January issue 2013

By | Startrek | Published 7 years ago

“Rubbish is my armour,” states Beo Zafar, just moments into my interview of the comedienne cum poet cum beautician.

Dressed in an elegant ensemble of a black tunic and trousers, and surrounded by treasured family portraits and paintings in her boho-chic apartment in Karachi, Beo Zafar could be mistaken for a socialite or a housewife. In reality, she is anything but that.

“In the words of my campy friend, ‘Dahling, when in doubt, talk rubbish,’” she continues, as she explains how her career in television began more than 30 years ago when she was discovered by Zia Mohyeddin at a friend’s house. Back then, Beo Zafar was Rana Ahmed, a single mother working as a hairdresser in England. Blessed with the talent of mimicry since childhood, Zafar learned to put the skill to good use whenever there was a dull or dreary moment, which was exactly what she was doing when she met Mohyeddin.

Zafar’s humorous antics caught Mohyeddin’s attention during that chance meeting, but he was already long familiar with her father. Rashid Ahmed, a widely admired linguist and academic, was the director-general of Radio Pakistan when Mohyeddin worked there and, as fate would have it, Mohyeddin was looking to launch a comedy programme in England for which he immediately decided he wanted to recruit Zafar.

Although she had no prior experience in television, she gave it a shot and subsequently became writer-presenter-researcher for the sketch comedy show Here and Now — a precursor of sorts to the popular BBC comedy show Goodness Gracious Me. For nearly eight years, she played everything from sexy French vamps to bratty Indian schoolgirls, displaying her ability to inhabit a wide variety of characters and all the while giving little care for what people might think of her independent, non-conformist lifestyle.

“I am an adventurous person, I follow my instincts,” adds Zafar, as she reminisces about the England years over tea and biscuits.

However, after spending the greater part of the eighties working in television in London and dealing with the difficulties of being a single parent, she met her present husband Najib Zafar Khan and returned to Pakistan. She had two more children and became busy with family life, thereby bidding farewell to her television career — at least for the time being.

After nearly two decades in Karachi, and with her three children well settled in their respective careers, Zafar felt it was time for her to rekindle her adventurous side and to undertake new projects. In 2008, she collaborated with artist Tabinda Chinoy to publish her collection of poetry A Dreamer Awakes and with the help of her friend Seema Taher Khan, the head of TV One, she made her comeback on television with Baar Baar Beo.

Zafar might not have been as young as she was during the Here and Now years but this did not mean she brought any less enthusiasm or energy to the table. Be it dressing up as a dhobi, complete with a beard and dhoti, or transforming into the glamorous yet painfully paindu Farkhanda, Zafar once again took on a troupe of characters, who, even with their absurdities, are familiar to most Pakistanis.
The show had a successful run and although Baar Baar Beo has long ended, Zafar continues to entertain audiences through her stand-up routines.

However, for someone who has not seen her perform, it would be almost impossible to imagine the articulate and refined woman sitting in front of you as someone who is willing to enter a guise, as grotesque or silly as it may be, to make others laugh.

“You can’t have an ego when you’re doing comedy. You have to lose your ‘mein’ when you enter a room and that helps the audience to lose their ‘mein,’ relax and subsequently enjoy the show.”
This spiritual side to her, otherwise invisible during her routines, comes to light over the course of the interview. Zafar maintains that her sense of humour is a blessing from God and explains, “I truly believe it was an accident of choice that He decided I must have these talents and He can just as easily take these talents away from me.”

She also reveals that she only lives for His approval and cares little for what society has to say. “Cut out the noise,” she says, as she describes her personal ethos for life. “We need to listen to our inner voice and follow our instincts in order to attain self-actualisation.”

But just when you start thinking of her as a deeply serious, philosophical person, the conversation shifts gears and before you know it, Zafar has you in awe as she starts performing a brief dialogue between a Pathan and a Punjabi, effortlessly switching between accents and ribbing at the stereotypes, but all in good humour.

But just when you start thinking of her as a deeply serious, philosophical person, the conversation shifts gears and before you know it, Zafar has you in awe as she starts performing a brief dialogue between a Pathan and a Punjabi, effortlessly switching between accents and ribbing at the stereotypes, but all in good humour.

“I’ve done all the strips in Broadway and Los Angeles at the comedy clubs and all the comedians were picking on others in a nasty way. I found that yellow. Just like you have yellow journalism, that is yellow comedy,” she clarifies, when I ask her about the dangers of imitating people of different ethnicities. “The comedy I do is so absurd it takes the meanness out of it.”
And since some American comics have recently come under fire for rape jokes, I ask her thoughts on comedy addressing such controversial topics.

“I cannot stand black humour,” she states emphatically, “ there is nothing funny about serious tragedies.”

Zafar also avoid politics in her comedy, not because it is controversial but because she believes it is done to death in Pakistan.

“We are so insular. We only want siyasat,” she explains. And therefore, although she does a good imitation of Benazir Bhutto and occasionally mentions politicians in her routines, she keeps it to the minimum.

However, Zafar isn’t satisfied with just travelling around the world doing stand-up comedy. She has also taken on dramas and she recently acted in Sabiha Sumar’s film Rafina in which she takes on a non-comedic role. In her spare time she is also working on a novel, which is an adaptation of a screenplay she wrote many years ago. Movies, television, poetry, novels, drama, comedy — she wants to do it all
“I’m working on a lot of things,” she says, laughing. And then, almost as a personal reminder to herself that the list is long and time might be running short, she adds in a quieter, more serious tone, “There are many things I need to do.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.

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