The great improviser!
Umar Sharif gets serious There's more to Pakistan's biggest comic icon than just wisecracks, witticisms and ribald belly dances
Umar Sharif's office where we're supposed to meet, is located deep within the recesses of Gulistan-e-Johar in Karachi. He patiently explains the way to me over the phone but when I am still dumbfounded, he quips, Since you're a female, I'll explain the route according to the shopping areas that come in the way. Traversing past at least five different malls, he re-explains and this time around, I manage to figure the way out! I meet up with Umar Sharif expecting him to be a barrel of laughs. The man is an icon; he practically invented modern day Pakistani comedy. All our most popular jokes - in fact, even most of the jokes being shot around on TV by other so-called comedians - were once penned by him. Twice, he has co-hosted the well-known Bollywood-based Zee Cine awards and he regularly travels abroad to do comedy shows. True, he has probably cracked some of his most famous jokes while dressed as a hick Makrani or a polygamous, libidinous scientist. More than once, he has broken into ribald belly dances in the middle of particularly hilarious comic acts.
But that's just his style. Umar Sharif hails from Karachi's eventful, frenetically-paced middle class and success hasn't made him want to hide his roots. He still makes fun of the English language, still jest-fully criticizes latest fashions and 20 years ago, he jokingly named the elite class 'burgers' - due to their propensity for fast food. His comedy is without pretensions. He makes no bones about who he is and what he finds funny. Less confident comedians may balk at coaxing an actor as reticent as Aamir Khan to sing 'Aati Kya Khandala', coquettishly accompanying him with the female part of the duet. Umar Sharif did it at the drop of a hat. My jokes are for the common man who is faced with daily tensions, he says. I've never aimed to please 'burgers'.
Nevertheless, his jokes please just about anybody who speaks and understands Urdu and his fans are dispersed all over the world. He has an uncanny way of knowing exactly what to ridicule in precisely the right way. So, while anybody else enacting a lascivious police officer on stage will probably appear obscene and ruffle quite a few feathers - when Umar Sharif does it, it may still be bawdy but you can't help but laugh. Recalling the good old days back in 1974, when he first began his career, he says, I was born to be an actor. I am at my best when I am on stage, although I have also worked in television and films.
I love performing live because I can say whatever I please and get an immediate response from the audience. If they don't like a joke, he continues, I can quickly reiterate. Sometimes I have stood on stage for three hours on end, while other co-actors have come and gone. I don't think I've ever gotten stage fright or forgotten my lines, says Umar Sharif. This is quite a feat considering that he has written, directed and acted in more than 175 dramas in the past 36 years. Umar Sharif's career as a comedian began, quite aptly, with a funny incident. Back when he was still in school, Umar Sharif decided to play a prank on his neighbor, an old man with a multitude of children. Dressed as a djinn, he entered the man's home and all hell broke lose. So convincing was he as a bloodcurdling djinn that one of the girls, a college student, fainted and had to be hospitalized. News of Umar Sharif's antics reached the girl's college and he was asked to perform as a djinn in the upcoming college play. That was Umar Sharif's first tryst on stage. And the rest is showbiz history. Initially though, Umar Sharif's stage endeavors were not appreciated. In his first play, Chiragh Talay Andhera, the director was exasperated by Umar Sharif's tendency to add to his dialogues. Back then, a play would be staged for just one day but it would be preceded by month-long rehearsals, he explains.
The director would be strict about following the dialogue word-by-word. But when I came on stage, I couldn't help adding bits of my own to the lines. The audience laughed at these improvisations although the caste and crew weren't too pleased. I was berated a few times but when I continued to do this in successive plays, people stopped wanting to work with me. Now on the contrary, it is this very spontaneity that has Umar Sharif's audience rolling in the aisles. Quick-witted and glib, he hardly ever needs to follow a script - the jokes come naturally. In a stage drama, I never stick to the script dialogues. Even in my talk show, The Shareef Show, I don't have a pre-written script or a list of questions to ask my guests. I just know their backgrounds and have a few pointers. When the show begins, I interview them in the course of conversation. In The Shareef Show, currently being aired on Geo TV, the guest list ranges from politicians to film actors to bona fide ghazal singers. Talk shows are dime a dozen on TV these days but The Shareef Show stands out not just because of the impressive guests but also due to Umar Sharif's ability to shower Pakistan's rich and famous with the most audacious questions.
Smoothly, smilingly, he has no qualms interrogating politician Sheikh Rasheed about his days in jail or Mustafa Khar about his numerous marriages. I really enjoyed interviewing Mustafa Khar, he laughs. Instead of asking him upfront how many times he had married, I grilled him about the age of his youngest child. At first, he was disconcerted and tried to dodge the question but eventually he admitted that his youngest child was just one and a half years old! Surprisingly, no matter how personal the questions, his guests don't take offense or they don't show their displeasure, at least. Pakistan's most eminent personalities laugh self-deprecatingly and go on to answer probing questions regarding love affairs, rivalries, scandals, et al. I think when people are invited to my show, they know what to expect, he reasons. Besides, my questions may be brazen but I am never disrespectful.
