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His wildly popular TV show is challenging cultural norms there

2015 Summit

Bollywood star Aamir Khan on shattering the status quo in India

By Purvi Thacker on April 22, 2015

Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, who spoke at the opening night of the 6th annual Women in the World Summit, has been addressing women’s issues head on and helping to induce social change in India. Each week, his groundbreaking and wildly successful TV talk show, Satyamev Jayate, or Truth Alone Triumphs, gets an audience of 600 million viewers to re-think cultural taboos, from caste to dowries to rape.

He talked with Iraqi-American humanitarian Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, about his crusade for women’s rights and justice. Citing his mother as his primary source of inspiration during his formative years, Khan described her compassionate impulses. “I used to play competitive tennis and was pretty good. Every time I won a match, my mom always thought of the mother of the boy who lost against me and how bad she must have felt.” His mother’s concern for a stranger helped shape Khan’s career. He also credited his school friend Satyajit Bhatkal (now the director of Satyamev Jayate), who has worked as a lawyer for less privileged clients. “I felt very guilty when I met him, I wish I could do half of what he was doing—living for others,” said Khan.

The national platform of a hit TV show, along with the goodwill earned through his film career, has allowed Khan to shift the public’s attention to meaningful conversations. “Every day you read about injustice, poverty, and you really want to do something, and I realized I should do what I know best, which is storytelling, to enrich discussion on the issues we face as a society,” he explained. Energized by this mission to transform the minds and hearts of viewers, Khan chose topics and researched them thoroughly. He believes that while change can be effected from the top down, through laws and policy, real progress can only be achieved through the longer and harder process or reaching out to people’s hearts with love.

His first show focused on an unspeakable fact of life in India—female feticide: “It’s a huge problem in India and connects with people on a gut level,” he said. Khan’s show presented the topic as a mother’s problem, not just a woman’s problem, so as to reach the audience on an emotional level. “I started the show asking people who the most important person in their life was, as people usually say it’s their mother,” he elaborated. Khan said that since that first episode aired in 2011, census figures showing 914 girls born compared to 1,000 boys in the states of Mahrashtra and Rajasthan (the worst states on record in terms of gender ratio) had changed radically. Today, the ratio has gone down by 50 to 60 points, suggesting that Khan’s show may have provoked change. “People are reacting to it,” he said.

Khan also alluded to a law in India that makes sex selective abortion illegal. “The law tells us what we are, it’s a reflection of what we are and it’s unfortunately needed for India. In other societies you don’t need this law,” he said.

When it comes to issues like dowry, Khan explained that themes of such a sensitive nature need to be communicated with love. “In India 90 to 95 percent of people have either given or taken dowries, and when you are conveying to a majority that what they are doing is not right, it has to be done with love. Only through that you can effect change,” he said.

Khan has tackled other highly sensitive issues, including honor killings and caste.“People are very touchy and emotional about certain complicated issues,” he noted, referring to the topic of Dalits (formerly called untouchables) in India. Masculinity was an equally challenging topic. “Unless we redefine what it is to be a man, things aren’t going to change. Is a real man a protector or someone who goes and beats people up?” he asked, adding that rigid gender roles should be abandoned and male sensitivity encouraged. “You cannot raise a boy telling him not to cry. You are in effect distancing him from emotion and then you are surprised when he grows up and beats his wife.”

In India, he said, the conventional wisdom is that “real men don’t cry and real men don’t hold their wives hands.” But Khan is certainly not shy about doing either. “I cry all the time, not only on all my show’s episodes, but also when I am researching it.”

Over the last three seasons of the show, Khan said that he has seen the worst and most beautiful of mankind. “There is so much strength, resilience, grace, beauty, and dignity in people,” he said in reference to a woman whose son had been sacrificed in an honor killing.

Khan also brought up India’s Daughter, a film about the notorious New Delhi rape case of 2012, and the controversial ban on the film in India. While he said that he hadn’t personally seen the film, he thought it was unfortunate that it had been banned. “The balance of power in India needs to change. Unless conviction becomes swift, certain things are not going to change and as a society we have to shun the rapist and hold the survivor close.”

Khan ended by laughing at his own weight gain, and said that it was for his role as a retired wrestler in a forthcoming film. In this movie, quite fittingly, it is his character’s daughter who will fulfill his dreams by carrying on his wrestling legacy.