TV truth-teller

How Bollywood star Aamir Khan gets millions of people out of their comfort zone

But don’t call him an activist — he insists he’s just an actor

Aamir Khan

As one of India’s biggest film stars, Aamir Khan is used to being mobbed by fans and reporters alike. In recent times, however, he has seen a change in the way they approach him. “At one time they all wanted to talk about a film or my role. But now, wherever I go, they throw questions about Satyamev Jayate. From a remote village in Rajasthan to the bigger cities, it is all about the show and the issues it focused on,” said the star in an interview.

“Satyamev Jayate,” which translates as Truth Alone Triumphs, is a phrase derived from ancient Indian scriptures, and is the national motto of India. Khan chose it as the title for his weekly show because he felt it did justice to the theme of holding up a mirror to social issues. In its three seasons since it premiered on Indian television in May 2012, Satyamev Jayate has become a national phenomenon, driven as much by the star’s presence as by the range of topics it has tackled: issues from old age to expensive weddings to masculinity to controversial subjects like alternative sexualities and child abuse.

“I asked myself: What is my greatest strength? The answer was clear. I was a storyteller. I could touch emotions. So I took that route, instead of being preachy,” he explained in his sea-facing office in Mumbai.

By providing ordinary people with a national platform to tell their stories, Khan seems to have set off a national chain-reaction of truth telling. Guests speak of their own personal experiences, of dealing with prejudice, ostracism and hostility, of trying to negotiate the many barriers erected by Indian social mores; it is not unusual for the interviewees to tear up while describing trials like their own coming out, or how they were thrown out of their homes because a son wanted to usurp the property. Khan brings in victims, experts, and a carefully selected audience (an all male one for an episode on domestic violence, for example) who then are asked how they would cope with such situations.

The show has had a cathartic effect, to be sure, but has also brought about real change in some cases. Responses have poured in from India and abroad—wherever the show has been syndicated. Khan got a letter from a London viewer who wrote that her widowed mother had suddenly called her one morning after three years. “The mother had stopped talking to her when the daughter told her she was gay. After seeing the show the mother said, ‘I now understand what you went through.’”

Khan credits his own mother, describing her as the most sensitive person he knows. “If I won a tennis game, she would be thinking of the boy who lost to me and wondering about his feelings.” An old school friend, Satyajit Bhatkal, who became a lawyer fighting for the poor, is another inspiration, and is now the director of Satyamev Jayate.

“When I read the newspapers in the morning I feel disturbed at the injustice all around. I felt I must do something, whatever I can to change things,” said Khan. In 2006, while passing by in his car in Delhi he saw a group of people sitting in the hot, summer sun. They turned out to be protestors who had lost their lands to a major dam project. Khan brought in the media, which had largely ignored the protestors until then. This has won him praise, but also drawn critics who say he does such things to publicize his movies.

After Satyamev Jayate Khan said, he was worried that conservative politicians would attack him for raking up subjects that they felt were alien to Indian culture. “Instead, I was getting calls from ministers who thanked me for putting these issues out in the public domain.”

In response to Khan’s show, the health minister of the state of Maharashtra, for instance, ordered his teams to tighten controls on diagnostic centers using ultrasound machines to reveal fetal gender. The gender tests are illegal in India because, in a male-obsessed society, parents often abort once they’re told to expect a girl. “Doctors who were making money on such practices hate me now,” Khan chuckles.

But his detractors seem to be outnumbered. By emotionally connecting with his viewers and then pulling in contributions to NGOs working on the issues he airs, Khan has certainly leveraged his celebrity status to the hilt. “I am not an activist, engaged full time in one cause. I am an actor. But I am conscious that my name and fame can make a difference.”

According to Star TV, the channel that commissioned the show, its three seasons have been seen by more than 517 million Indian viewers. On social media, the numbers are even more stupendous, with the third season alone adding 5.6 billion “impressions” across Twitter and Facebook.

The Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, has no dearth of stars supporting worthy causes. But rarely has anyone engaged so deeply in such a wide variety of matters that are endemic to Indian society and yet remain, for the most part, hidden.

To throw open such controversial subjects as the practice of untouchability and the criminalization of politics is not without its potential risks. It also requires a serious commitment in terms of time, effort, research and funds. Already known as a perfectionist and an obsessive when it comes to his movie projects, Khan began full time work on Satyamev Jayate more than a year and a half before the telecast began, declining all acting offers. He was involved in every step, studying the research, watching the raw footage—“the stories used to bring tears to my eyes”—holding meetings and ensuring that, for the most part, nothing about the project leaked out. “I did not want any advance publicity and even the studio audience had no clue what they were about to see.”

Strategically, he insisted on the Sunday morning slot—known in the TV business as the graveyard hour—because he did not want to compete for the viewers’ attention during prime time.
Once the show was on air, Khan went on radio channels daily to take calls from listeners who wanted to share their personal stories about the previous week’s subjects. It was as if thousands of people felt liberated to talk about their experiences for the first time; “More people must have come out to their parents after the LGBT show,” said the actor.

Three successful seasons have whetted his appetite for more: Work has begun on season four, though Khan will not say what the show will focus on. He remains clear that he sees himself as a creative person first and last. “Actors have a responsibility to society. We can strengthen the social fabric and create some value. But most of all, we can touch the good in people; I want to do that.”

Aamir Khan will be appearing at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 22. To purchase tickets for the event, click here.

Watch two full episodes of Khan’s Satyamev Jayate below:

Accepting Alternative Sexualities, click here for a version with English subtitles.

When Masculinity Harms Men, click here for a version with English subtitles.

 

 

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