Dying For A Laugh: The Comedian in Lollywood

I think it was around the time I was in class five (so an eon ago). I would spend many an afternoon whiling away the summer at classmate Maria’s house just down the street from my own. We would listen to Nazia and Zohaib, act out bizarre horror-romance stories with our raggedy Barbie and Ken dolls, and generally potter about in the orchard out back. Occasionally, when it just got too darn hot, we would bundle into her parents’ room to watch a movie on the VCR. On one such occasion, an oddity was dug out from goodness knows where – a Pakistani Punjabi flick. Not having much choice, with much trepidation we popped the tape into the gaping cavity of the machine, not knowing what to expect; after all, Punjabi films by that time were well into the gujjar mode. The first surprise was that it turned out to be a black-and-white film; the second, that it was a comedy. When, two hours and some minutes later, the ‘The End’ card rolled around, we were converts. And I would have to say that it was that lazy afternoon viewing of Naukar Vohti Da that helped to steer me away from the snooty notion that Pakistani cinema wasn’t worth the cut-rate celluloid that it was printed on. The 1974 Munawwar Zareef caper was a masterful study in improbably hilarious plot twists and some of the sharpest (and mostly ad-libbed) verbal comedy put on film. The song ‘Chup kar dharh wat ja, na ishqe da khol khlasa’ remains imprinted on my brain to this day.

Munawwar Zareef of course had been the biggest film star of his day. Like his elder brother, Zareef, before him, Munawwar had started out as ‘comic support’ in bit parts, then been promoted to bigger roles as main comic relief, to what was known as side-hero, and then finally to full-fledged hero status in the 1970s. In classics like Banarsi Thug, Sheeda Pastol, Manji Kithay Dhanwan, Sharif Badmash, Miss Hippy, and the legendary Jeera Blade, he consolidated his reputation as a comedian with impeccable timing and rapier-sharp wit that scarcely needed prompting from a screenwriter. Indeed, many old-timers have sworn up and down that more often than not, Munawwar would work without a script; the director would simply give the actor the outline of any given scene’s situation, switch the camera on, and then stand back and watch in awe as comedic fireworks flew. In Ajj Da Mahinwal, he milked black comedy laughs out of the titular folklore drowning victim’s fate, by making his entry as a swimming champ! Sadly, also like his brother, Munawwar would meet an early end, succumbing to a heart attack at age thirty-six in 1976.

Munawwar Zareef’s equivalent in Urdu cinema would probably have to be Lehri, another master of spoken comedy whose way with a cutting one-liner was the stuff of legend. Lehri’s (real name Safeer Ullah) persona of the cultured, urbane, Urdu-speaking gent complemented his low-key but acerbic style, and he too knew his way around an adlib or two. Legend has it that he was once approached by a filmmaker to essay a role in a new film he was producing. When Lehri went for a script meeting, the filmmaker instead screened the said film for him which apparently he had already shot. When the puzzled actor enquired as to what was required of him since the film was already in the can, the filmmaker requested him to just improvise a few comedy scenes which he would then insert randomly into the film! In his nearly 40 year career, Lehri received an unprecedented twelve Nigar film awards for Best Comedian, for films like Daman, Kaneez, Saiqa, Nayi Laila Naya Majnu, Anjuman, Aaj Aur Kal, and Andaz. Ill health put a halt to his career when in 1986, he made his final film appearance in Dhanak.

The third name that looms large over Pakistani film comedy is that of Rangeela whose brand of physical comedy found immense popularity among audiences. Rangeela’s penchant for slapstick might seem a little quaint today and it also unfortunately takes away the spotlight from the fact that his was in fact a totally far-out, almost anarchical sense of humour that found form in such mind-bogglingly surreal classics as Insaan Aur Gadha, Kubra Aashiq (an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame!) and the truly, uniquely bizarre Aurat Raj, in which Rangeela, on writing and directing duties as well, imagined the world with gender roles reversed. Result? Chocolate hero Waheed Murad and macho man Sultan Rahi in sarees! But Rangeela also had a taste for pathos, most expertly employed in Rangeela, where the number ‘Sab toun sohneya hai vey man mohneya’ provided a beautifully poignant denouement.

The comedy duo of Ali Ejaz and Nanha also achieved iconic status in the 70s and 80s. Unlike most double-acts however, there was no ‘straight man’ in the team; both were superb comedic talents, worlds apart and yet the perfect foil for each other: Ejaz the dead-pan Punjabi urbanite, Nanha the roly-poly childlike innocent with a hidden, gleefully wicked streak. Together they created box-office gold with films like Dubai Chalo, Sala Sahib, Sahib Jee and Noukar Te Maalik. Nanha’s suicide in 1986 brought a premature end to the winning streak, with a heartbroken Ejaz returning to his TV roots.

There are others too of course, like Charly, Khalid Saleem Mota, Shakeel Siddiqui, Malik Anokha, Nirala, and in later years, Irfan Khoosat, Ismail Tara, Albela, etc., who contributed their bit to comedy in Pakistani cinema. Special mention must also go to Afzal Kahn a.k.a. John Rambo who single-handedly revived the concept of the comic hero in the 1990s. Today, though, Pakistani cinema itself is on its death bed.

And that’s no laughing matter.

– additional input from Vasay Chaudhry

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