Takeshi’s Castle was a supremely silly Japanese game show from the late 1980s, hosted by future film auteur Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano, comprising a series of competitions that more often than not ended with participants in the mud or water or flat on their behinds. It seems an unlikely candidate for cult status in India, yet that’s what happened in 2005, when someone at Pogo TV had the inspired idea of getting Jaaved Jaaferi to dub a Hindi commentary over the episodes (many of which are on YouTube). Something about the incongruous sight of Japanese kids and adults slipping and sliding while Jaaferi supplied an endless stream of wisecracks in famous voices from Shah Rukh Khan's to comedian Jagdeep’s (Jaaferi's father) made this nonsensical show a much-loved hit.
Those who were in their teens or younger when Takeshi’s Castle was broadcast in India might break into a fond smile if they watch Lava Ka Dhaava, a Hindi dub of the popular American game show Floor Is Lava. Jaaferi switches between accents and personas, as mercurial as he was a decade and a half ago in Takeshi’s, or in the late 1990s hosting the musical variety shows Timex Timepass and Videocon Flashback (he also hosted the popular dance show Boogie Woogie). Over a Zoom call, Lounge speaks to the actor, singer and dancer about his comedy heroes, improv, mimicry, and the difference between dubbing for Takeshi’s Castle and Lava Ka Dhaava. Edited excerpts:
Were dubbed game shows a thing when you did ‘Takeshi’s Castle’?
There used to be a German show called Telematch on Doordarshan: very innovative, elaborate games. But at the time of Takeshi’s broadcast in India, there were no game shows being dubbed. I saw the English dubbing for the show, which had a lot of adult humour. In India they wanted a family show, so I kept it very clean,
I enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn’t think that this is going to become a cult show. I said, okay, it’s for kids, let’s have some fun. But a lot of adults ended up enjoying it. It became a de-stressor because you could just pick it up from anywhere.
You did another dubbed show at the time called ‘Ninja Warriors’.
Ninja Warriors was soon after Takeshi’s. The difference was that Ninja Warriors was a very serious game show. Some people came for it after practising for a year; it had serious contenders. Unlike Takeshi’s, which is a mad show.
How do you compare your work on those and on ‘Lava Ka Dhaava’?
Takeshi’s was crazy on its own, so to be crazy in that was easy because you are getting input from what’s happening on screen. Ninja Warriors, in the later rounds especially, was very demanding physically. It required a lot of skill and athleticism of the participants, so I had to maintain a balance between admiration and weaving in the fun element. Similarly, in Lava Ka Dhaava, they have all come to win. That’s the difference: In Takeshi’s, the participants and the commentator were crazy, while in the other two shows the participants are serious.
My generation discovered you in the late 1990s, with ‘Timex Timepass’ and ‘Videocon Flashback’.
They became cult shows too. If you look at what people today are doing on YouTube, playing multiple characters, and then see Timex Timepass, with me playing 14 characters—that was groundbreaking then. You can’t find a precursor.
The channels had their S&Ps (standards and practices), they said we want to keep it clean, but there was no supervision. They just said, there’s a studio, go and dub. We never had any problems with people telling us, don’t say this. Today, I can’t even say a line from a song without S&P being a problem. If I go, apne aap ko Amitabh Bachchan samajhta hai kya, people are like, you can’t say “Amitabh Bachchan”. It has become so weird—you can’t take somebody’s name, you can’t say a brand, a line from a movie.
Did you have the urge towards improv comedy from an early age?
Yeah, I suppose. It’s your surroundings that make you—the people you meet, the talk you hear, the cultures you see. It’s like a data bank. Being in a place like Mumbai, travelling by train, it’s a huge collection of material. You think, I could use that walk, that accent. Though I didn’t think of it consciously then, I just observed.
Did you have any comics you looked up to or emulated?
See, there was no stand-up then. There were mimicry artists—when you go to a wedding, there would always be one, who will do some kind of impersonation/stand-up with some observational humour. People like Johnny Whiskey, Shahid Bijnori, Prince Shakeel... these were very, very popular. And later came Johnny Lever.
When I was growing up, the only comedy we watched was Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Tom and Jerry, Three Stooges in morning shows. And in Indian movies, we watched Mehmood saab, Johnny Walker saab, my dad, I.S. Johar, Keshto Mukherjee, Paintal. There were no videos; VHS came when I was probably 13-14. When I was younger, it was just Hindi movies and these morning shows.
The shows you hosted and the game shows you dubbed for have in common a talent for mimicry and for switching between characters. Was Robin Williams an inspiration?
Williams was amazing. (I operated) on a much lower level. When I started in 1994, some movies were there on laserdisc. But there were no tapes of stand-up comedy. We got to know about that much later.
George Carlin was my favourite. He never went into characters, he was more sociopolitical, spoke 100 words a minute yet so erudite. These were comedians I came to know later but when I was doing Timex Timepass there was no reference point.
Two characters I took from my father—a guy called Cafe Azmi (he had done a similar role in a film called Qurbani, a wannabe boxer who's running a café) and another with a Dilli-6 way of speaking. Then there was Hip Hop Hingorani, a DJ from Club Dadlani; Analysis Anandan, a psychiatrist with a split personality who became Vengeance Veerappan; Sherpa Sultanpuri, a Nepali who wants to be a lyrics writer; Kung Fu Kader from Hyderabad; Queenie Singh from Punjab; Adbhut Applause, who swore by Shatrughan Sinha; Chaila Sylverstar, a cyborg from Sahyadri with a Sylvester Stallone voice; Kabri Chacha, who’s 85 and stuck in a time warp in the 1940s.
Bachchan turns up a lot in your dubs. Do you have a favourite subject for mimicry?
I was doing people like Jeevan, Saeed Jaffrey, Sohrab Modi, K.N. Singh, Sapru saab—nobody even knew who these people were. I used to enjoy that. From the mainstream, there’s Shatrughan Sinha, Dev Anand. I was one of the earlier ones to do a Sanjay Dutt. Dilip Kumar I did quite often; General Lee in Takeshi’s was Dilip saab. But the flow was different from the mimicry artists I grew up watching—the switching in the middle of a sentence.