What is the right way to do satire? Do comedians and satirists know the difference between punching up and punching down? How do you make jokes about the traumas of growing up in Karachi?
Khaled, Ali Gul Pir and Shehzad Ghias Shaikh have the answer.
Veteran actor Anam shared abandoned tales from the forgotten histories of Karachi in a session titled Laughter in Chaos on the third day, Sunday, of the Karachi Literature Festival. It was moderated by British-Pakistani journalist George Fulton and featured on the panel singer Ali Gul Pir and stand-up comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh.
“Karachi’s wit has been different from the rest of the world,” said Khaled. “We laugh in chaotic situations because shedding tears will do us no good.” Karachi has produced writers such as Haseena Moin, Mushtaq Ahmad Yousafi, among others, Khaled added, and seeking humour in crises has been the only way out for people hit hard by tumultuous times.
Satire in the digital age
He praised Ali and Shehzad’s fresh approach to satire in the digital age, saying celebrities his age are unable to engage with youngsters because they don’t know how to spice things up. “Our approach is not acceptable, or palatable,” he said. “Younger generation are the upgraded versions of humanity. They have a lot to teach us.” The only thing senior actors can do is share with youngsters their own experiences, he added.
“Karachi is a diverse city,” said Ali. “In random open mics here, you’ll find different kinds of humour.” In response to Khaled’s remark about comedians sugar-coating hard-hitting realities, he said: “There was subtlety [in the past] because of restrictions and people weren’t as desensitised as they are today.” There is a deluge of graphic material on the television; therefore, satire has to be blunt and right there in the face, he said.
Shehzad said different and stronger narratives stream into Karachi because of trauma people have been facing and their subtle conditioning into being indifferent to extreme crises and chaos. “Mobile snatching is a joke for us,” he said. “When there was a blast on one side of Sharae Faisal, I would take the other thinking it was safe.” Shehzad added there is a difference between making a joke out of an issue and belittling it. “If one is joking about a blast, they are not mocking it or those involved in it, but trying to cope with their own trauma through humour.”
Khaled believes people will always criticise humour because it is their nature. “Being blunt is not being disrespectful,” he said. “Youngsters are more open to comedy because they are educated. The ones who are concerned are the old, tasteless lot.” He said there is no point in whining when one has the remote in their hand and can switch the channel anytime, given various options.
“Because we live in a digital age, things stay forever,” said Shehzad in response to intolerance towards satire on social media. “People we want to kick out are doing talk shows in the evening thinking they shouldn’t go. And those who must go are writing Meray Paas Tum Ho.” As the truth has become more extreme , intolerance towards satire has increased manifold. Even if you look at [the late] Moin Akhtar or Umer Sharif’s private jokes, they are suggestive too, Shehzad said, adding that a lot of people don’t know about it because they haven’t yet seen their work.
“Satire shows extreme absurdity,” he remarked. “The major hurdle is to go beyond it. It needs to be more absurd.”
“I have seen two wars [1965 and 1971],” said Khaled. “My father was in the army and we lived in Kemari with many Jews and Hindus.” There was diversification, he added, but no conflict. Khaled used to sing in a church when he was six years old. When fear clouded over and danger lurked in every corner, a song, written by a street urchin according to Khaled, became children’s antidote to the terrors of war. “We used to sing it in the streets,” said Khaled. “It became a joke for us in those difficult times.” The lyrics mocked Jawaharlal Nehru.
Stereotypes in satire
Shehzad is of the opinion when one is performing satire on an oppressed community, such as transgender people, it is not satire anymore, but injustice. “You do it and you don’t even ask them how they feel,” he said. “What’s problematic is that people want to laugh at others without laughing or letting others laugh at themselves.”
“It’s all PC culture [political correctness],” remarked Ali. “Sindhis have been called corrupt and lazy, Punjabis cunning and Muhajirs sharp. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have been portrayed both on TV and in the theatre.” When I made Wadera ka Beta, he said, I didn’t call it “Sindhi ka beta” because I was making fun of an issue and that’s how you can reach a wider audience. He lamented the stereotyping of Pashtuns as well, who are referred to as Pathans in plays, which takes away their identity and cultural diaspora.
“For some reason we have forgotten to laugh at ourselves,” Khaled said. “Karachi’s Memon and Gujarati communities have a major role in development of theatre here. Memon humour is out of the world.”
The conversation then moved to what Shehzad described as the “bastaradisation” of the Bhaand culture (Punjabi folk entertainers), lamenting it has reduced to only abusive slurs.
“It was not so in history,” he said. “Look at Janu German and the way he mocked British for their inability to speak Urdu.” Janu German was a character from the PTV drama Choti si Duniya (1990s). Shehzad said the character mocking the colonisers and the English language, which was used as a tool of oppression, is a great example of the Bhaand culture’s power, which has now condensed to just abusive slurs.
“Satire evolves culturally,” said Khaled. “It comes from the bottom, not the top. And bhaand culture comes from the soil.”
He remarked people are being exceedingly judgmental and in great pain as a nation. “Only respect can keep us together."
The 12th Karachi Literature Festival was held online from March 26 to March 28.