It was 1977 and Pakistan Television was recording an episode of the weekly show Farozan, hosted by Mehtab Channa (now Rashdi). The producer, Arfeen, introduced a lad in his early 20s to the show that brought fresh talent to the fore.
Usually nervous, newcomers responded only briefly to Mehtab’s questions, who was young, dynamic and very attractive. The host asked the lad, “Aap drama writer hain, actor hain, director hain, producer hain, poet bhi hain, aakhir aap cheez kya hain [You’re a drama writer, actor, director, producer and even a poet, what are you]?” Pat came the reply, “Main tau nacheez hoon, cheez tu aap hain [I’m nothing compared to you].” As laughter and clapping filled the auditorium, the host was left quite speechless.
The then unknown youngster went on to become Umer Sharif, the ‘King of Comedy’. Born Muhammad Umer in Karachi eight years after Partition, he spent his formative years in Liaquatabad aka Lalukhet, the very locality that produced a number of national legends, including international hockey players, literatteurs and qawwals. A comedy entertainer of Umer’s calibre was a rarity until then.
Belonging to a lower-middle class family, Umer lost his father at the age of four. Being the youngest of his siblings, there were no restrictions on the young Umer, which helped cultivate his brilliant sense of humour and sharp wit. By the time he was in his teens, Umer was visiting theatres to watch stage shows and had started to mimic everyone in his neighbourhood — from passing beggars to neighbourhood goons and bullies, he spared absolutely no one.
For Umer Sharif, who passed away on October 2, spontaneity and ready wit were his best assets and he used them to change not only Urdu theatre and films, but also how comedy was consumed in the Subcontinent
His talent landed him at the Adamjee Hall for a stage play where he was given the role of a Gujarati fortune-teller at the eleventh hour, after the original actor had to leave due to a family emergency. Umer excelled in the role of the fortune-teller and, despite being only 14 at the time, he managed to win a motorbike, a year’s supply of fuel and 5,000 rupees in cash in recognition of his performance.
He initially made his stage name Umer Zarif, a tribute to his “spiritual mentor” and legendary Pakistani actor Munawwar Zarif, but after being stunned by the Egyptian lead actor’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia, he changed it again to Umer Sharif.
In 1976, Umer wrote the stage show Bionic Servant, inspired by the famous TV series Six Million Dollar Man starring Lee Majors, and thus his lifetime association with the already established comedian Moin Akhtar, who also starred in it, began.
Although Umer remained a part of the famous TV show Fifty-Fifty for some time, he became persona non grata at PTV during the ’80s after his inability to stick to a script and his predilection for what was considered ‘crass’ street humour at the state broadcaster. Those were the days of Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law. Video shops were quite common in those days and VHS cassette rentals of movies, mushairas and geet malas at a meagre cost of 10 rupees a day sounded infinitely better than hauling one’s whole family off to a cinema or a theatre.
As a result, VHS and audio cassettes of Bollywood films rapidly captured the Pakistani market. Be it buses, private cars or inter-city coaches, Indian songs could be heard freely everywhere. Sharif capitalised on this distribution, first through audio cassettes of his monologues and, later, through video recordings of his stage dramas.
At a time when both PTV as well as Pakistani films were struggling for audiences after the influx of pirated Indian movies, Sharif acted as a saviour by drawing audience back to Pakistani content, with his hit plays available on rental VHS tapes. Umer Sharif made the decision of having his stage show Bakra Qiston Pe recorded in 1987. Bakra Qiston Pe not only saw multiple copies in video shops due to a surging demand in its rental but it became a huge hit in India as well, in much the same way Bollywood films were a craze in Pakistan.
VHS cassettes of Umer’s comedy stage play were smuggled to India and then circulated throughout the country. Besides this, audio tapes of the show sold like hotcakes both in and out of Pakistan. Four more parts of Baqra Qiston Pe were written and produced by Umer Sharif and its success made the legend-in-the-making look for other avenues, namely films.
Umer’s other stage plays such as Buddha Ghar Pe Hai, Hum Sab Aik Hain, Hum Sa Ho To Saamnay Aaye and Yes Sir Eid, No Sir Eid became just as famous and successful as Bakra Qiston Pe, thereby helping him establish a link between the audience and the performer in the true spirit of theatre. Umer Sharif also introduced fresh new talent on stage, such as Ruby Niazi, Sikandar Sanam, Shakeel Teeli and Rauf Lala in his plays; the latter two went on to create a lot of hype in India as well.
Umer Sharif’s spontaneity was his best asset and his ability to utter anything with a straight face was an added advantage. Even his contemporaries in India, such as the late Bollywood actor and comedian Kadir Khan, could not help but praise his ability to deliver what the audience wanted to hear.
