AAMIR KHAN ‘What you don’t see on TV is the part where I break down’

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HE’S BEEN mak­ing a habit of it: do­ing things on his terms, walk­ing to the sound of his own drums. In a film in­dus­try in­fa­mously bound by for­mula, Aamir Khan, 47, has never been afraid to shift the rules. Now, with Satyamev Jay­ate, he’s brought that cat­alytic en­ergy to tele­vi­sion. Af­ter a stag­ger­ing re­sponse to the first episode, a case has been lodged against a doc­tor in Al­la­habad for abet­ting fe­male foeti­cide. The Ra­jasthan gov­ern­ment has promised to group and fast track many cases in one court. As his chan­nel part­ners her­ald the real world im­pacts of the show, Aamir speaks to SHOMA CHAUD­HURY about what sparked the idea, its long ges­ta­tion and the chal­leng­ing process of bring­ing it to com­ple­tion.

What trig­gered the idea for you? We of­ten see things hap­pen­ing around us that dis­turb us but don’t know how to in­ter­vene. I thought TV is a very strong medium and if I can use it to reach ev­ery home, maybe a small dent can be made. The idea is to try and bring about an at­ti­tu­di­nal change. We of­ten want to point fin­gers at the gov­ern­ment — sarkar yeh nahin karti — but there are many is­sues for which we are the so­lu­tions. We have to de­cide whether we want to think a cer­tain way or not. Crimes like these are planned in bed­rooms but you can’t have a po­lice­man sit­ting in ev­ery be­d­room.

So the en­tire at­tempt is to talk to ev­ery In­dian and see whether we un­der­stand an is­sue, and if af­ter un­der­stand­ing the is­sue fully, we can have a change of heart. Through these shows, we’ve tried to bring out the per­sonal an­gle, the so­ci­o­log­i­cal an­gle and, de­pend­ing on dif­fer­ent is­sues, the eco­nomic and, some­times, the le­gal an­gle. Some­times we have fo­cussed on the way for­ward be­cause we’ve found some­body has found a so­lu­tion in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. Can we learn from that?

This is an ef­fort to take 13 top­ics, one at a time, and re­ally at­tempt a 360 de­gree per­spec­tive on it. What I un­der­stand from it is what I am pre­sent­ing. For me, the jour­ney is an in­ter­nal jour­ney of my change. I be­lieve each one of us has to see if it makes sense to them.

Af­ter the idea struck you, did it take a long time for you to cave into it? To de­cide to risk mov­ing from cinema to TV. It started with Uday Shankar from the Star Net­work of­fer­ing me a game show. But I wasn’t in­ter­ested so he said, “Okay, think of some­thing you’d like to do.” When I thought about it, I was pretty clear only two things would in­ter­est me on TV. Ei­ther some­thing which is fic­tion, which is not suit­able for films and needs a longer, episodic telling. Or a show which has the po­ten­tial to bring about dy­namic so­cial change. He said, “Okay, tell me when you are ready.”

For the first four to six months, I thought about it alone. At most, I shared it with Kiran. Once the thought be­came slightly more con­crete, I called Satya (Satya­jit Bhatkal), who is a friend of mine and asked him, is this idea mak­ing sense to you? I needed some­one I could trust com­pletely. Be­ing a celebrity it be­comes dif­fi­cult for me to go to the grass­roots and have peo­ple talk to me in an un­bi­ased man­ner. So I needed peo­ple who are un­known, who can go out there, but whose ears I trust, whose eyes I trust, whose sen­si­bil­ity I trust, whose sense of judge­ment I trust, whose value sys­tems I trust. And that is Satya, whom I have known for 30 years now. I told him, he got ex­cited, so we put to­gether a team of four — Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, Lancy Fer­nan­des, him and me.

