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Jaspal Bhatti: A talent untapped by Hindi cinema

The naturally gifted and popular humorist was used more like a spare wheel by the Hindi film industry.

Mayur Lookhar

Talent is nothing without opportunity. It is perhaps appropriate to use a Sidhuism to describe the plight of a famous Sardarji actor and comedian, the late Jaspal Bhatti. A life cut short, ironically on a day when the actor was heading for the release of his Punjabi film, Power Cut.

Jaspal Bhatti was a master of socio-political satire. He shot to fame with the hit TV series on Doordarshan, ironically titled Flop Show. It was among the more hilarious shows in Indian TV history.

The late 1980s saw light-hearted family dramas like Wagle Ki Duniya and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which depicted middle-class families and their daily lives. Family also formed the centre of Flop Show, with Bhatti and his wife in the lead, but Flop Show dared to take subtle as well as obvious digs at the establishment, politicians and institutions.

Flop Show propelled Bhatt and his theatre group into the popular limelight, but, surprisingly, he was only signed for his Hindi film debut in 1997 with Dil Deewana Maane Na, starring Govinda and Manisha Koirala. Unfortunately, even this film never got made because, apparently, its storyline was similar to that of Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha (1998), starring Ajay Devgn and Kajol.

Bhatti was then cast in the Suniel Shetty-starrer, Kaala Samrajya (1999), playing a lovelorn Sardarji whose attempts to woo a young woman always prove futile. For a man who made a name for himself as the hen-pecked husband in Flop Show, Bhatti’s character in Kaala Samrajya was not befitting his image.

The actor had his first meaningful role in Rishi Kapoor's directorial debut Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999). Though he was cast as a Sardarji again, Aa Ab Laut Chalen at least allowed Bhatti to showcase his humour. Bhatti played Iqbal, a Sardarji who wears the Tricolour in his heart and on his turban. Ironically, Kader Khan played Sardar Khan, a Pakistani who is often crossing swords with Iqbal Singh whenever an India-Pakistan match is on.

In 1999, the comedian courted controversy when he let his turban loose in Salman Khan’s Jaanam Samjha Karo.

Jaspal Bhatti's wife Savita brought an interesting aspect to the fore. “Jaspalji was virtually there with Salman in every frame in the first half of the film. I understand that Khan was the central character of the film. However, Jaspalji’s character, Tubby, was more like a shadow to Salman’s character. But after the interval, he just disappears. There has to be a legitimate way of weaning a character. There ought to be a reason for a character to not be seen. You associate such loopholes with scripts that are not cohesively written.”

Bhatti also shared screen space with Manisha Koirala and Sanjay Dutt in Kartoos (1999) and Khauff (2000). Like most of his other roles, these too were cliched and failed to use his talents well.

Bhatti was reunited with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, his co-star in Aa Ab Laut Chalen, in Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai (2000). The film was more appreciated for the comedy by its supporting cast, which also had Anupam Kher, Johnny Lever and Himani Shivpuri. 

Bhatti continued to bag Hindi films, but most of the roles offered to him were monotonous and predictable. In Kuchh Meetha Ho Jaye (2005), he played a Brahmin character called Dubey, but his mannerisms were reminiscent of the stereotypical filmi Sardarji. Maybe therein lay the problem, with filmmakers choosing to see the Sardarji in Bhatti rather than the great actor.

Think of a Sardar in Hindi cinema and chances are you will see him as a truck driver, mechanic, alcoholic or dhabawallah. Moreover, you will always see Sardars travel in large groups, all 20 of them fitting into one five-seater car.

Recalling one such cliched moment, Savita Bhatti said, “We did one film together where we were told that as a typical Punjabi couple, we ought to speak loudly. It’s precisely due to this perception that Jaspal Bhatti wasn’t happy to be just an actor. He had his own vision, and that is why he made his own work. He wasn’t satisfied with the work that was being offered to him.”

Savita Bhatti also made a stunning disclosure. She said, “I’m witness to a huge amount of work which he turned down. Raja Hindustani (1996) was one such film. He never had the desperation to be just an actor. He did a a few Hindi films, but they didn’t do justice to his talent.”

