In the bustling city of Peshawar, a man in bowtie, bowler hat and carrying a cane flamboyantly weaves through busy traffic, narrowly avoiding rickshaws, motorcycles and buses in a scene reminiscent of a 1920s silent film.
Usman Khan, a resident of Peshawar, has garnered appreciation on social media owing to his comic expressions with an objective to bring smiles to people’s faces and provide them relief from stress and trauma.
Since his early childhood, he would get people’s attention because of his unusual facial expressions, laden with a bit of mischief that aroused rich laughter, he tells Dawn.
Khan — like the real-life Chaplin before he shot to fame in Hollywood — comes from an impoverished family and could get education only up to fifth grade. So, he says, he thought out a plan to make comedy acting a career for himself like the world-famed Charlie Chaplin.
He tried his best to act like the silent comedian, who was propelled to global fame with his slapstick antics. One day, he showed one of his shoots to his parents and they were stunned with his witty art.
“After watching videos and films of Charlie, my body is now fully wrestled with comic expressions and even in sleep, I act like him as I get up with a laugh and go to bed with a giggle because I strongly believe laughter is the best medicine,” the young comic tells Dawn.
Joy to the world
His close resemblance with Charlie, his videos filled with satire, and humour soon earned him fame and a few fans gifted a smartphone to him to produce more videos.
However, some of his fans asked him to produce videos in black and white to bring him closer to Charlie’s era of late 70s so he borrowed the required equipment from his friend and it shot him to fame.
“I was determined that I would use my talent for bringing masses out of stress through my comic expressions and would earn world fame as Pakistani Charlie Chaplin, contributing to society in a positive manner,” Khan says.
“Most of my videos are characterised by social satire that motivate people to correct their faults. It is my attempt to contribute to my community through comedy.
“I am three in one — scriptwriter, actor and editor. I just want to arouse laughter to reduce the intensity of sadness and devastation that have griped our society for long,” Khan tells Dawn.
Comedy in the time of Covid
Khan, 28, used to sell children's toys from a roadside stand but the Covid-19 pandemic gave him an opportunity to use his comedy.
“When the coronavirus was around, a lot of people were in real stress, some people gave up on life,” Khan told Reuters. “I was watching Charlie's videos and thought, 'Let me act like Charlie'.” Khan dons the familiar costume of Chaplin's “The Tramp” character, with fake moustache and a little eyeliner and then takes to the streets, often accompanied by friends filming him, hoping to bring a bit of cheer in dreary times.
His Chaplin visits a gym to interrupt a ping-pong match, attempting to hit the ball with his cane, and draws ire from shopkeepers as he upends their wares, coming close to landing himself in trouble, as his namesake often did in his films. But he also draws the laughter of children who gather round him after he poses on stairs in a local neighbourhood.
“Making people smile with silent comedy, winning people's hearts with silent comedy is a difficult task,” Khan said.
In just two months, he has gained more than 800,000 followers on the social media platform Tik Tok — people, he says, from around the globe who find his comedy a welcome respite from the pandemic and its lockdowns and social-distancing.
Khan hopes film and television producers will notice him as well — and says if he ever became wealthy he would share his earnings with the poor.
The act is also a brief escape for Khan; hawking toys does not bring in enough to cover daily expenses, he says.
“When I leave my home, I shut the door on my own problems and look to bring happiness to others.”