Beo Zafar – Pakistan’s ace-comediane

A short piece that I wrote on Beo, Pakistan’s ace-comediane whose talents are diverse and ever-blooming.

Beo [Khala] as I have known her for years is a restless spirit, haunted by a perennial quest for change and self-realization. Over a decade ago I was introduced to her by my precious friend Asad Azfar who happens to be her nephew. It turned out to be a terrific series of encounters – never had I met someone so electric, funny and dare-I-say eclectic. Beo had the charm of a soothsayer, skills of a face-reader and a neo-psychoanalyst. It was hard to believe that a super-talented woman was not getting out of the shell that Pakistani society imposes on women. But it was not to be. Beo actually tinkered with her destiny and has now acquired national and international fame.

While Asad Azfar proceeded to Harvard Business School and proved his mettle in the corporate world, I left the limiting confines of officialdom and moved on to pursue a life in development and writing, Beo Khala opened newer and greater vistas for herself. In less than a decade she published a collection of poetry, managed successful enterprises and turned into a star comedienne. It was as if all her gifts bloomed, petal by petal. Never have I heard of such fantastic tales of self actualisation.

A scion of an accomplished family, Beo has been a rebel of sorts. She chose a marriage partner for herself, an individualistic life style and juggled devoted motherhood with her myriad pursuits. This is why her life has been a journey not unlike the Sufi stages of exploration to reach the inner self. There is a beauty salon after her name, a TV show credited to her, verses that speak of her anguish, unmet longings and paths towards hope and happiness. In a poem, The Dreamer Awakes, she has summed up the story of her wanderings:

When did I start to know
That this was not quite
Where I had planned to go
That kind of a pain was
There to stay;
And it could not go away
Just would not go away

But Beo has made her stride and in full swing. She has moved from one step to another, from one room of her soul into another and made her firm moorings in her life as it is now. A mother of three, she is based in Karachi and her move many years ago to the Kolachi jungle was a momentous one. Her years in Islamabad were as fossilized as the Capital, and Karachi’s energy has blended into her own.

It was as if all her gifts bloomed, petal by petal. Never have I heard of such fantastic tales of self actualisation

In an era when women are being flogged on the chowks of Swat, or burnt alive in urban centres and karo kari-ed in the rural belts, Beo’s life and work are a beacon for so many. Her facility with the local and the Western, with the conventional and the radical is coming to fruition. Her unwavering faith in the Divine and the understanding of the Sufi way is what makes her connect with so many people. Without a full comprehension of the need to connect with humanity, one cannot accomplish all that she has. After all, making people laugh and that too in these dark times, is by itself a feat.

I am pasting another piece on Beo Zafar by Sarah Hussain below that sheds more details on her life and work:

“Being funny is something that has always been part of me and I can see comedy in any situation.” Thus spake Beo Zafar, Pakistan’s most brilliant comedienne. She is a woman whose work and interests are diverse – from a writer, poet, beautician, TV professional, to home maker, mum and superb chef, she’s been there and done it all. And as with most of us, she’s seen the glorious heights and the deep troughs that life can bring. Throughout it all, Beo’s sense of humour and funny bone has never deserted her. For instance, is there a woman who can split her sides mimicking her own children, giving them nicknames (which change with the seasons) to suit their personalities? Or someone who can be so self-deprecating as to laugh at her own foibles, before an always rapt audience of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers? Or someone who’s mimicked the staff in her home (cook, maid, driver, mali), the aunts in her family, the friends at her college, without giving the slightest bit of umbrage? And finally, is there anyone in this country who can do social satire, unmasking whole classes of pretenders, and putting the show on the road with everything from script to make up to performance done by her? There’s only Beo.

Multifaceted is not the word. Sheer. Brilliant. Talent, are the words. Anywhere else in the world, Beo would have been worth her weight in gold. But not in this joyless Land of the Pure, where every light has been extinguished by the guardians of our virtue. Life with Beo is high voltage, all the time, every time. Ask her husband Najib Zafar who says he has to look the other way when she begins to inhabit one of her characters at, say, an airport or a shopping mall or on an outing. Because comedy is a way of life with Beo, she can morph into one of her characters at a moment’s notice. At an airport once, she began to drag her leg, crook her arm and adopt a hang dog look. Her husband feared she would extend her hand at passing strangers and become the beggar she was mimicking. Only Beo can do this.

