IN MEMORIAM: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES

Published December 4, 2022
Photo: WhiteStar
Photo: WhiteStar

The recently departed comedian and actor Ismail Tara was never revered the manner in which his comic contemporaries, such as Umer Sharif and Moin Akhtar, were.

Like them, he too was born in Karachi and began his career on stage. But unlike the great Umer Sharif, who continued to use his successful ventures in theatre to find a place in films and on TV, Tara’s jump from relative obscurity to mainstream recognition was aided by a regular spot in the classic PTV skit show, Fifty Fifty. Moin Akhtar too had used TV in this manner, but his film career never really took off and he returned to TV to find an even bigger audience and fan base for himself.

Tara was born into a Gujarati-speaking Memon family in 1949. His real name was Muhammad Ismail Merchant. Like most Memon men, Ismail’s father, uncles and brothers too were traders and businessmen.

Memons were an active Muslim business community in Bombay (now Mumbai) in pre-Partition India. Many migrated to Pakistan after the country’s creation in 1947. There was already a Memon community in Karachi, a city which had become a hub of economic activity in the early 20th century. Most migrating Memons thus settled in Karachi.

Ismail Tara, who passed away November 24, was a master of physical comedy and mimicry. It was the legendary skit show Fifty Fifty that launched him to nationwide fame and it was its presence, first on VCDs and then on YouTube, that sustained it and made him a household name with a whole new generation of viewers

Not only did this community find itself at the heart of the city’s economic activity, it also became prominent patrons of Karachi’s cultural activities, such as popular theatre, qawwali concerts, ‘variety’ shows, and cinema.

The young Ismail often went to the cinema and stage plays with his elder brothers and cousins. He was immediately smitten by what he saw and decided to become an actor. He was a gifted mimic who entertained friends and relatives in gatherings.

But in 1964, at age 15, when Ismail managed to bag a small role in a play being staged by a small theatre company, his family did not approve. They had no issues with people going to watch plays or films. The Memons actually loved doing that. Yet, the sons were expected to become traders, shop owners or businessmen like their fathers and ancestors.

But Ismail was hellbent on becoming an actor. He kept getting tiny roles in stage plays until one of his elder brothers got hold of him and shaved off his hair as punishment.

From the mid-1960s, for young men, having long or longish hair had started to become a trend. This trend would last well into the 1970s. Now Ismail had no hair on his head and had to wait a long time for it to grow back. Once the hair returned, so did he to doing theatre. His family finally gave up.

He began to get more prominent roles when he demonstrated his comic skills, mimicking famous showbiz celebrities. But his real talent lay in mimicking common, everyday folk across the many ethnic groups and classes that still bolster the city’s demographic and economic diversity.

Photo: Dawn Library | Photos: WhiteStar
Photo: Dawn Library | Photos: WhiteStar

In 1972, he was approached by a man who was associated with the time’s famous TV spectacle, the Zia Mohyeddin Show. The show was the brainchild of actor, reciter and intellectual Zia Mohyeddin. It ran on state-owned PTV from 1972 till 1973. It was hosted by Zia, who invited poets, intellectuals, film actors and sportsmen to talk to them about various issues in front of a live audience.

The show also featured songs sung by famous vocalists. Sometimes comedians too were given the mic to crack jokes. Moin Akhtar was one of them, before he became a star comedian.

After Akhtar’s successful performance, the producers booked a slot for Ismail on the show. By then he had changed his name to Ismail Tara, because he thought his real name was ‘too long for showbiz’.

But any meaningful success continued to elude him. He was still just another minor stage actor, even though the stage continued to provide him the money that he required to sustain a modest lifestyle and to watch films in cinemas. He often visited PTV studios in Karachi and film sets, hoping to bag a role. But none came.

In late 1978, Ismail Tara was approached by a PTV employee who had seen him perform in a stage play. He was asked to meet a young TV producer who was planning to launch a weekly comedy skit show on PTV. Ismail reached the PTV studios and was handed a script by the producer. The producer was Shoaib Mansoor.

It was a short skit in which Ismail was supposed to act as the Bengali cook of a wealthy couple. It was just him speaking into the camera. Mansoor then made another, more experienced actor, perform the same skit. Mansoor thought Ismail’s take was better and he was inducted into the team of actors that would go on to carry the show.

Fifty Fifty was launched just one year after an elected government was toppled in a reactionary military coup engineered by Gen Ziaul Haq. A new censor policy had been announced, with restrictions on anything that the regime felt was ‘obscene’, ‘subversive’, or ‘against the country’s Islamic ideology’. Numerous actors, poets, films, songs and TV plays were outrightly banned.

Mansoor chose satirist Anwar Maqsood to script the show because Maqsood was good at dodging the censors with his subtle wit that the latter could not pick. But whereas he was often successful in doing that, overall, the show stuck to parodying only the bureaucracy, cops, Urdu films, advertisements and the idiosyncrasies of the country’s many ethnic communities.

