• 09 Oct - 15 Oct, 2021
  • Alina Qamar
  • Obituary

2021 has been a sobering year. It has certainly proved to be a tumultuous time for celebrity deaths. It has felt like our phones have acted as a digital conduit – a 21st-century Grim Reaper updating us on the latest passing. Things become that little bit more frightening when you discover someone you admired has died. It came something as a shock to learn that, at 66, comedian Umer Shareef had died last week.

In the evening, like many others, we seek solace in TV – this is where we millennials first discovered the legendary Umer Shareef, hosting his own late-night talk show, The Shareef Show, on Geo TV. It quickly became one of our go-to shows. Umer Shareef would regularly interview actors, entertainers, musicians, and politicians. Shareef’s irreverent and subversive interview style often meant guests would frequently erupt into fits of laughter. No one was safe from his idiosyncratic take on the classic interview. It was this ability to make people feel comfortable and respected even while roasting them at the fullest, that defined his career.

Born in Karachi on April 19, 1955, Mohammad Umer (known professionally as Umer Shareef) honed his laconic delivery and deadpan style throughout his career. An actor, comedian, director, producer, and television personality, he was regarded as one of the greatest comedians of the sub-continent and is also referred to as the King of Comedy.

In 1974, Umer started his career from Karachi as a stage performer at the age of 14. Some of his extremely popular comedy stage plays were 1989's Bakra Qistoon Pe and Buddha Ghar Pe Hai. He singlehandedly revived theatre at a time when its decline was foreshadowed.

Shareef was a total comedy royalty, having recognition beyond borders and a clout to make the world laugh. Apart from his incessant work for Pakistan, his reach was such that he appeared as a guest judge on the Indian stand-up comedy show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, alongside Navjot Singh Siddhu, and Shekhar Suman.

But we will mostly remember him for his refusal to pander to an audience. Neither did he opted for ways to bring more audience unnaturally nor did he had to generate fake laughs. His jokes and stories were both universally relatable and a fun peek into a person’s everyday life. Where Shareef differed most from today’s other comics was in his refusal to seek constant attention. His best work was improvised and unscripted and often came with a hidden message. It’s safe to say his style was unique. At times his work was drawn out – one famous joke lasted 12 minutes – other times it was short and scathing.

As far as his achievements are concerned, Shareef received National Awards for Best Director and Best Actor in 1992 for Mr. 420. He received 10 Nigar Awards, making him the only actor to receive four Nigar Awards in a single year. He received three Graduate Awards. Shareef was also a recipient of Tamgha-e-Imtiaz.

Once Shareef’s career took off, he began what would become his lifelong passion of philanthropy. In 2006, he formed the Umer Shareef Welfare Trust with the stated goal of creating a state of the art health centre that provides services free of cost.

But behind all that laughter, no one knew Shareef was suffering. He didn’t revel in victimhood culture that appears to dominate the lives of celebrities in our contemporary secular confessional world. It was not until recently when images and news of his sickness started going viral. On 10th September 2021, Pakistani television host and news anchor Waseem Badami posted a video of Shareef on Instagram where he requested the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to facilitate cancer treatment for him overseas. Soon after the video came out, many national and international celebrities reposted the video and also appealed to Prime Minister for immediate treatment for Shareef. On 11th September 2021, the government formed a medical board to decide whether or not to send him abroad for treatment. He was granted a United States visa for medical treatment on 16th September 2021 and the Sindh government also approved 40 million rupees for his treatment. Alas, on 2nd October 2021, he died in a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, battling cancer, at the age of 66. Umer Shareef’s death is indeed a colossal loss to the comedy world. •