Savita believes artistes like her husband did not get much opportunity because the 1990s was a period in which lead actors themselves started to do comedy. "Back then, people weren’t willing to experiment," she said. "What didn’t help was how lead actors started to get into comedy, so you didn’t require a separate comedian. Also, no director thought of casting Jaspalji in any role other than comedy. No one wanted to invest in a character actor."

In hindsight, the lack of right opportunities enabled Bhatti to dedicate more time to his own work. “He was lucky to have an alternative way to make a comeback. I think it was Bollywood’s loss that they didn’t tap his talent. The good thing is that the lack of opportunities in Hindi cinema allowed him to dedicate time to writing his own shows. He spent a lot of time writing his own scripts. If he had been successful in Bollywood, none of these things would have happened.”

Bhatti himself produced a few films, notably the classic Punjabi comedy Mahaul Theek Hai (1999), and his only Hindi film as director, Shahji Ki Advice (2006), which he also co-produced.

Shahji Ki Advice proved that you can have a Sardarji in the lead, and he needn’t be a clichéd stereotype. Bhatti had a jolly good role as Jolly Good Singh in Fanaa (2006), but subsequent films failed to do any justice to his talents.

Bhatti was personally admired by industry stalwarts. In fact, Savita recalled how Vidhu Vinod Chopra once hailed him as India's Woody Allen. “When you say this, it means you believe in the talent of this person. But even after showering such compliments, you weren't able to provide work to that man.

"Everyone believed he was an original talent, but somehow work never came. Also, he was far too blunt. He was never pretentious. I remember once he had gone for Hum Paanch [a popular 1990s television show], where he was to shoot 2-3 episodes. He was humbled when Jeetendraji came to meet him.

"I don’t recollect whom he told this to, whether it was the director or Ekta Kapoor, but Jaspalji didn’t approve of the idea of all five characters standing in a line, which was a common sight on the show. He thought this was very unrealistic. After two episodes, he was never called back. Maybe in Mumbai, you get work by being a yes-man. That is why he didn’t fit anywhere.”

Till the last, Jaspal Bhatti expressed himself best on the small screen. After Flop Show, Ulta Pulta and Full Tension, he returned to television with Thank You Jijaji, but this show lacked the punch of his earlier ventures.

Bhatti was said to be the first choice to judge the comedy show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, but he turned it down as he wouldn’t fake laughter. Bhatti did eventually adjudicate a stand-up comedy show, but the poor quality of the contestants must have disappointed him.

It just wasn’t comedy. Bhatti was also offered a daily soap. As Savita recalled, "This was perhaps in 2011, before he bagan looking for finance for Power Cut. He was offered a daily show from Star Plus where he was to be cast as a father to two girls. When the offer came, I told Jaspalji that we needed the money. He could simultaneously pay attention to Power Cut as well. However, he refused the show, saying he would rather die penniless. He said he would prefer doing his own film rather than work as a peon doing a 9-to-5 job in some serial. It takes courage to take such a stand."

After 2011, Bhatti shifted his focus to Punjabi films, directing and acting in Power Cut (2012). In 2012, however, his life was cut short at his prime when Bhatti's car met with an accident in Shahkot near Jalandhar, Punjab, on 25 October. The filmmaker was to be in the city the next day for the release of Power Cut.

A year later, Bhatti was posthumously awarded the Padma Bhushan. The award only made fans wonder why it was never conferred earlier. Savita didn't hesitate to ask why it took the government more than 20 years to bestow this honour.

“Jaspalji was once nominated for the Padma Shri," she recalled. "Then some bureaucrat came to us and apologized for having struck down his name. Jaspalji replied that I have never got any award in my life. Ironically, he got one when he was no more. I didn’t want to take the award on his behalf. I wanted him to receive it," she said, the regret still very much in evidence in her voice.

Bhatti's untimely death was not just a blow to Punjabi films and humour, but it also robbed Hindi cinema of the chance to redeem itself for its earlier failure to tap his potential.