Anguish of a comedian

Faheem Azam is a millennial, a gifted artiste and a saddened wisecracker who dreams of a ‘Sufi Pakistan’

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

—Peter Ustinov

In 2018, Pakistan witnessed its third consecutive transfer of power between civilian governments, a significant achievement in the nation’s 71-year history that has been marked by military coups. However, the spectre of the military’s subtle influence on electoral outcomes and media control still loomed large. As Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, appeared to be the favoured candidate, opposition leaders, notably the incarcerated former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, vociferously alleged electoral manipulation orchestrated by the military. Sharif even made an audacious claim that Pakistan’s elections were controlled by “khalai makhlooq” (extraterrestrial elements), a term that swiftly captured public imagination in a culture steeped in belief in djinns and faristas (angels).

During the same time, a young storyteller had just discovered the delights of open-mic stand-up comedy in Karachi. Faheem Azam, a writer, director, and comedian, seized upon the notion of khalai makhlooq and made it the centrepiece of one of his stand-up routines. Even as the country was prepping for the elections and high-pitched campaigning was on from all ends of the political spectrum, Faheem’s scintillating, cerebral commentary on the bleak political choices facing Pakistanis had his audience in splits. The subtle question lingered: Was the effort worth it when everyone was aware that the khalai makhlooq seemingly orchestrating the political drama and the political actors themselves were all equally corrupt?

In this particular act, titled “Very Political”, Faheem ridiculed everyone — from Sharif to Imran. He didn’t even spare his own critics who complained, “You criticise everyone. You are neutral. But in times like these, being neutral is criminal. You must take a side.” To this, Faheem routinely makes thepoint, “I have chosen my side. It’s not my fault that all politicians are on the other side” — which tickles your funny bone and at the same time stabs the heart of every Pakistani.

In a conversation with SIGMA, Faheem says that for him comedy was never a means to make people laugh or to crack smart alec jokes. It was merely a tool to showcase his perspective for people willing to listen and question the assumptions they had been conditioned to believe as truths. “In fact, it was Indian comedian Sanjay Rajoura who brought this method to light during a conversation with me. He said he didn’t follow any particular format. He simply gets on the stage and says what he wants to say in a funny way.”

Pakistan has a long history of comedy in theatre and television. Pioneers like Umar Sharif, Anwar Maqsood, Amanullah and Sohail Ahmed have a special niche in hearts across Pakistan and the world. But, as the improv and open-mic scene grew in Karachi, Faheem found himself ushering in a new era of comedy and social commentary  that was bold and modern.  He mentored and trained many young Pakistani comedians who had something to say but didn’t know how to do it and where to start.

Freedom of speech: Pushing limits 

“Beta, aisi jokes mat kara karo, uthawe jaoge!” (Son, do not make such jokes, you will get killed for it)

In 2016 they launched Comedy Scene, and Fitna, Fasaad aur Mohabbat, the after-hours comedy shows that dared to be bold. While the invitations online read “abuses to a minimum, but the material still as raunchy and brutal as you would expect”, the line-ups soon saw around 30 comedians and open-mic performances every night around Karachi. Intersecting religion, politics, gender and dating, these clever bits of comedy tried to reach a niche audience with a love for humour.

Interestingly, unlike in India, Pakistani audiences have greater tolerance for political jokes. But entering the realm of religion can invite trouble. “Once, an uncle in the audience cautioned me, ‘Beta, aisi jokes mat kara karo, uthawe jaoge!’ (Son, do not make such jokes, you will get killed for it). However, beyond that I haven’t really had any consequences for my jokes personally, mostly because recording was not allowed here.”

These ventures soon witnessed ties with social and gender-sensitivity movements like Girls at Dhabas that strove to provide an inclusive, safe space for people of all genders after dark, especially women. With open-mic venues and groups like Aurat-naak, Karachi was now the Wild West of Pakistani comedy, where new opportunities were up for grabs.

A Pakistani millennial’s angst and hope 

Faheem’s layered perspective on the contemporary socio-political reality of his country comes from a long journey of self-discovery and financial struggle. Like many middle-class Pakistani teenagers, he was sent to study Computer Sciences. However, within the first few years of his professional training he understood he wasn’t cut out for it. He was an artist in his heart and in his bones. He wanted to tell stories.