Ini­tially I said, let’s work for six

‘There was a woman whose story we could not use. It re­ally made me cry. She was so des­o­late, it’s tough to get her out of my head’

months, start our re­search, then we’ll take a call. I said, “I want you all to know this is still just a process. It may or may not land us a TV show. But at the very least, we’ll all learn some­thing.” Af­ter six or eight months, all of us felt it was work­ing. So a good two years af­ter Uday had first come to me, I called him back and said, “I’m ready.” Did I feel ner­vous about it? I al­ways feel ner­vous about ev­ery­thing I do. So that’s noth­ing new. Ob­vi­ously, we worked with a lot of pas­sion and love, so we want the show to con­nect with peo­ple. And that con­cern is al­ways there whether it will con­nect or not. But the re­ac­tion to the first episode has been so over­whelm­ing and so heart­warm­ing, it re­ally brought tears to all our eyes. We are thrilled.

What was the tough­est part to crack about the show? See, all these is­sues are ac­tu­ally al­ready cov­ered by print or tele­vi­sion me­dia. What I felt is if we cover them in a very knowl­edge-based way, or in cur­rent news style, the sto­ries have no emo­tional im­pact. My pur­pose is to ac­tu­ally touch peo­ple’s hearts. That is the thing that we spent a lot of time fig­ur­ing out. What I find when I re­search a topic is the same, but if I present it to you in an in­ter­est­ing and emo­tional way, it can change you, and change the way you look at or think about some­thing.

Tele­vi­sion view­ers are fa­mously fickle. Was there any re­sis­tance from the chan­nels to your de­sire to make the show one-and-a-half hours? I have never done TV in my life, so it’s not a medium I know much about. So yes, the length was al­ways an is­sue. I wanted it to be an hour but I found I couldn’t fit in all the as­pects of the re­search be­cause in one hour, re­mem­ber, there are ads also. Right now, I am get­ting 66 min­utes of con­tent in a 90 minute slot. These are huge top­ics. It’s very dif­fi­cult to tell you all about it in one-and-half hours. But we are try­ing to.

You are right, Tv-viewing habits are fickle. Peo­ple tend to switch chan­nels. The rea­son I chose the Sun­day morn­ing slot was be­cause it’s con­sid­ered grave­yard time. But that’s the time I wanted, when no­body is watch­ing any­thing else. I did not want peo­ple to have any­thing

com­pet­i­tive to switch to. I wanted peo­ple to switch their TVS on for my show at 11 am and if they didn’t like it, they could switch their sets off. That’s an op­tion you al­ways have. But I wanted your com­mit­ment. I wanted ap­point­ment viewing. As an au­di­ence, I wanted you to take that step to­wards me. Ki yaar, I don’t nor­mally watch any­thing at 11 am on Sun­day but I’ll make the ef­fort. I was re­quest­ing you to come.

Per­son­ally, what was the big­gest shock or learn­ing for you from the foeti­cide story? We of­ten think peo­ple who are poor don’t want a girl child be­cause of dowry and stuff. These are the pre­con­ceived no­tions. It was a shock for me to re­alise that peo­ple who are ur­ban, well off, and highly ed­u­cated are more likely to in­dulge in fe­male foeti­cide.

One of the things we al­ways feel is, why is our coun­try so back­ward? We feel poverty and lack of ed­u­ca­tion re­ally pulls us back. Cor­rect? This is our thought. But here with fe­male foeti­cide, I re­alised it’s got noth­ing to do poverty, in fact the rich in­dulge in it more. It’s got noth­ing to do with ed­u­ca­tion, in fact, ed­u­cated peo­ple do it more. If, in­tel­lec­tu­ally, we are not rich, if our thoughts are not rich, how does it mat­ter how much money is in our pock­ets? If I am not a sen­si­ble or sen­si­tive per­son, then how does it mat­ter if I know the an­swer to dif­fi­cult physics or eco­nom­ics ques­tions. That was the big learn­ing for me in this episode.

