Ali Gul Pir is an internet sensation and one of Pakistan’s funniest young comedians/satirists. Syeda Ayesha Binte Rashid takes you up close and personal with the talented young star.
I met Ali Gul Pir before fame had knocked on his door but, to me, he was already a star. I had eagerly followed his improvisational comedy performances, had spent a week going back and forth between S.I.T.E to watch the filming for Lipton Light On Hai and, at the time, was eagerly awaiting his shows with Saad Haroon’s The Agency. Eventually we were introduced through friends and, while I thought of myself as nothing more than an enthusiastic fan, it wasn’t long before he made me feel like a friend.
He is one of those individuals who derives his happiness from giving it to others and has an open, unembarrassed way of showing affection. He never shies away from showing vulnerability and sharing his problems. His love for his friends manifests itself in his eagerness to hand out advice, setting us right whenever he sees us selling ourselves short even if it requires the occasional dose of tough love.
In the summer of 2012, I awoke one morning in the States to find Ali Gul’s name all over my Facebook newsfeed. With mounting excitement, I watched from afar as Waderai Ka Beta became a viral sensation and, within a matter of days, the internet had turned Ali Gul into a certified celebrity. Since then, the powerhouse that is Ali Gul Pir has only continued to grow. At 29, he has released several original songs, performed with various improvisational comedy troupes, been the face of numerous marketing campaigns for major brands and, best of all, taught society a thing or two about itself along the way.
Ali Gul’s love affair with comedy began before he even knew how to read. He would have his mother read out jokes from Akbaar-e-Jahaan and memorize them so he could tell them to his father’s friends.
“I liked to make people happy… and (liked it) when they would laugh because of me,” he remembers.
As a kid he moved a lot, from Karachi to Canada and back. In the 7th grade he moved back to Karachi with his mother and, once again, found himself in a new school, having to make new friends.
“I realised that I’m not physically big, so in order to survive this (school) environment, I would use my comedy. It was like a tool for me,” Ali Gul remembers of his school years.
He quickly became the joker in his class. Comedy was a tool he could use for and against people, to get to know people better and gain an upper hand when interacting with his classmates.
Around this time, Ali Gul’s parents got divorced. His father and brother were living in Canada while he lived here with his mother. The two often faced financial difficulties and struggled to make ends meet. In these times of hardship, comedy became Ali Gul’s go-to defense mechanism.
“I laughed at how ridiculous it was for me to go through it. I let it entertain me instead of letting it affect me…. I thought God’s playing a prank on me or something so I would just laugh at it.”
Being able to make other people happy with his humor also helped him forget his own pain.
To this day, that’s what comedy means to Ali Gul: being able to laugh at life. He considers himself very lucky and is still grateful that he could rely on his ability to laugh it off. Today, the core purpose of Ali Gul’s work is still the same: to make people laugh.
“For me it was making my parents, my dad’s friends laugh when I was a kid and now it’s just a bigger audience.”
He believes that comedy is very necessary in Pakistan. Everyone is depressed on some level because of the often grim sociopolitical situation. Ali Gul loves the power that comedy gives him.
“It’s amazing. You can make anyone’s bad day a good day with a joke. I really like the power in that.”
But Ali Gul’s work has become about a lot more than just making people laugh. He points out that the masses in Pakistan have very few amenities like education and avenues for entertainment. He aims to provide both through his comedy. He does this by using his work to hold a mirror up to society: to reflect its strengths and weaknesses and inspire social change.
Through his satire, Ali Gul attempts to make people think about the ways in which Pakistani society is falling short.
“Someone saying, ‘You’ve made me laugh AND think’,” is what Ali Gul appreciates the most, “because then the message has gone through a 100 percent. They didn’t just laugh at it, they also learnt something from it….. you change a mentality.”
For Ali Gul, there is no higher compliment than when a windshield cleaner on the road admits to be a fan. While he loves all his fans equally, “my main target audience is the taxi driver, the windshield wiper, the farmer.”
He believes that the country will grow when this awaam is educated and his work is about contributing to that education.
Ali Gul admits that the artist in him wants to cater to bigger and global audiences – to perform shows for thousands of people. But the satirist in him will always want to cater to the suppressed classes.
“I know how it feels to be the weak one. And maybe that’s why I don’t want anyone on this planet to go through what I did. And I know people go through worse. So it’s kind of like my revenge.”
It is evidence of Ali Gul’s extraordinary nature that his “revenge” on the world, for the things he’s been through, is to make his life about giving others the strength to face their own challenges. Instead of making him angry or bitter, his hardships have moved him to become a voice for those who can’t stand up for themselves. It is also a perfect summation of why I have come to admire him like I do.
