On a 1950s evening two teenagers hurtled down a road on a single bicycle. Suddenly a policeman appeared from behind a tree and shouted “Badbakhto, why doesn’t your cycle have a light?”
“Well mister, you’d better get out of the way, because this cycle doesn’t have brakes either,” shouted the older kid driving the bike. His name was Muhammad Munawar. Soon he would be called the funniest Pakistani ever to hit the big screen.
The incident was narrated by the other kid on the bike, Munawar’s lifelong friend and another Pakistani film heavyweight Ali Ejaz in a 2015 interview.
Muhammad Munawar was born in Gujranwala in 1940 and made his big-screen debut in a Punjabi film Dandian in 1961. Over the next 15 years, he would appear in over 300 films, first as a comedian, then as a supporting actor and then in lead roles. But his distinctive feature would always be the humour communicated in word, tone and body language.
He could speak Urdu free of a Punjabi imprint and Punjabi like he had never spoken Urdu. It is also said that he didn’t always stick to scripts very strictly, his improvisation would elevate the humour in the movie but would often leave co-stars struggling to keep up.
By the time of his death in 1976 of a lung ailment, he was known with a new last name, Munawar Zareef, literally the witty one.
While only a small proportion of his huge body of work survives, here is a small list of movies and clips essential to understand Zareef.
Heer Ranjha (1973)
Masood Pervez’ Heer Ranjha (1970) was not the first rendition of the folk love story or the last but it was one of the most successful versions. Firdaus played Heer and Ejaz Haider played Ranjha. Munawwar Zareef was chosen to play Saida Khera, the man Heer would be forcefully married to. This wasn’t even the first instance of a comic playing Saida but Zareef dominates the scenes he was in completely. You can watch the entire movie on Youtube here.
Here is a scene from the film, of Saida approaching Heer on their wedding night, quite unsure of what exactly is expected of him.
While one of the story’s aims is to present Saida Khera as a man wholly unfit for Heer, Zareef’s portrayal of him as a comic dunce makes the mismatch all the more apparent.
Jeera Blade (1973)
One of Zareef’s most iconic performances was the lead role he played in Jeera Blade. Directed by Iftikhar Khan, the movie featured songs from Masood Rana and Noor Jehan.
Zareef plays Shafqat, whose father’s gambling habits lead him to commit multiple murders. When the father gets arrested up by the police the murdered men’s accomplices turn up for a revenge visit. In the scuffling that ensues Zareef’s mother (played by Bahar begum) loses her eyesight due to a head injury.
Alone, penniless and fatherless Shafqat is forced to fight a grown man’s fight. His friend (played by Khalifa Nazeer) is a pickpocket, so he hands the young boy a razor and introduces him to the craft turning him into the Jeera Blade. With the money earned from his exploits, he pays for his sister’s education and his mother’s treatment. Then after a stint in jail, he sets out to right his wrongs and finds his father.
Here is a classic song with Zareef showing someone dance moves. Masood Rana’s voice seems to fit him perfectly.
In any other industry, the film could have been a dark and violent story, but Zareef gets laughs out of every scene. You can watch the whole movie here.
Munawar Zareef aur Rangeela (1973)
While his presence in a movie guaranteed that it would be full of laughs, Zareef was by no means the only major comedian of his era. That title was hotly contested with Rangeela and both appeared in numerous films together but in 1973 director Nazar Shabab decided to make them both leads in a movie. Better yet, they are brothers not competitors.
Both characters play characters of their own names in the movie. Both also switch between Urdu and Punjabi effortlessly to make sure each punch line has maximum effect. Picking a favorite character in a movie has never been harder.
The story follows Munawar, a millionaire’s son who gets lost in infancy and ends up being raised alongside Rangeela. Both try to scam their way through life until a conflict puts them in a position to decide between honor and deceit. They choose the former and in the end Munawar gets reunited with his father. You can watch the full movie here.
Naukar wohti da (1974)
Bhola (Munawar Zareef) gets betrothed to Razia (Aasia) as a kid. But she grows in affluence and he grows up destitute, so when the time comes to confirm the marriage she outright rejects him and humiliates his mother.
But Bhola makes marrying Razia his life’s mission and goes to the big city to make a career as an actor. And ultimately wins her over. The story of a poor hero overcoming the class divide to find love would be a staple in India and Pakistan’s film industries for decades. You can watch the full movie here.
The movie was directed by Haider Chaudhry and Wajahat Attre’s music was complemented by the voices of Noor Jehan and Masood Rana. The song Zindagi tamasha bani is still one of the most popular Punjabi films songs in the industry’s history.
The film was such a hit that it was adapted in Bollywood. The Dharmendra starrer was released in 1983 and follows almost the exact same storyline.
If you want more from Zareef, there is an entire YouTube channel dedicated to his clips.