Jokes about ethnic groups are a no-no, the comedian Kiku Sharda was detained for mimicking a self-styled godman and Comedy Nights with Kapil has wound up, leaving behind a bland, humourless season.
Even as the debate over what is funny and what isn’t rages on, you may just want to rewind to a 10-episode series on Doordarshan that was so tacky and yet so earnest that it commanded a serious cult following. Jaspal Bhatti, the poker-faced writer and director, took the issues of the day and turned them into fodder for his 10-part series, Flop Show, in 1989. In terms of production values, it was comparable to a college skit. And a second visit might make you flinch at the shockingly amateurish attempts at putting together a semblance of a television show. But Flop Show resonated with pre-liberalisation India for the topics it embraced and its affable leading man.
Flop Show belonged to that significant chunk of television shows that were produced outside Mumbai. Produced entirely in Chandigarh, many of the indoor sequences were shot at the Punjab Engineering College, of which Bhatti was an alumnus. A small group of actors played different characters, with the exception of Savita Bhatti, Jaspal Bhatti’s wife and the show’s producer.
Bhatti relied on situational comedy, parody, satire and a central character in every story that made you laugh even while dealing with serious issues. Bhatti’s characters were recognisable caricatures: a professor who moonlights as a professional speech writer, a wrestler who produces television serials, a wife who is always suspicious of her husband, nosy neighbours, and identifiable settings, including a middle class home, a dysfunctional government office with lazy and corrupt staff or a banquet hall with gaudy festoons.
The disclaimer that ran before every episode dedicating the day’s show to the people it parodied was as distinctive as the end credits – a reworded version of popular hit songs.
But more than the message the show purported to deliver and the laughter it often evoked, it was Bhatti, the common man who struck a chord. As the hapless everyman caught in complicated situations both at home and at work, Bhatti played his bit with ease and a trademark sorry face.
In retrospect, Flop Show did a good job of walking the fine line. It always made good use of self-deprecating humour while poking fun at others. Wonder who would have gotten away today with taking pot shots at the entire TV industry or bureaucrats, some of whom he may have had to court to get his show sanctioned.
Flop Show was Bhatti’s first step towards stardom. His brief but brilliant stint as a comic and satirist ended in a fatal car accident in 2012. He was 57 years old.