And, of course, the fact that most men don’t know what a woman goes through. Men just don’t un­der­stand. They think theek hai abor­tion ho gaya. There was also this re­al­i­sa­tion that there are some crimes we don’t do alone. Who is your bhaagi­daar, who is your part­ner in

crime? A doc­tor! Isn’t it amaz­ing? A doc­tor is some­one who is sup­posed to save lives. But it’s a doc­tor who is telling you the sex of your child. Just be­cause they wear white coats and are in a hospi­tal room you don’t recog­nise it to be a crime. But it is il­le­gal to find out the sex of a child.

In terms of the breadth of re­search that the team did, how many per­sonal sto­ries did you ac­tu­ally get? Were there any that par­tic­u­larly touched you? We got many sto­ries, much more than we could put in. The three sto­ries that are in the episode re­ally touched me, and I found it very dif­fi­cult to con­tinue with my

‘We think we’re back­ward be­cause we’re poor, il­lit­er­ate. The big shock is that ed­u­ca­tion has noth­ing to do with it. The rich kill too’

con­ver­sa­tions. What you do not see on TV is the part where I break down. We had to edit that out from the tele­cast be­cause ob­vi­ously you can’t have me cry­ing for 10 min­utes on screen.

But there was a fourth story that did not make it to the final cut, and that is the one which re­ally made me cry. It was a girl who didn’t want to come on cam­era. We had shot with her and blurred her face. And she ex­plained what she went through in a very, very raw and emo­tive way, as op­posed to a more co­he­sive nar­ra­tive.

What she said is, when her child was aborted, the child was five to six months old. So she had to give birth to it, she had to de­liver it af­ter it had been killed. She ex­plained that they put a tashla, like a me­tal bowl, in which the baby, the foe-

tus, came and fell in. And she said that the sound of my baby fall­ing in, that is some­thing that I just can­not get out of my sys­tem. Even now, when I’m in the kitchen, and some pyaaz falls into the pateela which we cook in, I re­mem­ber that sound and I just break down.

You couldn’t go with it? We were at 66 min­utes al­ready and we couldn’t change that. We had to choose what to drop. In this case, the girl is un­named. Even in the show we call her Anamika be­cause she wants to keep her iden­tity un­re­vealed and we re­spect that. The face was made fuzzy. A lot of peo­ple said the con­nect will be less be­cause we can’t see the per­son. I didn’t agree with that. She speaks so des­o­lately it’s dif­fi­cult to get her out of one’s head.

Also, the other three women are no longer with their hus­bands but this woman still is. When she gave the in­ter­view, she ac­tu­ally didn’t tell her hus­band. She was just very dis­turbed by the in­ci­dent and wanted to talk about it. So she called Svati when her hus­band was not around. That’s how im­por­tant it was for her to speak about it. Then a cou­ple of months later, she told her hus­band about the in­ter­view. At first, he was up­set but then they spoke about it. For the first time, he re­alised what she’d been through and apol­o­gised to her. Till then, it was an un­spo­ken thing be­tween them. So all that came pour­ing out. Then I spoke to the guy and he came and met me. He said, “Now I re­alise what hap­pened, what my wife went through. I shouldn’t have done that.” It was all very cathar­tic and mov­ing but would have taken even more time to present.

What made you stop all your ad­ver­tis­ing con­tracts for this year? There’s no logic in that. There’s noth­ing wrong in do­ing an ad for a prod­uct you would like to en­dorse, and if there’s some­thing wrong, you shouldn’t do it in the first place. It’s not as if I’m en­dors­ing cig­a­rettes or al­co­hol or gutkha or some­thing. Two of my en­dorse­ments were get­ting over be­fore this show came on. The other three, the con­tract was go­ing be­yond the date, but I re­quested the client to re­lieve me while the show is on. It’s very im­por­tant for me that I don’t do ads. And I’m happy to say they re­spected


is no logic. I stopped do­ing ads while this show is on. I don’t know how to put it. I just didn’t feel right sell­ing some­thing’

my emo­tions. Then there were two three other peo­ple who wanted me to sign on and I said, “No, no, I’ve stopped do­ing ads.” I just felt that while I’m do­ing this show I didn’t want to be sell­ing some­thing. I don’t know how to say it. It didn’t feel right to me.