His father’s death when he was just 16 sent him into a spiritual quest. Torn by the sectarian divide in his country, he didn’t quite understand  which side he belonged to. Which side was telling the truth? “After much examination I came to the conclusion that any doctrine that doesn’t speak of the well-being and deliverance of the whole of humanity could be weaponised as a tool to wreak unimaginable violence and certainly it is not the path of knowledge and truth,” he recalls.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual turmoil provided rich material to infuse his plays and films with much empathy, poignancy and wisdom. “Emotional turmoil gives rise to stories and shayari. Turbulence jaise hi khatam ho, aapki shayari bhi khatam ho jayegi. Phir aapko shayari churani padti hai!” (The moment your turbulence is over, you have to start stealing material from others.)

Moving from one city to another — Multan, Dera Ismail Khan, Islamabad and eventually Karachi — was also an educational experience, bringing him face to face with the poverty of his country. “People who philosophise about poverty, how the poor remain poor because they are lazy, have no idea how day by day a person’s economic condition deteriorates because of reasons beyond his control,” he says in one of his popular podcast appearances on “ProPakistan”.

His life’s trajectory also revealed to him that being an artist in Pakistan didn’t really have a set path. He would have to walk the distance from anonymity to success and relevance and carve out his niche all by himself, because there was no one who had left any trace of creative success. “In fact, the very people that we idolise as great artistes became gatekeepers and didn’t allow any new person to enter the entertainment industry or foster a new kind of storytelling,” he points out.

Before achieving success as a comedian in Karachi, he tried his luck in radio, films, theatre. As the creator and director of many popular short films such as Log Kya Kahenge and Darzi Ki Marzi, he had a fondness for weaving local stories and popular practices into whimsical sketches that portrayed life’s nuances and ironies.  But success was elusive.

Despite brimming with talent, Faheem says, Pakistani artistes have no real avenues to express themselves. “Without institutional or corporate support, an artiste survives only on his passion. If a young artiste comes to me and says he wants to write or direct, I don’t know any place where I can direct him, where you begin your journey.  In my coaching classes I am very upfront about the fact that life won’t be easy as an artiste in Pakistan.”

Interestingly, it was under the military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf over 2001-08 that art and culture derived some state patronage. “Pervez Musharraf started bringing culture forward. This has not been the case all the time under politically elected governments. Institutions like the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) were nurtured during his era. Till today, they continue to be buzzing cultural centres.”

However, since then, neither private enterprise nor government support has really furthered the cause of art in Pakistan.

The Karachi-based television industry is where most talented storytellers go to find livelihoods, and it is fraught with its own limitations. “It is probably the only proper industry Pakistan has, apart from the news industry that is very profitable. But the problem is they are set in their ways. You will hardly see any grey characters in these plots. They are tied to only showing good and bad character, as if people are one-dimensional. I find such artistic compromises stifling. And as long as we are not able to bring out complex characters and cultivate a love for stories in people, I don’t think we will be able to make a world-class industry in entertainment.”

But there are a few avant-garde filmmakers whose work gives Faheem hope and courage. He cites director Sarmad Khoosat’s Kamli, Joyland or Zindagi Tamasha which either tackled taboo issues or just told simple, touching stories without resorting to conservative hackneyed plots. They were critically acclaimed even though some were banned.

Yet, despite all its flaws, Faheem sees Pakistan rising from its cultural, political and social decay if only it would embrace its Sufi history. “I really believe Pakistan’s fate would change if we were to go back to our Sufi saints and their teachings, which embrace a much more secular, progressive, and democratic value system. It would allow for greater freedom of expression and also establish universal ties of similar spiritual traditions across other parts of the world. This is evident from the music of the world- renowned Coke Studio that comes out of Pakistan. The most popular songs are Sufi in essence.”

Realistically, he doesn’t believe such a proposition would be attractive for any political party but, as an artiste, that is the narrative he would love to integrate in the national psyche of Pakistan.

About the author: Faheem Azam, an accomplished multipotentialite, has made a significant impact in the performing arts and media. Known for his roles in Parey Hut Love as an acting coach and actor, Faheem’s talents extend to being a celebrated screenwriter and director of acclaimed short films like Darzi Ki Marzi and Rishta for Sale As one of Pakistan’s standout stand-up comedians, he spreads joy through TEDx Talks and connects with youth on life’s nuances. Faheem Azam, a versatile master of ceremonies, seamlessly blends his comedic brilliance, leaving a lasting impression. His collaborative YouTube project, Teeli, including Conversations with Kanwal, further showcases his creative prowess.






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