I sugarcoat whatever I say and I think my guests appreciate that. Occasionally, guests react to his interrogations with personal questions of their own.
When interviewing Sharmila Farooqi he asked her about her love life and she retaliated by questioning him right back on how he was able to manage two wives at the same time. I didn't mind her questions at all, he professes spiritedly. I am very honest about who I am and have nothing to hide. Yes, I have married twice but I feel that it is better to displease your wife than to displease God by sinning. I've also put this view forward in the religious book I have written. He considers himself a very religious man and his soon to be published book on religion focuses on Qura'nic verses and Allah's many blessings. In fact, throughout our conversation, Umar Sharif makes frequent references to the Qur'an, sinning and virtue. Also during our talk, he occasionally quotes poetic verses, some of renowned Urdu poets and others which he has written himself. Up for release alongside his theological book is a book of poetry that he has penned, a collection of short stories and a compilation of the scripts of some of his more popular stage dramas. When I started out, I was inspired by Munawar Zareef. I have written this book on stage dramas as a reference for aspiring comedians, he says. Umar Sharif's book writing reveals a more introspective, serious side to the comedian. Contrary to expectations, he isn't always a wisecracking, rollicking comic act. The man certainly is witty but he is just as earnest when discussing the evils of load shedding and water shortage. He jokes as a matter of course but, just as willingly, he quotes Urdu poets like Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He loves to make people laugh but he is just as passionate about raising funds for a hospital he is building in Karachi's Orangi Town, Maa. I have won so many awards and have such a large fan base, he says. Now, my dream is to have the Maa hospital completed and functioning. It is a large project and requires heavy investment. Wherever I go, whatever work I am doing, I try to raise funds on the side. I hope to have the hospital functional by January next year. Orangi Town, where Maa's foundations have been laid down, is one of the most impoverished and neglected areas of Karachi. According to a survey of the area conducted by Umar Sharif's Welfare Trust, women and children living in the area are more susceptible to disease. Thus Maa is going to focus especially on the plight of women and children, with 200 beds and medical care available for anyone who can't afford to pay his or her own bills. 50 of the beds will be for people involved in showbiz, plans Umar Sharif. Many of these people live in the most destitute conditions and I especially want to do this service for them. Recently Umar Sharif toured the U.S.A. and organized fundraising shows for Maa in different cities. As a Pakistani attempting to raise funds in the U.S., I ask him if he faced any skepticism. Not at all, he asserts. My work was investigated by the U.S. government before I was allowed into the country.
The shows went very well and I received a lot of support from the Urdu and Hindi speaking communities over there. Whether he is fundraising or not, Umar Sharif is one of the lucky few who doesn't usually have to deal with unnecessary red tape or racial intolerance. The world may be plagued by terrorism and prejudice, but Umar Sharif is welcomed by loyal fans wherever he goes. It seems that his jokes hardly ever go wrong. When he was invited to host the Zee Cine Awards in 2004, he was advised not to poke fun at Amitabh Bachchan. It was feared that the raillery of a star of Bachchan's iconic status, that too by a Pakistani, may not go down well with the audience as well as with the actor himself. Standing live on the podium - pluckily, typically - he chose Big B as his very first victim. Everybody, including Mr Bachchan, laughed - no offense taken. Such is his comic acumen that Pakistani comedians visiting India often openly lift his jokes during their comic acts, passing them off as their own, and manage to make a name for themselves. Many of these comedians started their careers in Umar Sharif's stage dramas and honed their comic skills under his tutelage. Strangely enough, Umar Sharif is quite calm about their outright plagiarism. All I feel is disappointment when I see them on TV, lifting my jokes, he says. Here, they have been provided with a platform through which they can establish themselves and all they do is plagiarize. They may be able to get a few laughs right there and then but people know that these jokes have been lifted and are not these comedians' original creations. Left to their own devices, look at the kind of shows they are coming up with, he points out. The comic shows on TV can hardly be considered funny. They are too busy trying to imitate other comic acts to come up with something new. Umar Sharif's jokes, on the other hand, never cease to be innovative. There are new jokes in every show that he does - some preconceived and others, formulated right there and then on stage. And even his old jokes are still hilarious - Why do women die less? They wear so much make-up that when they take it off at night, the angel of death fails to recognize them. He has recently been signed up to write, direct and act in an Indian movie which is sure to be hilarious. I ask him how he comes up with his jokes and he simply says that he just thinks them up. With writing, acting, directing, hosting as well as charity work in his daily agenda, Umar Sharif often comes back home in the early hours of the morning. He has diabetes and has undergone a bypass but that hasn't deterred him from working to the hilt. I want my name to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Umar Sharif reveals of his future plans. He already has international success in stage, film, television and stand-up comedy to his credit, the book of world records is really all that's left for him to achieve. And knowing his workaholic ways, his comic genius and his sheer energy, Umar Sharif just might make it happen!