While any dictionary would define a comedian as ‘a humorous entertainer’, the phrase does not do justice to Hanif Raja who is not just that but a whole lot more. He ranks among the best comedians Pakistan has ever produced, a fact that has now been endorsed across the border, in India, as well after winning subsequent episodes and reaching the semi-final round of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge presently on air from Star One.
According to Hanif, to be able to make people laugh is not something you learn but is an inborn talent. It was while performing comic gigs while still at college that the young Hanif was urged by friends to take it up professionally. His first stage performance, Ustadoon Ke Ustaad, ultimately led him to television and his first play on PTV, Excuse Me Baba, which was a hit.
Later, it was Qasim Jalali’s Ba Adab Ba Mulahizah Hosihyaar that came to be known as his most famous TV serial. Some of his other works include One Man Show, Sunn To Sahi, Kaisa (based on the concept of Candid Camera), Raja Ke Saath and Chup Chupa Ke of which 268 episodes have gone on air.
Stage and television aside, Hanif Raja says he also tested his luck in films which proved to be futile. He jokily admits, “I did go into films but unfortunately or fortunately for the industry the very next minute I was out of there. I just worked in one film, Mehndi, in the 1990s. Seriously though, at the time I entered the industry the rot had already set in.
A year back I worked in another film, Tere Bin Jiya Na Jaye, made by renowned film-maker Pervaiz Malik’s son, Imran Malik. I have no qualms in admitting that as an actor, I do not see myself anywhere in films.
At one time I did want to be a part of the film industry and even went to great lengths to produce a film, but my friends eventually talked me out of it. Today, the film people are making a transition into television. It has become such a huge industry that so being associated with television is currently the best option for any artiste,” he says shrewdly.
But be it stage, television or films, there has been a slow but steady decline in the quality of our comedy scripts. Hanif argues, “I would not say that comedy itself is declining but rather the manner of its presentation is.
We have many talented people in this field whose brand of comedy is par excellence, but it’s just the vulgarity and crudeness that gets highlighted.”
Initially, Hanif was apprehensive about participating in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. “I declined the offer since I was already busy with my work here. Secondly, my point of view was that since this is a challenge show where one has to prove his abilities, I do not need to take up any such offer for I have already established myself as a comedian.”
So what made him change his mind? “According to the producers of the show, the element of challenge is there to add sensation to the gaming aspect of the show. The challenge in Laughter Challenge is to outwit one another by way of performance and in the end what people will remember is a good performance by an individual. They reassured me that I will not regret participating in the show which, of course, was true,” he admits.
India has a pool of talent when it comes to comedians and Hanif, like others, also has favourites, “I like Raju Shri Vastav as a stand-up comedian. He really tickles my funny bone.” With the abundance of talent showcased in Laughter Challenge, when quizzed as to what he thinks makes him stand out, he says, “I personally don’t like buffoonery and slapstick comedy. I feel an entertainer can make people laugh just by words. You can say the funniest of things while keeping a straight face. I do not like action comedy and vulgarity in comedy is something I detest with a passion. I think I was accepted on these grounds.”
When he first appeared on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Hanif bagged a tremendous response from the Indian audience, so much so that his performance exceeded the allotted time span of 15-18 minutes to no less that 43 minutes! “Both the audience and the judges — Shekhar Suman and Sudhu — gave me a standing ovation and called me a magician. Hence I am going again this month to participate along with one of our senior comedians, Amanullah, from Lahore who has also reached the semi-final on the basis of his refined comic talent. It shows just how much Pakistani talent is admired, appreciated and celebrated by the Indians.”
Terming his overall experience as fruitful, Hanif says, “I was in Mumbai for 25 days and was made to feel very comfortable.” All praises for the professionalism of the Indians, he says the aspect of the show that he truly enjoyed, which is not the norm here, were the rehearsals from which he benefited the most. He also points out that Laughter Challenge introduced him in the Indian market in a big way and that he has bagged another show on Star Plus, but refuses to delve into the details as it is still in the pipeline.
The point that arises here is that while our artistes are appreciated in India and perform on their home ground, when Indian artistes work in Pakistani productions, these are either based in Dubai or elsewhere as Indians are barred from performing on Pakistani soil.
“It all has to do with governments. Ours should allow Indian artistes to come here and work as well. The Indian market is huge as compared to ours, hence our artistes surely benefit from it. As for the Indians, if they come here it will also be beneficial for the local industry.
Even though some are of the opinion that it is a matter of the big fish devouring the smaller fish, my viewpoint is that we can increase our market by blending them in. After all, we are admired by the Indians the way we appreciate their artistes and working together will create more opportunities for both of us,” he says.
On a concluding note Hanif points out that the opportunities that have come his way have been due to “sheer hard work, respect for my profession and building up on a distinct style of comedy sans vulgarity.”