How much per­sonal time have you ded­i­cated to this? ( laughs) All of it. Pro­fes­sion­ally, in the past two years I’ve shot for a film for about four months, Talaash. Apart from that, all my time has gone here.

You bring a sort of pu­rity of in­tent to your creative com­mit­ments. Then once it’s ready, you mount su­per canny mar­ket­ing strate­gies on them. How did you work the mar­ket­ing strat­egy for this? I’m thrilled with Star, I have to say. In the first meet­ing, when I told them I had the con­cept ready, it didn’t take two min­utes for Uday to say, “I’m on.” I told him I want mul­ti­ple lan­guages, I want Do­or­dar­shan, and these are all dif­fi­cult things I’m ask­ing for. He was bang, Do­or­dar­shan, yes, mul­ti­ple lan­guages, yes. Sun­day 11 am — are you sure, be­cause no­body watches TV at that time. I said, “I’m very sure.” So he said yes. This was their at­ti­tude. Very dy­namic, very sup­port­ive. The creative team, Monika Shergill and Shubro­jy­oti Ghosh, were fan­tas­tic to work with. I’d feared that when I en­ter TV, they may want me to com­pro­mise on my, as you say, pu­rity of in­tent, but they were as pure about it as I was. Be it Nitin Vaidya, the head of Star Plus, or Gay­a­tri Ya­dav, the mar­ket­ing head. Ev­ery­one down to the dig­i­tal team.

The agency they hired was O&M, and they asked me what is it you’re do­ing. I gave them the whole ex­pla­na­tion, then said all our ses­sions are recorded, ei­ther on a dic­ta­phone or a cam­era ly­ing around, like mak­ing notes. Why don’t you have a look, it’ll give you an idea. They spent the week look­ing at the stuff, then came back and said our cam­paign is ready. They said these con­ver­sa­tions you’ve had about shap­ing and con­ceiv­ing the show are so in­ter­est­ing, that should be the cam­paign. It will be true to the na­ture of the show. So that’s how the idea came about.

Of course, Star has put its full mar­ket­ing might be­hind it, plus we had Do­or­dar­shan’s mar­ket­ing. It’s never hap­pened be­fore. A show on a ma­jor gen­eral en­ter­tain­ment chan­nel, plus on 8 of their other chan­nels, whether it’s Star Prabha, which is Marathi, Asianet the num­ber one Malay­alam chan­nel, Vi­jay in Tamil Nadu, and in Andhra, they’ve taken an­other chan­nel which is not their own. This kind of plat­form even cricket doesn’t get; it comes on like one chan­nel and one Do­or­dar­shan. But I was re­ally clear I wanted it this way. If you re­ally want to bring about strong dy­namic, at­ti­tu­di­nal change, then you have to reach peo­ple in their own lan­guage. These prob­lems are com­mon to ev­ery­one, whether you’re from Kash­mir or Kanyaku­mari. This was thought out in a very deep way. I was plan­ning for a very long time that I want it to reach ev­ery­one, so it doesn’t end here. Through the week, I’m on Ra­dio Mirchi, All In­dia Ra­dio, Big FM, Vividh Bharti, my ar­ti­cles come in a news­pa­per of ev­ery lan­guage. We have a very strong In­ter­net site. It’s a full blitzkrieg.

Has do­ing these 13 sto­ries changed you? Yes. It has. I’ll talk more freely when all 13 are over. But let me just say that I and the en­tire creative team, all of us are go­ing to go for pro­fes­sional ther­apy. We’ve been through so much raw emo­tion, I’ve be­come very brit­tle. I’m not kid­ding, we’re all go­ing to go for group coun­selling. We talked about it and we re­ally need to do it. That’s the kind of im­pact it has had on us.

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