New Delhi: A 1998 review of a national television show described its showrunner and lead as a “man with surely the most deadpan expression on Doordarshan” who “rips Indian society apart and then holds the dissected bits up for inspection”.
The show in question was the 1986 cult classic Ulta Pulta, and the showrunner Jaspal Bhatti, who came to be known as the “Ulta Pulta man”.
Sketch comedy is synonymous with the American Emmy award-winning show Saturday Night Live, but Ulta Pulta, India’s homegrown variety sketch show, explored an experimental format decades before today’s ‘comedy scene’ emerged with names like Vir Das of All India Bakchod (AIB), Kunal Kamra and many others.
Despite the fact that it was televised on a state-sponsored network, Jaspal’s show pulled no punches. The satirical sketch show was a scathing critique of corruption in its myriad forms. From scheming politicians to scamming shopkeepers, disingenuous doctors to dowry-hungry in-laws, nothing and no one escaped his commentary, which is probably what lent the show its credibility.
Almost two decades before Anna Hazare made ‘anti-corruption’ a mainstream agenda across the country with his Jan Lokpal Bill campaign, Jaspal was talking about the issue with intelligence, nuance, and most important of all, humour.
His collaborator and wife Savita Bhatti sums it up best in her words to ThePrint: “His was a silent revolution which took on the entire nation.”
Jokes are all around
Ulta Pulta was essentially a set of monologues delivered in Hindi by Jaspal against a monochromatic background, followed by short scenes or vignettes that enacted different scenarios.
The monologues, almost like public service announcements (PSAs), were sharp social commentaries that set up a certain premise, and the thought-provoking sketches were written around everyday situations.
“Sometimes people meet me on the street and ask me where I get ideas for Ulta Pulta from. Rather embarrassed, I answer — I steal them from all around me,” says Jaspal in one episode. “I hear a joke somewhere, and the next day it makes it to my show. But nowadays I wonder, what’s there to be ashamed about? Today, successful people are precisely those who are able to steal from all languages.”
The episode that follows details how plagiarism works, especially in magazines and newsrooms. “The best editor is one who can steal from many places and make the best editorial” is one dialogue that stands out, and seems like it could be easily written for today’s internet age.
The show had a zoom-in zoom-out kind of approach, looking simultaneously at micro instances of sellers seducing customers via inflated sales and discount pricing to police constables hinting for bribes, as well as macro-views of the injustice that exist in sociocultural institutions like capitalism, electoral politics and patriarchy. Above all, the show explored human nature.
“The series was called Ulta Pulta because he had once said ‘Agar aap duniya seedhe khade ho ke dekhte hain, sirf gussa, inefficiency, corruption nazar aayega’ (If you see the world standing upright, all you see is anger, inefficiency and corruption) But if you see it upside down, it all looks better,” Savita tells ThePrint.
There were other DD shows at the time that did have social messages behind them, but Ulta Pulta was different. Part of the reason was that it did not employ a preachy or judgmental tone.
Savita also adds how “all that he had said then is still extremely relevant today, even after 25-30 years”.
The most striking thing about watching the show today is its clean and minimalist character – a stark contrast to AIB’s high-production YouTube sketches, and The Kapil Sharma Show’s over-the-top stage antics.
“You don’t need the paraphernalia if you have the content, don’t need glitzy sets or someone dressing up as a woman,” Savita says. “Daily shows put pressure and artistes have to resort to these things. I don’t blame them. He [Jaspal] had the luxury of being who he was”.
She also feels that Jaspal “was so lucky to have discovered a style that was simple, direct but never hurtful. He would say the biggest of things and get away with it, because he never hit below the belt”.
A Sikh who was not the butt of jokes but made them
An electrical engineer by training, Jaspal was a political cartoonist before working on regional shows in Punjab and then made his mark on national television with Ulta Pulta. It was the first of many popular shows that he would go on to produce – Flop Show and Full Tension among other notable ones.
But his prolific work was not just instrumental in shaping the comedy landscape. It was also invaluable in terms of the visibility it gave to the Sikh community. There were no other Sikhs headlining a national show at the time, and Jaspal eventually became an extremely recognisable face in an industry which would often relegate Sardars to comic sidekicks.
“In an industry where Sikhs were stereotyped as buffoons when people saw a Sardar doing comedy and making sense, it changed the image of the Sikhs in minds of people,” Savita had said in a 2017 interview.
Jaspal Bhatti’s legacy
The short but impactful Ulta Pulta, which would be aired as early as 7.30 am, was a family favourite. Savita has been told by many that they remember watching the show as children get ready for school.
“It’s a remarkable thing to hold on to even two minutes of the entire nation’s attention. The two-minute capsule, had so much brevity as a stand-up act and sketch show,” she said.
Attributing the success and widespread appeal of the show to Jaspal’s “palpable goodness”, she remarks that people related with him because, unlike other artists, there was no gap between his reel and real life.
Jaspal passed away on 25 October 2012 in a road accident in Shahkot, Punjab, and was posthumously awarded a Padma Bhushan in 2013. His wife carries on his legacy through their Punjab-based film studio Mad Arts, and community-oriented satire group The Nonsense Club.
“There’s not been a single day in the last seven years when someone didn’t walk up to me and told me that they loved him and his work,” she says.