There is this clothing and accessory brand called Happily Unmarried, most visibly available in Chandigarh at a mall in IT Park. For my EMI-affected salary, it’s overpriced, but the name and brand philosophy — its website says, “anti-established in 2003 with no vision and no business plans” — remind me of Jaspal Bhatti.
His Flop Show, the self-lampooning DD superhit, is a bit too old for the Facebook generation, yet the skyrocketing vegetable prices unfailingly bring back images of Bhatti wearing ‘jewellery’ made of the ‘precious commodities’ or selling insurance policies for your onion stock.
Satirist-in-Chief and a treasured resident of Chandigarh, Bhatti died in a road accident last year at the age of 57. On his death anniversary, October 25, the UT traffic police picked the late actor as their brand ambassador. His wife Savita Bhatti was understandably emotional at the event. But what stayed with many fans was her disappointment at how Bhatti had “not got his due”. “It is a lone battle being fought by my children and me to get the honour Jaspal Bhatti deserves,” she said.
No one from the administration came to the family house when he died, Savita lamented, also recalling how Bhatti’s alma mater, Punjab Engineering College or PEC, refused to name an auditorium after him.
Though it is not hard to understand her emotion, the fact that she said this at an event held to underline Bhatti’s undying legacy made it ironic. Unravelling that irony is the key to understanding why the police — before that, the election commission — chose him as their ambassador.
Even when dead, Bhatti carries the charm to make us understand a basic fact that we often forget: That road accident victim could have been you, or me! It is this charisma, easygoing and nonpreachy, that made Bhatti engaging and endearing; it still does, and the traffic police, for once, have done the smart thing to pick the quintessential common man to get a basic message across. SSP (traffic) Maneesh Chaudhary described him as a celebrity, but Bhatti was far from one, and this distance keeps him special.
For the family to feel sad about some sarkari people not visiting to pay their last respects is understandable, but not agreeable. In the context of what he stood for, and from the eyes of a fan who still can’t believe that the timeless ‘uncle’ of his childhood is no longer alive, seeking institutional recognition is not important, if not entirely unimportant. Bhatti was given the Padma Bhushan certainly not because he lobbied for it like many do, but because he represented the people more appropriately and vociferously than many politicians, and thus commanded the award and also the respect people give him.
You could accuse Bhatti of being repetitive, but he was never typical or boring, the two common follies of comedians who work for years. Nor was he ever the one to laugh at a joke that was below the belt. This was evident in his eventual disillusionment with TV comedy shows that serve tasteless dollops of double-meaning humour. They sought to once encash his popularity. Bhatti was a judge on one, but did not agree with what was on show, and had the conviction to distance himself.
He knew what people expected of him, that he was not the one to laugh on cue, that he was not a professional joker but a social commentator who represented the diminishing Punjabi tradition of simple satire that carries no malice but does not lack bite. Bhagwant Mann, Gurpreet Ghuggi and Bhotu Shah are players in the theatre of the Genial Sardar. Even my confidence in my sense of humour increased by knowing that he and I share our birthday.
It would be appreciated if PEC names a building after him. But that won’t make his legacy immortal. How many people recall that Rose Garden is named after a former President, and how many actually call the IT Park by its real name painted on boards all over the tricity? Does it benefit Bhagat Singh’s legacy much that Nawanshahr is named after him, or is it more important to save the Shaheed from being used for petty political purposes?
What would help preserve Jaspal Bhatti’s legacy is fearless questioning of a corrupt government and sending social messages across without hitting below the belt. No one can do that better than Savita Bhatti, the prime partner in Bhatti’s brilliant projects. She need not be disappointed. Jaspal Bhatti cannot die.