I’m not one to get emotional when someone dies, so here goes.
Last year I sat across one of my professors discussing my idea for a Masters thesis. Ever since I could remember, I had wanted to trace Jaspal Bhatti’s career and understand the dynamics of a Punjabi comedians journey from state run television to the idiotic entertainment machinery we are now surrounded by. A few months ago, after summoning enough courage, sharpening my ideas and stalking people to somehow get access to him, I finally made contact. I was supposed to meet him in the coming weeks, after the release of his son’s debut film Power Cut, and now this. It feels surreal writing this today, a year and few months after we lost another underrated and under-celebrated star – Vivek Shauq. But that’s the similarity between death and comedy – the element of surprise.
I’ve often stated that Bhatti was one of my comedic influences, but he remains something more. As a child, he was “my” guy. The televisual space, which seemed oddly removed from reality because it never seemed to show people who looked like my elders and me saw him come along and change all of that. He was the smartest, funniest and kindest person in the room, and he legitimized my identity that was hit everyday in the playground by other kids who were fed a diet of sardars being stupid. And while today I’m a non-believer and my cultural identity remains an afterthought, I would in all likelihood have been a different person had it not been for re-runs of Ulta Pulta and Flop Show. It breaks my heart that I couldn’t tell him this in person, but I hope he knows what he did for my generation growing up in Punjab and beyond.
While many will remember Flop Show (to my mind the funniest show on Indian television – one whose stories were so strong that they remain relevant today) and his various Bollywood cameos, I hope they also remember him for his street theatre. While many would laugh and scoff at his tactics, few comedians and satirists have had the gall to consistently venture into the public domain to inaugurate faux foundation stone factories, press for legalizing corruption and other absurdities - much to the amusement of passers by. The fact that he was forced to apologise to a Chandigarh Shiv Sena branch in 2011 who took offence at his statements against corruption tell us how increasingly intolerant we’re becoming to humor, but he stayed at it without fuss.
Bhatti sir remained subtle, understated and effective. He has a lot to teach young comics, if only they care to watch. Sadly however, not many of us go back our roots. And maybe our lot doesn’t deserve to have someone like him around us.
I said this when I wrote about Vivek Shauq’s demise, and I feel it needs to be said again.
“India does not respect its artists. That comedians languish at the bottom of the artistic pile is an even bigger statement on our society. Maybe it’s because Indian comics aren’t like they used to be. Maybe society hammers us into delivering what it wants and doesn’t leave us with any other options. But the one thing we can do is honour some of our unsung heroes who deserve a lot more respect and recognition than they are accorded.”
I will miss him terribly, but before that I’d probably go watch Mahaul Theek Hai once more and laugh like an idiot. I presume that’s how he’d want it.