Man with a mission
Fresh from the stupendous success of Dhoom 3, Bollywood star Aamir Khan is preparing to return to the small screen for season two of his recordbreaking television show Satyamev Jayathe. And this time it’s going to be even better. By Divya Shetty and Anand
The stories were shocking, raw and deeply unsettling: A call centre worker, Amisha Yagnik from Ahmedabad, western India, described the trauma she had to undergo after her husband’s family forced her to abort her foetuses – six times in eight years – only because they were girls.
Parveen Khan, from Morena, Madhya Pradesh, her face deeply scarred, recalled how she was savagely bitten by her husband after she gave birth to a girl child against his wishes.
Schoolchildren in a village in northern India whispered how they were forced by teachers to clean the school’s toilets and sit apart from other children only because they belong to a lower caste.
A widow revealed how her husband was murdered – for the crime of falling in love with her and marrying against her family’s wishes…
These were just some of the people who opened up their hearts on Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan’s groundbreaking television show Satyamev Jayathe (truth alone prevails, in Hindi) to expose first hand, some horrifying ills that are still dogging Indian society.
Clearly, there had never been anything quite like this on Indian television and more than 90 million people across the country stayed awake way past 11pm on Sundays to watch the diminutive star bring to their living rooms not just harrowing and heartrending tales but also stories of hope, fortitude and human resilience.
“I wasn’t attempting to change anybody’s life with the show,” says 48-year-old Aamir in an exclusive interview with Friday.
“As an entertainer I wanted to connect with the people but I also wanted to prove that entertainment need not only make people laugh every time. I wanted every family to watch the show and connect with it. And I’m glad that the people liked it.’’
The show not only struck a chord with viewers but was powerful enough to echo in the echelons of power, goading several state governments to take stringent action.
The governments in northern Indian states such as Rajasthan and Haryana promptly initiated measures to curb female foeticide, coming down hard on illegal scanning centres that were encouraging female foeticide and shutting several down.
The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, praised Aamir’s work and invited him to be a part of the government’s initiatives on preventing
female foeticide. In southern India, the government of Karnataka, after viewing an episode that featured the plight of poor patients who were forced to buy prohibitively expensive medicine for their health conditions, immediately set up fair price shops selling medicine at highly subsidised prices.
In the capital New Delhi, a parliamentary committee also invited Aamir to share the knowledge he and his team gained while researching an episode on medical malpractice. One of the suggestions was for doctors to prescribe generic medicine instead of brands.
“I believe Satyamev Jayathe is the most significant thing that I have done in my 48 years. And I felt we should have a second season,” Aamir says from his home in Mumbai, fresh from the success of his commercial thriller movie Dhoom 3, which is setting records at the box office. Season two of Satyamev Jayathe is scheduled to be on TV soon.
“I feel very happy, proud and humbled that the show was such a success,’’ says Aamir, who in April last year was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine and featured on the cover of its Asian edition.
“When we were shooting season one, we hadn’t even planned season two. But now we have already started talking about season three. We will be working out a schedule every year and there will be a show. There may be fewer episodes every year but the plan is to have this every year.’’
The first season was aired in eight Indian languages on nine channels and within moments of the first episode being shown it began trending at number one on Twitter in India. Each episode is said to have cost more than Rs40 million (Dh2,390,692) to produce (compared to a prime-time soap, which costs around Rs1 million) and a 10-second ad spot reportedly went for Rs100,000. Telecommunications giant, Airtel, is said to have forked out Rs180 million for the title sponsor rights.
Aamir is said to have charged Rs30 million per episode, far more than any star – including Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan – has demanded for being an anchor on a show that had top ratings.
Although clearly thrilled with the viewership, the one-movie-a-year-star nonchalantly says, “I don’t relate to ratings. What matters to me are the on-ground changes, the various governments that have reacted, the doctors in Rajasthan who have banded together to advise their
‘I feel very happy, proud and humbled that the show was such a success’
errant colleagues to change... This is what I set out to do and that it can happen on this scale is what thrills me.
“But it’s wonderful to see so many people’s attitudes changing around you. I think one of the biggest accomplishments of the show is it encourages us to publicly debate issues that otherwise we don’t discuss, that we’re very uncomfortable talking about publicly.’’
While his show held up a mirror to some of the ills plaguing Indian society, it also portrayed amazing stories of perseverance: of a young woman Sunitha Krishnan, who was
gang-raped at the age of 16 and left for dead, but survived to set up an organisation that helps stop trafficking of women; of a street-side vegetable vendor who lost her husband because there were no doctors to help in her village but who put all her savings into building a hospital treating people free of cost; of a couple who were so devastated by the sights they witnessed in the aftermath of the 2001 Kutch earthquake that they decided to take in 56 children and look after them as their own in their house…
“I wanted to portray stories of hope as well,’’ Aamir says.
Off-screen the show had some tragic consequences too. A few months after a young couple, Abdul Hakim and his wife Mehwish, appeared on Satyamev Jayathe and talked about the threat to their lives because they had married without their parents’ consent, the man was shot dead in his village in Uttar Pradesh.
“They were scared even before they came on the show,’’ Aamir says. “The incident is highly unfortunate and shameful.”
But making socially relevant shows is not Aamir’s only forte. While proving that he can make intelligent movies – Lagaan, Taare Zameen
Par, among others – that set the cash registers ringing, he was also not averse to acting in full-length commercial potboilers like the most recent Dhoom 3. “I chose to act in Dhoom 3 because I loved the script. I was excited by it.”
