Flop Show is Back on DD: How Jaspal Bhatti Paved the Way for Political Satire in India

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Flop Show is Back on DD: How Jaspal Bhatti Paved the Way for Political Satire in India

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Back in October 31, 1989, Doordarshan viewers were treated to an opening sequence that read (in Hindi), “This episode is dedicated to those government officers who misuse office machinery and have thus inspired us to make this show”. At the time, this disclaimer might have seemed peculiar, but today, 30 years after it first appeared on screen, it has been seared into our collective consciousness as a distinctive dedication that made it clear that this show would spare no one from mockery, not even itself. The show in question, was Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show, a satire skit series that earned the poker-faced Bhatti the moniker “The King of Satire”. A sense of distrust was on everyone’s minds in the tumultuous ’80s that saw the Bofors scam, faced a constant risk of unstable coalitions, and a general stagnation in the economy percolate into the Indian psyche. The timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. Bhatti went ahead and bottled these feelings into the veritable Molotov cocktail that was Flop Show. 

Flop Show ran for a total of 10 episodes, all of which were under 30 minutes, and saw a rotating cast – part of Bhatti’s close circle – that included his wife Savita Bhatti, and fellow comedians Vivek Shauq and Rajesh Jolly. From a production point of view, it was extremely efficient: The show’s aesthetics resembled something similar to a DIY home video; it was shot entirely in Chandigarh – at a budget of ₹20 lakh – often on the campus of the Punjab Engineering College (Bhatti’s alma mater). Over the course of the episodes, the cast took upon different roles. Bhatti for instance, oscillated between playing a government official, tenant, doctor, and chief guest. 

Departing from the hasya-kavi or humourous poetic tradition of merely telling jokes, Flop Show relied heavily on visual gags. There was situational comedy, parody, and satire thrown into the mix ably as Bhatti took on pressing issues. One of my favourite scenes from the show has Bhatti telling his wife that he always dreamt of giving her a ride in a government vehicle, as the camera slowly zooms out to reveal that the duo is travelling in a roadroller. The show’s singular magic, however, lay in the genius writing that mined universality from oddly specific situations. Consider the very first episode, where a boss asks his employees to help find his missing dog as they vie for promotions ‒ it is bound to remind you of that one boss who still makes a recurring appearance in your nightmares. Taking a dig at dignitaries who arrive late, Bhatti plays a chief guest who arrives on time at functions, but his punctuality ensures that no one really believes that he is the real deal. 

Flop Show ’s singular magic, however, lay in the genius writing that mined universality from oddly specific situations.

Flop Show’s appeal was further solidified by the fact that most of the scenarios presented in the episodes have origins in real life. Is it strange that government officials were dispatched to find a lost dog? Wait until you hear about how three policemen in Uttar Pradesh were suspended following delays in the search of Samajwadi Party MP Azam Khan’s lost buffaloes. Even the gag where a doctor seemingly forgets his watch inside a patient’s stomach is not without precedent; a similar case was reported in Rajasthan in 2013. As for the sixth episode about office meetings, where samosas and gulab jamuns were prioritised over the agenda of the meeting, not much has changed in our offices today. But I suspect, the real reason Flop Show – available to watch on YouTube endures until this day is because of the irreverence with which it called out the hypocrisy of Indian bureaucracy and how it underlined the power of comedy to instigate. In a YouTube video, comedian Garv Malik recalls a demonstration where Bhatti wore a garland of onions to protest the high prices. “That one is priceless,” he laughs referring to the comedian’s antics, adding that even today once can relate to the gag as prices of onions soar every year. 

In a way, Flop Show’s relentless charm was synonymous with Bhatti’s wit, which spilled offscreen in his print columns and public protests and brought a scathing freshness to television humour. An affable and generous comedian, Bhatti perfectly embodied the anxieties and preoccupations of an Everyman Bhatti came up with the title because he apparently felt that the life of a common man was nothing but a “Flop Show”. It’s no wonder then that the show wasn’t interested in offering solutions as much as in wanting to earn a laugh which made you wonder about the absurdities of life. There’s no better testament to how the show turned not taking itself seriously into a sport than in its tenth episode. In what was the show’s final outing, Bhatti turned the meta-gun on himself (and Doordarshan) by taking a jab at the antics of daft TV producers and their blinded obsession with ratings. 

In an interview to Tribune a few years ago, Savita Bhatti recollected the extent to which her husband cared about the show. During the telecast of the early episodes, he would take a round of Chandigarh’s sectors at 9 pm when the show aired to check how many people were on the road instead of being in front of the TV. “The fewer he spotted the merrier he became,” she said. 

By the time Bhatti passed away in 2012, the landscape of primetime TV comedy had irrevocably changed, turning into gaudy melodrama geared toward promoting the next big film launch, peppered with generous helpings of misogyny and homophobia. Still, the influence of Bhatti’s legacy lives on. Today, political satire is no longer an anomaly. Kunal Kamra and Varun Grover might have Jaspal Bhatti to thank the man, who turned self-deprecation into an artform, who fearlessly took on the powers that be, much before the dawn of wokeness.