had watched a video of a Sharif play in which Sharif’s character asks a Hindu, “If you call the cow sacred mother, why don’t you call the bull sacred father?”
Thackeray was livid. Sharif cancelled all his contracts. After the intensity of ethnic violence increased in Karachi, Sharif moved to Lahore. Worried that Punjabis would not be able to appreciate Karachi’s cutting humour, he tentatively began staging his plays there. To his surprise, his productions became resounding hits.
Sharif was consciously ambivalent about his politics. His lifestyle was entirely secular, even though he was a firm follower of Sufi saints. But his political side began to gradually emerge when the dictator Gen Musharraf (a Mohajir) patronised the MQM, the Mohajir nationalist party, as a way to neutralise its militancy.
Sharif was also frequently used as a diplomacy tool by Musharraf, who had greatly eased Pak-India tensions. Sharif made numerous trips to India, gathering more fans and garnering starring stints as a stand-up at glitzy Bollywood award events.
Then, in 2007, he announced he had joined MQM. He said he had done so because the party was open-minded and ‘best for Karachi’. Musharraf lost power in 2008, and the MQM joined the PPP-led coalition government. Sharif was inducted as an adviser in Sindh’s provincial cabinet. He now wanted to try electoral politics as well.
In 2011, backed by the MQM, he ran for the presidency of the Karachi Arts Council. But the PPP-backed candidate, Ahmed Shah, defeated him by a huge margin. This came as a shock to him.
Sharif returned to TV. But political parody shows had become more popular than the sociological comedy that Sharif excelled in. However, he had already been declared as ‘King of Comedy.’ Marital problems and the tragic death of his daughter in 2020 took a heavy toll on his health. He retreated.
One can say, Sharif’s emergence in the 1980s, his rise in the 1990s and early 2000s, and his retreat from 2015 onwards, paralleled the emergence, rise and retreat of the political fortunes of Karachi’s Mohajirs. But while MQM shattered in 2015 and broke into various warring factions, Sharif always remained the ‘King of Comedy.’
Long live the King!
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 10th, 2021