Talking of her childhood, spent in Karachi and the other cities of Pakistan, she says she was always a dreamer with little ambition. She loved to read and write, but ‘knowledge was for the sake of knowledge’, things came easy to her and no extra effort was required. Her idealism came from her father, Syed Rashid Ahmed, while her mother, Zinat, urged her to work towards a career. Zinat Ahmed was an educationist, the founder of the Pakistan Federation of University Women (PFUW) and one of the co-founders of the All Pakistan Women’s Association. She was awarded the Sitara-i-Quaid-i-Azam and Tamgha-i-Khidmat for her services to the country. Syed Rashid Ahmed held the post of station director ofAll India Radio and was later director-general of Radio Pakistan.

Beo’s parents passed away five years ago, within three months of each other and the importance of ‘acting upon what you could do’ in the words of her mother, and not resting on ‘tin laurels’ in the words of her father, was a driving force for Beo. She felt that there was very little time and started doing new things. In this, Beo drew upon experience she had gained in an earlier avatar when she had worked as a writer researcher and presenter for the ATV program ‘Here and now’ in the United Kingdom. ‘Baar Baar Beo’ was a hilarious sitcom, and single-handedly, it put TV One on the map. The title of her book, The Dreamer Awakens , which features her poems along with illustrations by Tabinda Chinoy reflects her life and the changes she has gone though. Kushwant Singh, an old friend, writes on the last page that Beo’s poems are lyrical and deeply emotional, and he talks of her mysticism and what ‘a joy she is to be with’. Apart from Pakistan, her book has been launched in the US under the auspices of Zanbeel Art Gallery; her next stop will be Delhi.

The characters from her show ‘Baar Baar Beo’ are extremely popular and were a source of much amusement for her audience during her tour of US this year. The tour was stupendously successful and catered to the ‘desihumor of pardesis’. All her characters are based on desi stereotypes, from Punjabi, to Sindhi, to Chinese to Hyderabadi, like the Gaffer Gaffaria who belongs to the Memon community, Mustaqeem the careless dhobi, and the interfering Khala Buggoo Gosha .

Beo spoke to us about her tour and how good it felt to bring some laughter to Pakistanis abroad rather than sad news from Pakistan. “The magic is when I stand in front of 300 to 500 faces and see the energy in the room change as people hold back their heads and burst into laughter. I thank God I have the gift to make people laugh, and see them happy.” In the US she has had shows in San Diego and Los Angeles with Zanbeel Arts, the proceeds of which went to the NGO, Development in Literacy (DIL). In Los Angeles, a lot of people had private shows at their homes and the city almost became like Karachi for Beo, with expats repeating her catch phrases back to her, like ‘Mujhe cardiacks ho gai tha’  from her character Farkhanda. In San Francisco and New Jersey she did a show for The Citizens Foundation.

Apart from comedy and poetry, Beo loves to sing and dance. She speaks various languages including French, Pashtu, Arabic and a smattering of Persian and loves to sing in these languages as well. Her family have to be supportive – there’s just no choice! But they’re all talented artistes in their own right. Her eldest son Ahmed Mirza is a filmmaker and won an award for the Best Script at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Ziyad Zafar, her second son, is a journalist and documentary maker, and works for Guardian Films, UK. Zara, her daughter, was a news reader and anchor and doubtless we will see her soon on another screen for is packed with personality and zest. As Beo famously said with Ziyad and Zara were children. “Meet my kids. This is Ziyad. And this is Ziyada!” Beo’s niece Mehreen Jabbar is a successful international filmmaker.

As they say, Beo is now on a roll. Next month she is meeting musicians from the US, who would like to use her poetry as lyrics for their music. She is also working for a serial for Geo called “Ladies’ Park” written by Dr Younis Butt playing the character of Bi Jee and starring alongside Mahnoor Baloch and Nadia Hussain. In August, Beo will be performing in Washington DC and New York, the proceeds of which will go to the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. In September, Beo will begin a film with Sabiha Sumar. In December, she is heading to Delhi for her book launch. And the sky’s the limit thereafter.

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