India’s Truth Bomb
By Aubrey BelfordJuly 16, 2012
Aamir Khan is an Indian movie star famous for shunning Bollywood’s fluff and pretence. Now he’s shaking up the country with a television juggernaut that airs the dirty laundry of one billion people.
Sunday at 11am has become the television timeslot that India's elite has come to fear, and hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens have come to cherish.
For 11 weeks, Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest acting stars, has perched himself in empathetic attitude before a studio audience in what looks like the classic talk-show set-up. But each week Khan has used this format to expose India's social ills. The television show has earned him plaudits — and massive ratings — in a country where you can usually only pull such crowds with sport or cheap thrills such as reality television. Called Satyamev Jayate (or Truth Alone Prevails), the show has been compared to Oprah, with Khan cast as stand-in for the queen of American talk TV.
But this program offers no free giveaways, no book club and no hyper-caffeinated celebrities jumping on couches. Satyamev Jayate is unrelentingly serious. The show's first episode was viewed by 90 million people as it tackled, in gut-churning detail, India's epidemic of abortions of female foetuses. A recent episode, on caste discrimination, ended with a phone poll: should India eradicate the practice of making dalits, or untouchables, clean out toilets by hand? More than 70,000 said yes, while only about 2,500 disagreed.
"In that sense I feel it's a far more ambitious show," says Khan in an interview with The Global Mail, pondering the comparison to Winfrey's program (which is no longer on air).
"I just feel that all across the world, you have issues that any society faces," he says. "This is an attempt on our part to try and address these issues on a public platform. It's a creative journey, which is a social journey, to create public debate on a national level, to try and get a better understanding, to see what other people are doing, you know, learn perhaps, and be inspired by people who can show us the way forward."
Satyamev Jayate is a phenomenon that ought not exist in today's diffuse media: a single voice that sets the agenda for everyone else. The show is simulcast in six languages on India's Star satellite network and by the national broadcaster Doordarshan in a slot that was once reserved (back in the days before India's satellite-media explosion), for serials of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. So when Khan, a Muslim, is speaking, it can sometimes feel as if the heavens are issuing their writ.
Already, Satyamev Jayate's 11 episodes can claim to have had an effect on a number of issues faced by Indian society. The inaugural episode on female foeticide, for example, led a number of states to announce crackdowns on sonography centres which make sex-selective abortions possible by identifying the foetuses as male or female. An episode on medical malpractice and expensive drugs saw Khan called before the national parliament to explain his opinions, and prompted state governments to promote generic drugs. And an episode on child abuse prompted a flood of new complaints.
It's not that Khan is going into completely unexplored territory. All the issues he has touched so far have previously been covered by India's media. Caste discrimination has been an matter of widespread debate since before independence, and has long been the subject of legislation. Other issues, such as honour killings, have been frequently discussed by progressive media and social reformers.
The key difference with Satyamev Jayate is that it brings these issues to a wider audience, both among India's middle class and its poor, and that it carries the moral force to shock people into action and break taboos, says Ashis Nandy, a prominent Indian social critic.
"Accidentally or knowingly, [Khan] has hit upon issues that people suspect to be true, but have always been afraid to say or feel embarrassed to say," Nandy says.
"That voice is actually the voice of many. He has caught on to that in the right moment, in the right way."
The show has had its share of detractors, whose main criticism is that it oversimplifies problems that have complex causes. For example, an episode on medical malpractice was dismissed by many doctors as simply maligning the profession; and an episode on pesticides and organic farming was criticised for misleadingly boiling down the ills of India's shambolic agricultural and subsidised food-distribution system.
Indeed, it's easy to get the impression that episodes of Satyamev Jayate fall too conveniently into place. Every week, a comfortably seated Khan switches between prepared video packages and emotive live interviews with victims of social ills, and experts on the topic under discussion. He switches from one guest to another in an apparently hiccup-free progression. And, as Winfrey used to, Khan lets his tears, and those of his guests and his audiences flow freely.
But Khan denies scripting his interviews or even discussing the issues with guests before a show. He says he only meets them once, on the day before they record an episode, for an icebreaker lunch. "The fact that I'm just another human being like them is something I want them to register in the first meeting. And hopefully, in that first meeting, this awkwardness or the view that they have with me and celebrity is largely dealt with and they come to terms with that," he says.
Khan says his show is not journalism — and that's exactly why it has such power. Instead, he and his wife and co-producer, Kiran Rao, have assembled a research team of just over a dozen people, many of whom are journalists. The first series of 13 episodes is the result of two years of chasing stories and interview subjects across India. Nonetheless, each upcoming episode's topic is a closely guarded secret.
"We're trying to combine journalism with my skill set. Which is what? It's communication," he says. "I can move you, I can touch you, I can make you laugh, I can make you cry, I can tell you a story in a manner that is interesting for you to listen to. I can unfold it for you in a particular manner."
Over the years, Khan has built a reputation as being one of a number of Bollywood stars who are distinguished from their peers by their social consciences. While his rivals for the position of Bollywood king, such as Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan (no relation, the name Khan is common at the top of the business) frequently go low-brow, Aamir Khan has cleverly tied his name to a series of critically lauded projects. In 2001, he starred in the internationally successful Lagaan, a film set in the 1890s, about villagers who take on the oppressive land tax levied by the British in a high-stakes game of cricket.
As his star has risen, Khan has, along with Rao, produced films that deal with weighty issues such as farmer suicides in 2010's Peepli (Live); and more light-hearted films that nonetheless push the barriers of India's conservative social norms, such as 2011's Delhi Belly.
"Ordinarily, television channels would not go for something like this [Satyamev Jayate]. But I'm trying to do two things here. I'm trying to combine the power of television along with the goodwill that I happened to have earned over the past 24 years that I've been an actor," he says.
Since its launch, Satyamev Jayate has caused some rumblings of uncertainty among Indians wary of messianic social reformers. Immediate comparisons were drawn with Anna Hazare, a hunger-striking anti-corruption activist who became a national media star in 2011 amid middle-class discontent with India's political class. Hazare's popularity soon plummeted as Indians became aware of his leanings as a right-wing Hindu activist.
So far, Khan's show has avoided the sort of polarising political stances that undid Hazare. Indeed, going on previous statements, he's no fan of social reformers in India's Hindu-nationalist mould. Khan has been a critic of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state who earned a loyal national following for carrying out economic reforms, but hatred from other Indians who see him as complicit in the 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. But the topics on Satyamev Jayate have so far avoided many of India's key fissures between left and right, Hindu and Muslim.
The current season ends on August 5, and Khan says he has not yet decided whether to make a second season. But he tells The Global Mail he intends sending his production team on a three-month trip around India to assess the impact of the show.
"We want to go back into the field again, across the country, and understand what it is that we've done. Because right now we're still in the thick of it."