I met him on the sets of a film starring Darpan and Shamim Ara in Shahnoor Studios somewhere in the late nineteen fifties. I then witnessed the Lehri magic as, with a totally deadpan expression, he said something that sent the whole film crew into convulsive laughter. For the next thirty minutes I sat mesmerized listening to the man as he, my late father and my Dad’s old time friend Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, sat on the edge of a ‘make believe’ fountain, sipping cups of tea and talking of ‘this and that’. I next saw Lehri Sahib on television and was shocked to see, what time and a selfish industry had done to him. He appeared under nourished, unwell and a shadow of his former self. A voice somewhere inside my head kept telling me that this was perhaps the last time that we would see one of the greatest comedy stars of all times, alive. The news of his demise, a short time later, delivered a stunning blow, to the well-loved comedy format of all times i.e. oral wit.
The fifties was a time, when three comedians ruled the film industry. While Lehri’s incomparable performances lay in his witty dialogues (made wittier by clever improvisation), Nazar and Diljeet Mirza adopted a different routine that came close to ‘slap stick’. Diljeet was a robust character with a moustache, while Nazar was thin and gangly, with a face custom made to make people laugh. These two individuals acted as the hero’s sidekick and entertained audiences with their antics and accentuated body language. It is however interesting to recall that Diljeet often played the inebriated comedian. Two famous stars Rangeela and Nirala later adopted the ‘slap stick’ format successfully.
The two most watched funny actors of the pre-independence era were ‘Gope’ and ‘Lala Yaqub’. I remember seeing a few of their movies in Lahore. ‘Gope’ was exactly what his name signified – fat and very well-rounded. Yaqub lacked the bulk, but produced laughter as effectively as his colleague. I can still recall Lala’s famous lines in a movie (the name of the film slips memory) of my childhood days – “Haath men paisa nahin, aur jeb men paee nahin, isliye tasweer e jaanan hum ne khichwaee nahin.”
It was somewhere in the (not so late) sixties, that I saw a young man go through his ‘stand up’ act in a ground breaking television show hosted by the great Zia Mohiyuddin. My spirits soared as I watched a faithful revival of the Lehri wit and style. This young rising star was none other than the late Moeen Akhtar (whose connection with Lehri Sahib) surfaced after the former’s demise. A few years after his first appearance on television, I was visiting my in-laws when, a car entered the porch and out stepped someone, who by then had become a national showbiz icon – Moeen Akhtar. I have since then cherished the memory of the hours spent with this amazing individual as he grew in stature, reaching the very top by teaming up with the one and only Anwar Maqsood, whose loaded script resonated perfectly with the star’s immeasurable talent, to bring joy to almost every home in Pakistan. To the great relief of audiences thirsty for more ‘oral wit’, television began patronizing comedy, discovering stars such as Umer Sharif and Bushra Ansari, to name a few. Then devastating news came that the incomparable Moeen Akhtar was no more.
The art of verbal wit in the west became synonymous with British Comedies such as ‘Eric Sykes’, ‘Mind Your Language’, ‘Yes Minister’ and its sequel ‘Yes Prime Minister’. The slap stick style was symbolized by silent movies in the early years of cinema, since exaggerated body movements made up for lack of audio. This era produced nuggets like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops and with the coming of audio by ‘The Three Stooges’ and ‘Lucy’.
It is impossible to pay a fitting tribute to the world of comedy and those, who immortalized it. Whatever be the type, being funny continues to be the essence of entertainment, as laughter is rated as the most effective dose of medicine in the world.
The writer is a historian.