Jaspal Bhatti: Sardar of satire

October 25, 2012

How do you satirise an issue without hurting someone’s ego but at the same time ensure it hits its mark? Jaspal Bhatti, arguably the only man to have known the answer in India, at least enough to make a living out of it, is no more.

Bhatti died in the early hours of Thursday in a car accident while he was out promoting his film ‘Power Cut’ — a spoof on the pathetic power situation in India, especially in his home state of Punjab.

An engineer by qualification, Bhatti took to the subtle art of satire through a newspaper column in the 1980s and wrote street plays before venturing into the small screen. His poker face, witty one-liners and hilarious take on problems faced by the common man endeared Bhatti to audiences during what were known as the golden days of Doordarshan, the state broadcaster.

I remember watching his sitcoms ‘Flop Show’ and ‘Ulta Pulta’ as a kid. The familiar cast, an engaging storyline, the funny music, the punchlines — it was a treat for a child growing up in the 1990s without too many options for television viewing. I did not even understand the issues he was highlighting but loved the affable Sardar who could make me laugh so effortlessly.

It was always issues plaguing middle-class India around which he spun his witty web. While in one ‘Flop Show’ episode, he made fun of endless meetings that are characteristic of red-tapism in India, in another he took up the prickly relationship between landlords and tenants. He was joking but, in fact, was quite serious about the issues at hand. The Election Commission even made him their mascot to encourage people to vote during state polls in Punjab.

Bhatti was a man who did not cook up jokes, did not shout out loud, did not target any one to be the butt of his jokes but still managed to have his audience in splits. He was quite honest about his humour.

In fact, he did not even take himself seriously. The credits for the super-hit ‘Flop Show’ said it was ‘misdirected by Jaspal Bhatti’, thanked his cameramen for ‘camera jerks’ and the musicians for their ‘jarry music’. He even made fun of his relative obscurity in the age of digital TV and the Internet by posting this profile on his website:

“Once upon a time I was a household name. Times have changed and people have sold their houses, moved to new localities or redone their houses. In the process some people might have misplaced my name.”

The man knew how to laugh at himself — something sorely missed in our political and cultural life today.

And it is not as if he had disappeared. In recent years, he had been active in the streets of Chandigarh and elsewhere as a social activist.

With Bhatti being involved, one could expect the unexpected. At times he turned up dressed in a three-piece suit with a briefcase in hand but rode a horse — mocking the rise in fuel prices. At another street protest against the rising cost of onions, he paraded a Santa Claus who gave away the prized commodity to onlookers on Christmas.

His Twitter handle had nearly 24,000 followers and the 140-character limit was unable to put a stopper to his bubbling wit.

Sample some tweets:

– BJP ‘just pretending’ to fight corruption: Sonia Gandhi…and congress pretending to be honest !?!

– Vijay Mallya is the #MostStylishIndian . If he goes bankrupt he will do so in style.

Imagine how our country’s political discourse would have been if at least some politicians and activists used the sharp tool of humour and satire to make a point.

Alas, in Bhatti’s case, as in everybody else’s, death had the last laugh.

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