Although he began as a child artist in his director uncle Nasir Hussain’s film Yaadon ki
Baraat (procession of memories) in 1973, his first commercial success as a hero was in the 1988 runaway hit Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (from doom to doom) which earned him an award for best male debut. Movie offers soon came flooding his way and it did not take long for 1.68m-tall Aamir to be labelled the Tom Hanks of India.
But he quickly made it clear that he would be picky when it came to choosing roles. “After
Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, I got a lot of movies that I accepted but I was quite unhappy doing a few. So very early in my career, around the early 90s, I decided I would not do anything that I was not happy doing. I only wanted to do films I completely believed in,’’ says the star who was honoured with the fourth-highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri, in 2003 for his contribution to the arts.
The strategy worked and even as his films were picking up awards they were also proving to be commercial successes – a rarity in Bollywood, where commercial and critical success don’t often go hand in hand.
Although known for his penchant for choosing movies with a strong social message – Taare Zameen Par (stars on earth), which highlighted issues special needs children face in society, and 3 Idiots, which subtly and with generous doses of humour brought to light the inadequacies in the Indian education system – Aamir points out he has also acted in movies that don’t have a strong social message.
“Movies with messages are not something I look for all the time. In fact there have been several which did not have a social message as such – Delhi Belly, Fanaa or Gajini. They revolved around strong emotions. I look for plots that excite me, which touch me.’’
One that did was of an epic sports drama set in colonial times. Turning producer, he made
Lagaan in which he also starred and which critics as well as cinema goers loved. It was even chosen as India’s entry for the Oscars.
3 Idiots followed soon after and was a mega hit and it set people thinking about the education system and of bringing about changes in their mindset.
However, Aamir makes it clear that 3 Idiots was not the inspiration for Satyamev Jayathe. “The idea of a television show had been on my mind for some time. It just came to fruition at the right time,” he says.
He says working on Satyamev Jayathe has been a fascinating and mind-expanding experience. “This journey has been exciting and extremely emotional for me. It’s also been a journey of discovery. I feel I’ve understood the people of this country better now.’’
Aamir’s easy, informal style of presentation, allowing the subjects to tell their story and not being afraid to reveal his emotions on camera, made the show all the more appealing.
“I am an emotional person and I cry easily,’’ admits the star, who is married to filmmaker Kiran Rao and has three children – Junaid, 21, and Ira, 16, from his first marriage to Reena Dutta, and Azad Rao, two, with Kiran.
“I don’t believe in hiding my emotions,” he says. “If I am happy, I laugh and if I am sad, I cry. Sometimes when I watch a film that is moving I cry.”
The format he adopted for the first TV season is the one he says will continue this season as
well. “But there will be two things that will be different this year. The last time we got a great response and we realised that people are connecting with the show at a deeper level. So this time we are far more charged.
“Last time we had pointed out the social issues and talked about what we can do. But we felt that some people even though they have good intentions, need more direct call to action.
“There are so many people among us who want to get involved but don’t know how to. They say ‘I am not a social activist, I have a busy life but I want to get involved in some practical way that won’t be too inconvenient.’
“So this time we have woven ways in which each one of us can contribute without having to change the way we live our lives. We have made the call to action easier and thus the level of contribution goes up.
“The other change is that we will not have 13 episodes at a go. We will break the year into four quarters and each quarter of the year
‘I don’t see myself as a saviour. I see myself as someone who is just trying to learn’
will have one month of Satyamev Jayathe on television. Each of the issues we are covering is so huge that we will have four or five episodes a month then take a break so all this can sink in to the minds of people and changes can be initiated. We think this will help people understand issues better rather than cramming them with one issue after another every week.’’ Although he is the hero of blockbuster
Dhoom 3, Aamir says it is his television show that “has enriched my life. Whatever I have given to the show, it has given me back 10 times. I feel absolutely blessed to be part of this.
“I understand my country better, I understand the forces better. I get to meet the most amazing people who on the face of it may appear powerless, but are actually giants. Some of them may not be educated but the strength of character that they possess is simply remarkable. There are some people who show so much bravery even in the face of poverty and stressful conditions that I sometimes wonder if I would be as brave, even though I am in a better situation financially.’’
Does he think that people have become more politically and socially responsible of late, particularly after a new, common man’s government came to power in Delhi?
“For sure,’’ he says. “Actually for me this realisation that the people are ready for a political revolution happened in season one.
“The people’s response to the show was phenomenal. That gave me an indication that things are changing on the ground. People had this desire to change but just didn’t know how to go about it. They just needed guidance. “The fact that they came out in such large number on the streets during the Delhi rape case itself is an indication that people are ready to take action for change. I am glad that people are wanting to be part of a movement where they are part of the governance.”
So does he consider himself as a saviour of India?
“I don’t see myself as a saviour,’’ he says. “I see myself as someone who is just trying to learn and this is a personal journey for me. A journey for enriching my own life and in the process, understanding my country better and the issues facing us together and the issues affecting our society.
“In the process of learning about those things I’m hoping to share that with people. That’s all I’m doing.’’ Does he think that Indians are star obsessed? “I think the audiences are,’’ he says. “But that’s fine. I am star obsessed. I am a big fan of Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan), Dilip Kumar. I have been star-struck myself and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that.’’ And does he have any regrets? No, says Aamir. “Some of my films may not have done well but I learnt from them. I give my failures as much importance as my successes.’’
Aamir’s most recent film Dhoom 3 is a runaway success
Aamir with his wife Kiran Rao
Aamir, seen with son Junaid, says he is not shy to show emotion
Aamir talks to Nishit Kumar of Childline India Foundation about sexual abuse
Praveen Khan, whose husband bit her face because she
had a baby girl
Satyamev Jayathe is the best thing I’ve done, says Aamir