The interesting bit about Fifty Fifty was that, even though most jokes fell flat because of the restrictions, it was the performances of the actors that became iconic. Two constants of the show in this regard were Ismail and another stage contemporary of his, Majid Jahangir. Both played multiple roles. They physically and vocally exaggerated the characteristics of the roles in such a manner that their performances managed to have more comic effect than the jokes that they were a part of.

Thus, the show became more performative than joke/script-based, especially after Mansoor and Maqsood had a falling out and the latter quit.

In 1980, Mansoor was left without a scriptwriter at a time when the show’s popularity was beginning to peak. Maqsood had managed to slip in some skits that were critical of the Zia dictatorship. Years later, Mansoor said that the censor board would often miss the subtle anti-government skits, but not Zia.

Zia was a keen TV-watcher and, according to Mansoor, he was particularly interested in Fifty Fifty. If he thought that the show had got away by criticising the regime, he would actually place a call to Mansoor and lecture him on the importance of his regime’s ‘Islamisation’ project. But the dictator never threatened to take the show off the air, as he had done a drama serial, Baleela.

Photos courtesy: Ahmed Mansoor Khan
Photos courtesy: Ahmed Mansoor Khan

After Maqsood’s exit, Mansoor hired a host of writers and even wrote some skits himself. They even went through issues of the famous American satire magazine MAD to pluck some jokes from there, but none worked.

This put even more pressure on Ismail and Jahangir to continue creating characters that were funnier than the jokes. In 1982, Ismail and Jahangir added even more pressure on themselves by agreeing to write the skits themselves. The result was the same. Funny characters in not-so-funny jokes.

The pressure and sudden fame brought with them tensions, especially between the show’s two mainstays. In 1982, Jahangir quit, leaving Ismail and another mainstay, Zeba Shahnaz, to carry on the show with other constants.

Only parodying subjects and personalities that the regime had ‘allowed’, frustrated Ismail and Mansoor. In 1982, they decided to fold the show and go their separate ways. However, Ismail had finally found an audience and mainstream fame.

Yet, whereas Jahangir managed to bag some minor film roles and roles in comedy TV plays (including some Sindhi plays), Ismail struggled. That’s why he quickly agreed to join when Mansoor decided to reboot the show in 1984. Jahangir returned as well. Maqsood did not.

However, they soon realised that they were to face even more restrictions. All they could now satirise or parody were ethnic groups, cricket and hockey stars, and violent Punjabi films. The bureaucracy too was off limits now, as was, of course, the regime and the clergy. But the last two were always not to be touched.

Ismail, Jahangir and Zeba created new characters. They were mostly exaggerated impressions of ethnic groups. This saw some of these communities launching complaints against the show for ridiculing them. Ismail responded by satirising his own community, the Memons. The results were hilarious, but the Memons too weren’t amused.

Frustrated, Mansoor cancelled the show for good. Jahangir married an American woman and left for the US. Shahnaz quickly found new work in TV plays. But, again, for some reason, Ismail struggled to find work, beyond theatre. But here too, he was entirely overshadowed by the likes of Umer Sharif who, ironically, had appeared in some minor roles in Fifty Fifty.

In 1990, the Shalimar Recording Company released a collection of Fifty Fifty skits on VHS. This not only regenerated the show’s popularity, but began to also introduce it to a new generation. This is when Ismail began to find roles in films and TV plays. He appeared in a series of Urdu films and then found a place for himself in the new, more bloated kind of TV serials that began to appear after private TV channels were allowed to operate from 2003 onwards.

He started to earn far more money than he had ever done before and began being respected as an experienced elder by the younger lot. But he still believed that his core talent, of being able to play a host of different characters, was never fully tapped after Fifty Fifty.

Playing one constant character in a film or a TV serial bored him. He tried to reboot Fifty Fifty with Shahnaz, but the project never got off the ground. Times had changed. Private TV channels were stuffed with skit shows that were entirely based on parodying political events and personalities. Ismail tried to enter this genre by hosting a mock talk show that parodied CNN’s Larry King Live. Ismail created a character called Lyari King. But the show quickly sank.

Fifty Fifty had belonged to a different age. Yet, when its skits began to appear on YouTube, it again found a whole new audience, who began watching it after being jarred by contemporary skit shows about politicians.

Again, plans were floated to revive Fifty Fifty. But Mansoor had become a film director, and the show’s core team members, including Ismail, had busied themselves by appearing in lucrative projects, especially TV plays and soap operas. Jahangir, though, was in trouble. His marriage had collapsed, he was back in Pakistan and in no shape to revive his career. It was tragic.

It was the presence of Fifty Fifty, first on VCDs and then on YouTube, that sustained Ismail’s fame.

He agreed that scriptwriters, actors and directors had to work harder in the highly restrictive cultural environment shaped by the Zia dictatorship. He thought this aided them to shape creative products that have aged well.

It is thus understandable that, during an interview which he gave to a young TV anchor in 2018 — an anchor who wasn’t even born when Fifty Fifty was on air — he couldn’t stop talking about the show.

Ismail passed away last Thursday a satisfied man.

He was 73.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 4th, 2022

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