One of the educational TV shows that made an indelible mark in the minds of kids back in the ‘80s and ‘90s was Batibot. I recall the tunes to this day—“Pa-pa-pa-paborito ko/Ang gulay-ayayay.” “Alagang-alaga namin si Puti/Bakang mataba, bakang maputi.” “Ako ay kapitbahay, kapitbahay nyo/Laging handang tumulong sa inyo.”
And then there’s the show’s opening theme, of course: “Pagmulat ng mata, langit nakatawa sa Batibot, sa Batibot.”
Kuya Bodjie, Ate Sienna, Pong Pagong, Kiko Matsing, Manang Bola, Ningning at Gingging, and Sitsiritsit and Alibangbang were among the characters that molded me in my formative years, such that when I recently got in touch with one of the show’s lead cast members for this interview, I automatically called him that—“Kuya Bodjie.” Like I’ve known him for years. Which I have, in a way.
His real name, for everyone’s information, is Luisito Pascua. And Bodjie is not just a made-up character name; it’s his real nickname.
A professional theater actor since 1973, Kuya Bodjie considers hosting Batibot the biggest break in his television career. So it is surprising to know he was not really fond of kids when he started doing the children’s show.
“Wala akong hilig sa pagtuturo at wala akong hilig sa bata,” Kuya Bodjie, now in his senior years, reveals in our interview over Zoom. “[Noon], hindi ko talaga ma-imagine ang sarili kong magturo.”
The show’s original title wasn’t Batibot but Sesame!, coming from the iconic American educational children's program Sesame Street. Batibot was co-produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, which produced Sesame Street in the U.S., the Philippine Children’s Television Foundation (PCTVF), with the support of the Ministry of Human Settlements. Back then, the show used both English and Filipino as a media of communication.
But the government pulled out its support following the political and economic turmoil of 1983—the year former Senator Ninoy Aquino was assassinated—so the co-production deal was canceled. When PCTVF revived the show the following year, the creators changed the title to Batibot (a Filipino word that means “small, but strong and robust”) and made it an all-Filipino children’s educational show.
Kuya Bodjie, then 29, auditioned as one of the show’s cast. “Pinakanta ata kami at pinasayaw,” he says, slightly wrinkling his forehead as he tries to recall memories from decades back. “Nahirapan nga silang kunin ako kasithey were looking for someone younger. Tapos, they found me a bit lanky with my movements. But fortunately nakapasok ako at ako yung napiling maging kuya figure sa show.”
What he lacked in dancing, he compensated with his training in acting, which started pretty early in his school’s drama fests. This proved useful when Kuya Bodjie was later on assigned to be the show’s official storyteller.
It also helped that he used to tell stories to his younger cousins in his teenage years. They would meet at their lola’s ancestral house in Pasay on Saturdays and he would do the storytelling before their afternoon siesta. “Nasimulan lang, may kinuwentuhan akong isa, dalawa, hangang sa lahat na sila kinukwentuhan ko,” he says. “Hanggang sa ako na ang naging regular na tagapagkuwento.”
Meeting Pong Pagong
While not exactly a newbie in television, Kuya Bodjie remembers his first day on the set with fondness. “Yung una kong kaeksena ay si Pong Pagong. So I had to imagine this gigantic turtle to be a three-year-old kid,” the seasoned theater actor recalls. “Naka-ten takes ako sa eksena na yun kasi di ko pa makuha how to relate to a three year old.”
Unknown to audiences, the puppeteer’s hand controls Pong’s head and his head is actually on Pong’s neck. “So ang tendency talaga kausapin ko yung leeg. Those are the things I had to get used to during the first few taping days.”
One thing Batibot had which Sesame Street didn’t is the storytelling segment. “Sabi ng mga Amerikano, the kids’ attention span is very short, so the segments have to be fast-paced like commercials. But the head writer of Batibot, Rene Villanueva, insisted storytelling is a Filipino tradition. The Pinoy kids, especially those in the provinces would really sit and enjoy a story.”
However, in order to catch the attention of kids, the writers kept the stories short and invited celebrities to host the segment, similar to how Sesame Street does it. Thing is the production people had difficulty booking celebrity guests so the storytelling always ended up with Kuya Bodjie. And that was how “Mga Kwento ni Kuya Bodjie” came about. He employed his theater training to make the narration lively and to give each character in the stories their unique voice.
Batibot had a very structured production—“napaka-istrikto,” describes Kuya Bodjie. Scripts would undergo several revisions before they get approved. “Tapos kahit sa set, may mga researchers parati na nagbabantay sa salita namin. Hindi kami pwedeng magsalita ng any English word. Pag nagsalita ka ng ‘okay,’ cut agad. Yun ang isa sa maganda sa Batibot, tinulak talaga kaming magsalita ng wagas na Filipino, tugma rin sa target audience namin noon,” he says.
The challenge in being in a show that targets preschool children is to catch the attention of young kids. And so hosts needed to deliver larger-than-life performances each time. They also had to maintain a wholesome image. As the kuya of the show, he had to practice what he preached on and off cam. “Yung pagiging magalang, yung parati gumagamit ng po at opo. Kung magyoyosi kami, nakatago. Para kaming mga ipokrito,” he remembers, laughing. “Bawal magmura. Napakabait namin, lalo na pag may mga bata. Pero pag kami-kami lang nagmumurahan at nagyoyosi kami together. Minsan, nahihirapan kami, kasi it’s our responsibility [to set a good example] and it’s our character. We have to be good role models that little kids can look up to,” he says.
Batibot aired on and off between 1984 to 2013, over different channels—RPN 9, PTV-4, ABS-CBN GMA-7, and TV5. The show also won awards including the “Special Jury Prize” at the Prix Jeunesse awards in 1990, the “BMW prize for most outstanding program produced with limited facilities” in 1998, and the UNICEF Prize for Prix Jeunesse in 2002.
However, the lack of government support, the popularity of youth-oriented shows and foreign cartoons, and the loss of Pong Pagong and Kiko Matsing due to licensing issues all led to the show’s demise.
The need for good storytelling
Kuya Bodjie admits he’s no longer adept about the learning habits of children today. But he observes that one of the challenges now in educating kids through television is how to take their attention away from gadgets.
He says creators should not discount the power of good storytelling in a children’s educational show. “I think it’s important na maramdaman ng bata na ‘the host is talking to me and I’m important to him,’ more than dazzling the child with spectacle and technology. Technology is a cold distraction. Siguro dapat yun ang maging challenge to the next generation of child educators on television—to make it more personal,” he says.
His experience holding live storytelling sessions before the pandemic tells him there is still room for this kind of learning. “I told a story for 15 minutes, walang libro or anything. I was able to hold their attention the whole time. At kahit nung nagkuwento ako with books, nakatutok pa rin sila,” he says. “There is nothing that can compete with human-to-human interaction. Hindi ‘yon maibibigay ng technology eh.”
Now enjoying the freedom to play a variety of roles in movies, theater, and teleseryes, I asked if there’s a part of him that misses Batibot. “Noong tumanda na ako, oo. At this age of retirement, naghahanap na ako ng kapayapaan sa buhay ko. Parang nakaka-miss yung mas simple at mas warm,” he admits.
Batibot is now part of Philippine TV history and continues to live on in the minds of many Filipinos it molded. Will there be another one like it for the present and future generation? As Manang Bola would say, "Perlas na bilog, wag tutulog-tulog. Sabihin sa akin ang sagot. Babebibobu."