In April, during the early days of the lockdown in India, Doordarshan announced that it would re-air several classic shows from the 80s and 90s, the early years of Indian television. This list was, inevitably, led by mythological heavyweights Mahabharat and Ramayan. But it also included Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show (1989), a surprising selection—especially since Doordarshan is state-owned and this government has a demonstrably low tolerance for dissent.
Flop Show was a curious beast by any standards, but in 1989 it might as well have been air-dropped over the Doordarshan office by aliens. The show specialised in satirical sketches about Things Routinely Hushed Up—such corporate greed, governmental corruption, and India’s broken academic system. There were only 10 episodes in total, each about 30 minutes long, but these are still some of the most watchable comedy bits India has ever produced.
Though a sitcom by conception (every episode weaved a story around a particular theme, announced with over-the-top gravity at the beginning), Flop Show’s most memorable moments would more accurately be described as high parody. An ignoramus PhD candidate prays in front of a picture of his thesis advisor, a rogue doctor teaches a course on falsifying medical bills, and a useless Managing Director is replaced by a parrot who says, “meeting bulaa lo, subcommittee baithaa lo” (“call a meeting, form a subcommittee”) in response to every query.
There were only 10 episodes in total, each about 30 minutes long, but these are still some of the most watchable comedy bits India has ever produced.
Bhatti himself played variants of the comedic ‘straight man’ in each of these episodes. Unlike cartoonist RK Laxman’s befuddled ‘common man’ character, however, Bhatti’s characters were vocal and complicit in every scenario they played. It was all mighty clever, really. You see, in most comedies, the ‘straight man’ is supposed to keep a straight face while his partner plays the fool, so to speak. At various points during Flop Show, Bhatti played:
- The professor who wouldn’t sign his student’s thesis until the young man married his niece.
- The MD who uses office resources (and several employees) to find his missing pet dog.
- The halwai whose sweets feed his customers, only to send them running to his best friend’s pharmacy next door eventually.
In each case, Bhatti’s character is the ‘moving part’ of the sketch, which is unlike the straight man’s somewhat passive role. In each case, Bhatti indulges in deeply unethical practices with a straight face, even as everybody around him is appalled at his behaviour. This casual cruelty was rather the point of Flop Show. While Bhatti was fully committed to each and every joke, the larger objective was tragicomedy, to show us how desensitised Indians have becom. By making the Everyman character complicit in the era’s worst excesses (if not driving the action outright), Bhatti made sure that Flop Show wasn’t looking to ‘outsource’ our collective woes. Despite its strong, structural critique it was asking us to introspect.
Along the way, they strung together some bloody good stories, Bhatti and his crew. The sixth episode, on ‘Meetings’, remains my favourite. It has aged really well, especially for those of you who have ‘Zoom fatigue’ by now. It’s also a good example of the way Bhatti would converge the ‘personal’ and ‘political’ parts of these episodes (generally, there would be no more than two sets per episode, one apiece for Bhatti’s home and office, respectively).
The episode begins with a typically farcical event—rats have apparently gnawed their way through some important files at the office and Bhatti, who plays an unspecified senior government official, has called a meeting to discuss this. The initial meeting triggers a hilarious sequence of events wherein the official finds his personal and professional lives in churn. His chairman scolds him for holding endless, unproductive meetings, while his wife suspects that these meetings are a front for afternoon trysts with his secretary (the unfortunately caricaturised ‘Rita’, regurgitating the Christian secretary stereotype). Bhatti is confused but being a picaresque hero he decides to solve the problem the only way he knows how—by delegating his domestic and official duties via more meetings. At one point, he reiterates, “Aadmi ka rutbaa isi se pataa chaltaa hai ki usne ek din mein kitni meetings attend ki!” (A man’s status is known by the number of meetings he attends every day).
Savita Bhatti, the comedian’s real-life wife, co-produced the show and played his wife in all of the episodes. Vivek Shauq, blessed with perfect comic timing and other-worldly miming skills, would later become a regular in mid-2000s Bollywood films (like Gadar, Koi Mil Gaya, Kisna and 36 China Town). Shauq, tragically, died in 2011 at 47 following a heart attack. A year later, the 57-year-old Bhatti, too, died in an automobile accident.
It’s a shame, really, for the children-of-the-Internet could have used a Flop Show revival, especially in light of the Doordarshan re-airing. Because they just don’t make ’em like Jaspal Bhatti anymore.
You can watch all 10 episodes of Flop Show on the Doordharshan YouTube channel here. And if you like what you see, DeadAnt also recommends Full Tension (1995), Bhatti’s other major TV satire from the 1990s.