Umer Sharif: A tribute to the merchant of laughter
What made him tickle our funny bone like no other comedian and why there will be no one like him.
They say humour can be one of our best survival tools; perhaps that is why a major percentage of Asians rely on few names to keep their ailing loved ones happy. And Umer Sharif’s stage plays have played a pivotal role in bringing joy and laughter into their lives.
Just like all good things come to an end, this person too, who brought countless joys and laughter to every household, bid farewell to the world on Saturday, October 2, after battling a prolonged illness. He was being taken to the US via an air ambulance when his health deteriorated, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Germany where he breathed his last.
The news was first broken by Dr Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany who tweeted, “With deep sorrow it is announced that Mr. Umer Sharif has passed away. In Germany. Our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Our CG is present at the hospital to assist the family in every way.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened to learn of Sharif's passing. Taking to his Twitter account, he said that he had "the good fortune" of touring with the comedian to raise funds for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and he acknowledged that Umer was “one of our great entertainers and will be missed.”
Messages started pouring in from artists and dignitaries around the world who expressed their grief on the social media. Well-known comedians like Johny Lever, Javed Jaffrey and Kapil Sharma mourned his death. On a lot of occasions these world-renowned comedians have confessed their adulation for the legend and how their work is influenced by his humour.
A few years ago, when I was interviewing Govinda in the UAE, he commented, “Whatever comedy I know is because of Umer Sharif sahib. A lot of people say that they are his fan, but I am someone who is beyond his fan. I am his bhakt.”
A young Umer Sharif on stage
His stage plays are like songs which you can play on repeat, you remember the words and punch lines, and you never get tired of them. “His comedy was something which was shared and loved across the border, just like Noorjehan’s or Lata’s songs. No matter what part of the world you have come from; if you understand Urdu or Hindi, then there are big chances that you would be an Umer Sharif fan. Here in Toronto, it has become like a tradition to watch his plays on Eid holidays when friends and family gather. We have many Indian friends with whom we have watched his plays over and over again and we would laugh our heads off,” says Malika Merchant who is a Pakistani expat living in Toronto, Canada.
Born in 1955, Umer faced the audience live at the tender age of fourteen using the name Umer Zarif but later made it Umer Sharif. VCRs were a luxury then. His audio cassettes were equally in demand. He would never hold back from cracking jokes on the biggest stars of those times or their physical attributes.
In one of his audio cassettes in the 80’s, he picked up two of the most well-known personalities of Pakistani superstar Babra Sharif and the tallest man Alam Channa. As Babra was one of the shortest actresses, he said “Alam Channa wears socks of the size of Babra” and when they are walking together “it seems that a father is going to the market with his daughter to get her balloons”. That did upset Babra for some time but she later said, “I am lucky that my name helped Umer bhai in his content.”
Known to pick names unabashedly, during his famous 15-minute stint at the Zee Cine Awards, Umer mentioned that he was advised by the event management team to refrain from making jokes about the Bachchan family. And guess what, Amitabh was the first one he picked as soon as he started his act on the stage. Visibly, Amitabh enjoyed it and clapped at each of his lines.
Speaking of Amitabh, Umer Sharif’s video cassettes took comedy to unprecedented heights. In 1989 when Amitabh’s Jadugar was released, its print was sent to Pakistan by the Indian distributors in exchange of one of Umer Sharif’s most famous stage plays, Bakra Qiston Pe. A barter which was never heard of.
‘In the eighties, in India, our only source of entertainment was Doordarshan and the movies that got released. But, during those days, one of the best gifts received by our family was a set of video casettes of Bakra Qiston Pe. Those were the days of pure comedy, and I was probably one of the millions of Indians who laughed and watched repeatedly the genius of Umer Sharif. That one play made him a household name and is still remembered even after so many decades. Its a big loss not only for Pakistan, but every fan across nationalities. I would just remember him as a smile merchant,” says an ardent Indian fan, Yogesh Pandit who is a UAE resident.
The best thing about Umer was that he was not only the king of words and one-liners, but no one did physical comedy better than him. He has dressed as a monkey, a jungle man, a robot, a eunuch and so on and aced it all. For instance, his entry scene in Budha Ghar Par Hai? where he enters the stage dancing on a drum beat wearing layers of shirts, a bandana and sunglasses.
While dancing, he removes his shirts one after another and when he takes all the extra layers off, he seamlessly transforms into a street vendor selling clothes, leaving the audience in splits. This kind of physical comedy is a rare sight these days especially in the growing digital world.
Umer’s play, though comic in nature, had an underlying tone of sarcasm and cultural commentary. His performances often mirrored the society that we live in and his content highlighted issues that these societies face on a regular basis. Perhaps this is why his content has outlived decades and thanks to the digital media influx, the new generation has also been introduced to the work of the legend through the videos uploaded by fans around the world.
For many growing up in the 80s and 90s, the name Umer Sharif was synonymous with laughter and through his work, he will continue to live in the hearts of millions of his fans.
Here’s to the man who gave us smiles and laughter and knew no other language.