Ali Gul is determined to stay true to his art. When he first made Waderai Ka Beta and pitched it to television and radio channels, he was rejected by every organization. It was the awaam, that made up the view count of his video, which made him a star and Ali Gul can never forget them.
“My work was, and continues to be, for this awaam and no amount of stardom or money can change that. I like to think that I’ve evolved as an artist since Waderai Ka Beta but there’s some things that will never change. It’s important to me to stay real in my comedy,” he states, “I’ve never tried to be someone else or make art that sells. I’ll never shy away from harsh truths, even at the cost of alienating certain people.“
Ali Gul admits that working on commercial projects such as marketing campaigns is a necessary endeavor in order to earn his bread and butter. He’s quick to point out that if channels were willing to pay royalties to artists, he might not have to be involved in commercial work. But even when working commercially, he stays true to his own style.
“I’ve done that bit too by being a rapper, not by being a mainstream, pyaar-mohabbat singer.”
Which is not to say that fame hasn’t had its perks. Life still seems very surreal to him sometimes and there are moments when he still can’t believe that he’s made it this far. He remembers fondly the time that Salman Ahmed asked to take a picture with him. Or the time that Ali Azmat recognized him and said that he was looking forward to watching the video of Kholo BC.
“I thought he wouldn’t even know me,” he says with a laugh. “The first concert I ever attended was a Junoon performance. I was one of the millions of people who were their fans and now they’re taking pictures with me.”
But the responses that mean the most to him come from his fans. He’s seen videos of little kids singing his songs and loves the feeling that he’s going to be a part of their lives from such a young age. That they will grow up with the message he’s trying to promote. Older ladies tell him they haven’t laughed as much as he makes them since the days of Aangan Tera. He loves being able to bring that sort of joy back into their lives.
Recently he found that a girl in IBA was writing a paper on his song for one of her assignments. He found it hard to believe that his work was being studied in the classroom of such a respected institution.
“I was like, ‘They think I’m smart?’,” he says, “My work is being analyzed and written about in classrooms. Surreal moment.”
SZABIST and Indus Valley included questions on Waderai Ka Baitaa in their admission tests. Unilever- a million dollar, multi-national- asked him to give their employers a presentation about digital media.
“I don’t think I’m smart. I think I’m hardworking, to a certain extent. Yes I might have good ideas but I never think…. the amount of respect people give me and how great they think I am… I’m really not all that. So I’m always surprised to see it happening. My Dad used to tell me, ‘Jitnaa successful bano, uthnaa hee fakir banna,’… I still think of myself as a fakir,“ he confesses.
These days, Ali Gul is working on Batashay, a sitcom that began airing last month on ARY Digital. The show is about two boys who fall for a new girl that moves into their neighborhood. Both of them, in their own ways, come up with the idea of going to her father for tuition so they can gain access to her more easily. When they realize that they’re both playing the same game, a rivalry forms between them and hijinks ensue.
This is Ali Gul’s first time with a venture like this and he decided to go for it because he liked the team that works on the show.
“For me, more than the script, the team was important,” he says, “If the script is good but the team isn’t, the final product is never good.”
He talks fondly about Qaiser Nizamani, who is directing the show, and his fellow cast members, namely Ayaz Samoo, Khawaja Akmal and Gul-e-Rana.
Ali Gul fondly states that the set of the show is like a family gathering where he always has someone to talk to and hang out with. The elder cast members, particularly “Khwaja Saab” and “Gul Aapa” are very kind and always willing to help the newer talent and give them pointers to improve their performance. Ali Gul points out that, in television, senior talent often tries to undermine the newcomers and is grateful that this is not the case with his cast members.
When I ask him about what’s next for him, Ali Gul talks excitedly about the future. He is one of those people who is constantly looking for more things to do. He doesn’t wait around for opportunities to come to him.
“I’m good where I am. I have nothing to lose,” Ali Gul insists, “I want to reach a bigger audience and I want to do it now…. I want to represent Pakistan in a good way.”
Ali Gul wants to show the world that there are people in Pakistan who are doing good and are talented. For this reason, he’s started working on an English song. He hopes to reach larger audiences and raise awareness about Pakistan.
When I asked him to sum up his defining philosophy Ali Gul unequivocally says,
“You have to work very hard. There are no ifs and buts, no way around it. There’s no room for ego if you want to be successful. Whether it is in one’s work or one’s personal life, the “me” needs to be sacrificed for the “us” and the greater good.”
This is, perhaps, why fame has not been able to change the person he is.
Ali Gul may be determined to keep it real but he’s not without ambition. He declares that money will be of no use to him once he dies. What he wants is for his name to live on long after he is gone, to create a legacy. He hopes people will remember him,
“Yeh aaya dunya mein. Kuch ki cheezain. Ek dau demaagh bhee change kar leeyay. Thaa ek Ali Gul Pir.”