PESHAWAR: As news of Murad Ali’s death spread, the world of Pashto comedy was left a little darker, with a little less humour and quite heartbroken. As Hepatitis C and other complications added to his struggle, 60-year-old Ali breathed his last at Lady Reading Hospital Friday morning.
With an acting portfolio boasting stage, comedy series and telefilms, Ali’s career spanned 38 years, showcasing several iconic characters. So powerful were his renditions of Gulbali, Latoo Chamchamar and Tooti, many a fan would forget those were mere roles played by a real person. But Ali had learnt to check his true personality at the door before he entered any public domain.
In real life, Ali played the sad comedian, the cliché associated with clowns and those in the business of making others laugh.
Between people mistaking Ali for the simpleton Latoo and a visa officer stamping Gulbali instead of his actual name on his passport for travel to Qatar, the only space left for the real Ali was in his two-bed mud house in Bala Marai where he lived with his mother.
In an interview with The Express Tribune in 2012, Ali had shared, “Whatever people see on screen becomes our identity; but characters are always different from what we are in our real lives.”
“I always stay inside my house and cannot step out because of the fear that youngsters will taunt me. Some children even run behind, shouting ‘Latoo!’” Latoo is Pashto for a stupid person.
On stage, Ali often played the Dean Martin to Ismail Shahid’s Jerry Lewis, slightly overshadowed by another great.
“It would not be incorrect to say the comedy of Ismail Shahid was incomplete without the presence of Murad Ali,” Khaliq Dad Umeed, a senior Pashto comedy drama writer, told The Express Tribune. Umeed was the pen behind some of the characters played by Ali.
“It could be said Ali helped make Shahid the top comedian as Ali played the sidekick – the weaker roles which made Shahid shine more,” added Umeed. However, the playwright added, Ali was amazing in Umeed’s works Jaras and Kala na Kala.
His partner in comedy, Ismail Shahid, was left grieving the massive void in his stage life. “He was like our brother; a talented artiste who finally left us after struggling with a long illness,” said Shahid.
“We are all praying for his soul to be in peace. Ali had impressed us all; we respected him. Ali and I worked side by side and supported each other in our work.”
Shahid knew his days with his partner were numbered as Ali had been in the hospital for the last few weeks.
Without complaining about his financial troubles, Ali had touched on them in his last chat with The Express Tribune. Discussing the separation of public and private life afforded to stars in the West, Ali had commented how those people could afford personal space. “Here, artistes are poor; we have to use public transport and always be at close proximity with people.”
However, it was those at “close proximity” to the artiste who ended up contributing towards his financial relief towards the end of his life. Finally, the provincial government also stepped in to help.
“The treatment meted out to someone like Ali was just not suitable,” said Zardad Bulbul, another well-known Pashto comedian. “He spent his entire life making people smile but there was no one with him to make him smile as he faced such unprecedented hardships.”
Bulbul was also inspired by Ali, “We loved to work with him.”
Earlier, Ali had shared he had started his career at Pakistan Television’s (PTV) Peshawar centre. Ali was not just a local name, he had performed in Qatar, Dubai and Malaysia.
Having worked in hundreds of dramas, Ali never kept track of all his performances. “I never even asked the name of the project when agreeing,” said the quiet, shy guy whose neighbours often did not know it was Ali, not Latoo, who lived next door to them.
Murad Ali’s final rituals were offered at Bala Marai at 11am on Friday. He is survived by a wife and three daughters.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2014.