He introduced juggat in Urdu theatre which, until then, was usually associated only with the culture of Punjab. Punjabi actors were famous for catcalling, yet there was no such concept among their Urdu-speaking counterparts. Umer never shied away from an opportunity to body shame his fellow actors, performers and even legends either, with Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Adnan Sami Khan being his regular targets. As a master of cultural comedy, he divided Karachi into two parts: (Clifton) Pul ke uss paar and pul ke iss paar [One side of the bridge versus the other].
Be it the introduction of the words ‘burger’ or ‘mummy daddy’ to define teenagers belonging to the affluent areas of Defence and Clifton, or his use of the word ‘maila’ for the rough and tough guys from the other, less-privileged areas of Karachi, Umer managed to indulge and entertain the audience wherever he performed.
His jokes made people laugh everywhere Urdu was understood and spoken, not only in Pakistan but also in India and the South Asian communities in the UK and the US. He would freely and good-naturedly taunt overly ‘made-up’ ladies, became the voice of helpless husbands, while his mimicry of a groom was a class act. Corruption was his bete noire and he exposed it in departments such as law enforcement, customs and hospitals with his between-the-lines sarcastic wit and humour. The manner in which he parodied airline crews and copied the style of the stewards and stewardesses was something only he could manage to do.
Umer arrived in Lahore in 1989, and with his extremely friendly nature and captivating style, was accepted with open arms by Lahore’s film industry aka Lollywood. Sultan Rahi was still wielding his gandaasa and veteran actors such as Nadeem and Yusuf Khan were forced to work in double version (Punjabi and Urdu) films. Although Umer Sharif had made his debut in Hisaab (1986), he wanted to be in the front seat and directed, produced and acted in Mr 420 (1992), where he played three different roles. The success of the film got him Pakistan’s National Award for best director and actor, as well as four Nigar Awards in a single year, a record in itself.
Mr 420 became a hit and was instrumental in initiating a mini revival of Pakistan films that lasted till 1998. His dramas and movies brought about a much-needed change in Bollywood as well. A comedian hero was a rarity in the 1990s, and the upcoming star Govinda’s career got a boost after he starred in David Dhawan’s Aankhain (1993). Govinda’s future roles had shades of Umer Sharif. Bollywood’s Khiladi Akshay Kumar credits his success as a comedy star to Umer Sharif while Javed Jaffery, son of legendary Bollywood comedian Jagdeep, was also always full of praise for the legend.
When Salman Khan’s character Chulbul Pandey blurted “Main maarta kum aur ghaseet-ta zyada hoon” [I thrash less and drag more] in Dabangg (2010), people in Pakistan could not help but recall Umer Sharif rendering the exact same line decades back. The song Munni Badnaam Hui in Dabangg was originally Larrka Badnaam Hua, a qawwali rendered by Umer Sharif for a movie.
With the arrival of Pakistan’s first private TV channel STN in the early ’90s, Umer finally got the opportunity he was deprived of at the state broadcaster: to host a TV show in his unique style. He regularly did Eid shows, co-hosted Nigar Awards ceremonies and even hosted entertainment shows such as Hip Hip Hurray.
His first TV serial, Parda Na Uthao which he wrote and acted in as well, was produced by Rashid Khawaja in 2002. Exposing the lack of faith in the divine in our society, it featured an unusual painter: whichever person he painted died within hours and people flocked to him to seek revenge on their enemies. His TV shows Umer Sharif Hazir Ho, Umer Sharif vs Umer Sharif and The Sharif Show were hilarious as well as marvellous. In Umer Sharif vs Umer Sharif, he donned over 400 get-ups. The currently on-air Kapil Sharma Show bears a striking resemblance to The Sharif Show aired more than a decade ago.
Umer Sharif’s one-liners are still remembered to this day. In a show in India, he referred to Amitabh Bachchan as a ‘towering personality’, whose height people used to commit suicide. And as for Pakistani star Javed Sheikh, Umer’s “Lambay moonh ka fashion bhi aayega [the fashion of oblong faces will be ‘in’ some day]” jab still brings a smile to our faces.
When Pashto film star Musarrat Shaheen told him she still played the role of a 16-year-old girl, Umer’s response, “Are there no calendars there?” left the audience in stitches. Seasoned villain Shafqat Cheema expressed his desire to be part of every Pakistani film and Umer’s simple reply was, “Do you work for free?”
Only Umer Sharif had the guts to ask President Pervez Musharraf about the point of the atom bomb, when he inquired, “Yeh aap ne kya Shab-i-Bara’at ke liye rakha hai [Are you holding on to it so you can light it up on Shab-i-Bara’at]?” Gen Musharraf could not stifle his laugh.
A recipient of the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz, Umer Sharif remained active till 2019. The untimely death of his daughter Hira, in February 2020, left him utterly shattered. His health deteriorated and he became bedridden. By the time the Sindh Government intervened and Umer was flown out of Pakistan in an air ambulance on September 28 for treatment in the US, it was already too late for the ailing comedian. He died on October 2 in a hospital in Germany.
For someone who spent his life spreading joy and laughter, he left everybody heartbroken and grief-stricken in death.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 10th, 2021