It has been often seen that radio artists find it difficult to adapt to or perform on television but an exception to this rule was the legendary Ismail Tara.

Tara began his career through stage plays in 1964. He was first noticed in the film Assalamualaikum, performing a ‘twist’ dance in the song Muhabbat ke diye jala lo. The song also featured a teenage Raju Jamil who still remembers meeting Tara then.

“I had gone to watch the shoot of the song on a farm in Malir when a guy from production asked me to match steps with Ismail and another guy for the dance sequence. Nirala, Rozina and the producer-actor Feroz, who was lip-syncing to Saleem Shahzad’s song, were present. That was my first meeting with Ismail Tara, who became a friend for life,” recalls the now 73-year-old Jamil, who went on to act in countless TV serials.

Dancing always remained Tara’s first love. The Disco Chor skit from the popular Fifty Fifty is a clear proof of it, where he shows his skills on Michael Jackson’s popular song Billy Jean. His performance on One-Way Ticket and the matak belt adverts were equally hilarious. Parodies of tragedy scenes from films and the mimicry of film stars all but came naturally to him. He portrayed a Pathan chowkidar (watchman) in one skit and a Western cowboy a la Clint Eastwood in another. Still, success did not come easily to Tara.

Friends and former colleagues remember Ismail Tara, who inspired comedy fans across generations

The years 1972-73 are considered the teething years of television in the country and films were the ultimate stop for many young aspiring actors such as Tara. The creation of Bangladesh had wiped out the entire east wing of Pakistan’s film industry and Lahore became the major film production centre.

Ismail Tara found success in Karachi, where he regularly performed with Salahuddin Toofani. The duo was known for its stand-up comedy and invited for stage shows and private gatherings. They became a sensation through audio cassettes, which carried political satire as well as jokes on ethnic communities.

Ashraf Khan, Ismail Tara’s co-star in Fifty Fifty always loved pairing up with the late star. “Ismail Tara was one of my favourite actors and working with him was an unforgettable experience. Tara had already appeared in Hello Hello and Intizaar Farmaiye on PTV before Fifty Fifty, but the way he performed was phenomenal,” recalls Ashraf Khan, who also became famous for his skits as well as his picturisation of parodied film songs in the show.

Veteran actor Javed Shaikh had a long association with Tara. “Ismail Tara, Razzaq Raju, Umer Sharif, Behroz Sabzwari and I were quite close during the initial days of our careers. We regularly performed at Adamjee Hall, Fleet Club, Ali Bhai Auditorium and many other places, and Ismail’s performance was amazing in all the plays.

“With his demise, his chhutkulay [comedic one-liners] will be missed, which he even delivered at private gatherings,” reminiscence Javed Shaikh, who worked with Ismail Tara in theatre, TV and films over a period spanning four decades.

Fifty Fifty gave Ismail Tara the playing field he needed. As a master of ad lib, Ismail Tara could easily blow life into a skit with his spontaneity.

His pairing with Majid Jahangir and Zeba Shehnaz was the highlight of the show. He would play Zeba’s husband, grandfather and student with effortless ease, while in the early ’80s, the Ismail-Majid pair was at the peak of its popularity.

Unforgettable skits, such as Murad Khan and Mary, Bashira in Trouble and Musammat Mutiaray, owe much of their success to the brilliance of Tara. His impromptu performances and iconic lines immortalised many characters, be it the Bihari Babwa’s “Ajab keh raha hai bhai” or the Bengali servant’s “Aik dafa ya do dafa?”, Dada jaan’s “Hiyaan se hooaan” or Mithoo‘s “Amma ne maara!” Each of these is part of television history now.

The show also brought to prominence the 6-ft 3-inch Adil Wadia, still remembered by many fans as Chhotu. “Ismail and I were in school together at London Academy, Lawrence Road (now known as Nishtar Road), unaware what the future held for us. There was no way anyone could have predicted that he would become so popular back then,” remembers Wadia, whose knife-sharpening skit with Tara in Fifty Fifty still momentarily startles audiences.

After a failed first innings in films, Tara resumed working for PTV in 1987, writing and acting in the sitcom Ghar Rama. After a few years had passed, he was back in the movies for a successful second innings, and soon became a familiar face in films made by Shamim Ara and Javed Shaikh.

Tara starred in Shamim Ara’s Beta (1992), Haathi Mere Saathi (1993) and Munda Biggra Jaye (1995) before moving to Javed Shaikh’s camp with Chief Saab (1996), Yes Boss (1997) and Yeh Dil Aapka Hua (2002). He won five Nigar Awards for his performances in films.

With the arrival of private TV channels, he was seen back in business with Lyari King Live, a parody of CNN’s flagship show Larry King Live. Veteran comedian Hanif Raja, who also wrote the script for some episodes of the show, calls him an ‘institute’ and remembers the time he spent in his room as a kid, copying the skits of Fifty Fifty in front of a mirror.

“Whenever one used to see a traffic constable, he would be addressed as ‘Urri urri’, inspired by the character played by Tara bhai, who enacted the character so close to reality,” recalls Hanif Raja.

The late producer-actor Tanveer Jamal also tried to bring Majid Jehangir and Ismail Tara for a show Ajab Keh Raha Hai Bhai in 2010, but the idea did not click with audiences.

Ismail Tara was a comedian for all ages. He starred as his namesake in the Babra Sharif film Tina (1983), playing a sidekick to Faisal Rehman’s lead character and he lately played the role of the titular character’s uncle in the 2018 animated blockbuster feature Donkey King.

Ismail Tara’s demise on November 24 brings an end to a career that spanned over five decades. From theatre to cinema, from the audio to the visual medium, Tara had his finger on the pulse of his audience and never disappointed them. He received the Pride of Performance award in August last year.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 4th, 2022

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