omedy and humor in Pakistan has a long legacy in both elite and popular traditions. As Pakistan has developed, so has its society and what is considered funny. While the origins of writing and performing comedy can be traced from long before Partition, comedy has used each new form of media to capture the pulse of society, in an attempt to ridicule and explore its dynamics.
History in Literature and Oral Comedy
The most recognized and well documented tradition of literary comedy can be traced from 15th century, when Raja Birbal, one of Emperor Akbar’s Navaratanas (nine jewels) had a prominent place in his court, due to his tales of wit and humor. He was also one of the first to create humorous, satirical, and witty poetry to ridicule and question the status quo. This concept of experimenting with language and commonly accepted metaphors to create comedy in Urdu literature, has branched out to become separate genres, called Hajv’, Latiifi, and muzahiya.
Prominent names that followed in this tradition were Sauda, Dagh, Haji Laq Laq, Akbar Allahabadi, Zameer Jafri, Sarfraz Shahid, and Anwar Maqsood. In literary prose, the likes of Shaukat Thanvi, Patras Bukhari, Sahfique-ur-Rehman, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousafi, Ibn-e-Insha and many more made a name for themselves by writing prose full of wit and acute observation. But an important tradition of humor and comedy in Pakistan has been oral.
The bhands in Punjab and Kashmir were the earliest stand-up-comedians of the region. Their troupe, usually two comedians with a group of musicians, would show up at weddings, festivals, harvests, and child-births, mostly uninvited. Bhands would disrupt the proceedings, sometimes beating a dufli (small drum).
The performers opened their act by singing a poetic piece in praise of the hosts or guests, flattering and appeasing them in hope of better rewards. This was followed by the comic routine – jokes at the expense of the patriarch/groom, his friends and parents, the elders and the landlords.
Bhand Performers at NCA Rawalpindi in 2007
Other examples of wandering performers who brought comic relief to rural communities were nautankis (theatre groups), madaris (acrobats), behrupiyas (personifiers), Nakkaal (mimics), and putli tamashas (puppetry acts). Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have similar comedy traditions that depend on poetry and performance to make audiences laugh. But these are very different, and unfortunately looked down as ‘folk theatre’ in a modernizing Pakistan.
After Partition when Pakistani cinema was still developing, the first comedian to have found success on the silver screen was Zarif Senior. Unfortunately, he died in 1960, but his younger brother, Munawar Zarif, took over as the uncrowned ‘King of Comedy’. While Munawar Zarif was the leading man of many blockbuster Punjabi films, his sidekick, Nirala, was treated as comic relief and the butt of the joke.
Munawwar Zarif in 1959
Rafi Khawar, alias Nanna, formed a pair with another exceptional comedian Ali Ejaz on screen, and his films such as Naukar (Servant) and Insaniyat (Humanity) were well received. Saeed Khan, alias Rangeela, deserves a special mention due to his unique brand of comedy. He went on to appear in more than 550 films, some of them considered cult films even today. He was a body-builder, painter, hero, comedian, producer, director, writer, singer, distributor and composer, all at the same time.
Saeed Khan Rangeela
Taking on such traditions, Afzal Khan aka John Rambo, Zeba Shahnaz, Nayyar Ejaz and Faisal Qureshi have successfully taken on this legacy of playing humorous roles in big screen productions.
By the 1970s and 1980s, televisions became more prevalent in urban Pakistani households. From slapstick to satire, political lampoonery to wit, television shows made generations laugh, despite the changing political climate. Big names such as Shoaib and Saleema Hashmi, Dildar Pervaiz Bhatti, Shoaib Mansoor, Moeen Akhtar and Bushra Ansari emerged in this period, and are still highly rated today.
Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood
It is worth noting that the recently deceased Athar Shah Khan Jaidi also played a special role in the comedic landscape of Pakistan, with a 20-year career and over 700 plays on television and stage. His television serial, Jaidi ke Sang (With Jaidi), provided some much needed levity and humor during the Zia-ul-Haq regime of censorship and restriction.
Athar Shah Khan as Jaidi
Recently, the trend of daily satirical talk shows on TV has garnered a loyal following, thanks to its ability to offer quick and biting comments on recent political events and figures. Shows such as Mazakraat (Dialogues), Hasb-e-Haal (Current Status), and Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain (We’re all Okay) have become a staple in the new era of privatized and free media.
During the 80s and 90s in Karachi, comedy theater plays became a popular means of live entertainment. Within the comedy genre, the likes of Umer Sharif and Moeen Akhtar led the way with Bakra Qistoon Par (Goat on Installments) or Buddha Ghar Pay Hay? (Is the old man at home?). The ability to buy and watch recordings of these productions on video tapes in the rest of Pakistan, allowed their comedy to reach and entertain a much wider audience than before.
In Lahore, comedy found an audience ready to venture to Alhamra Arts Centre and other smaller theatres on the weekends. Though the productions were often criticized for being unrefined and burlesque, they kept drawing audience with talents like Aman Ullah, Irfan Khoosat, Naseem Vicky, Iftikhar Thakur and more. The actors often improvised their lines onstage, and their juggats (one-liner banter) drew thunderous laughter from the audience.
The Digital World
Now, a whole new breed of Vloggers, YouTubers, and standup comedians are emerging across social media. They use different social media applications to reach out to an even wider, more youthful audience. Oftentimes, they challenge popular comedy tropes that seem outdated and patriarchal in the current age. They are required to be both creative and social media savvy to create interesting and funny content.
Social Media Comedian Faiza Saleem
Comedy across Pakistan has always relied on the social milieu in which it operates, different mediums of communications, and the nature of the audience that they are addressing. It is a way in which popular culture understands, questions and laughs at changing circumstances and rigid customs. For Pakistanis who continue to search for our rich tradition of humor and satire, many of the actors and writers’ works mentioned in this article are available online in archival form.
Tabish Hashmi broke the internet with his witty personality and natural humor. His show gain popularity in no time. From social media influencers to mainstream celebrities all have made appearances on his show. The show was absolute hit, which made Geo offer him a comedy show on a bigger platform.
Tabish Hashmi took his humor to another level and started his own comedy show with Geo Tv. Hasna Mana Hai is popular these days among audience. The comedy show is giving a new perspective to entertainment industry. Similarly celebrities are very respected on his show and the audience get to see a new side of their favorite celebrities. His journey from digital world to mainstream television was quick and interesting. Here is a snipet from his first day of his set.