THE POWER OF ONE
Will Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate be the show that changes the status quo, asks SUNAINA KUMAR
INA 2006 interview to TEHELKA, Aamir Khan declared in all earnestness that the only channel he watches is Doordarshan, because he finds it calming. “No dramatics, no theatrics, no deep sighs, no wiping of tears!” Perhaps the seed of the idea was in his mind even then. Six years later, Aamir Khan made his television debut simultaneously on Star TV Network and Doordarshan, with a mix of audacity, aplomb and promise. Sans the dramatics and theatrics he abjured, Satyamev Jayate was heavy on wiping of tears. The tears opened a conversation, an introspection, and that’s what he was hoping for.
In retrospect, the marketing blitzkrieg was justifiable. It ensured that everyone woke up on Sunday morning to see Aamir at the mythological hour of 11 am, a slot we hold close to our hearts. The believers because they believed, the non-believers to prove the former wrong. Then, on 6 May, an unusual thing happened; cynics became believers. Aamir left viewers with little choice, he made it less about himself, more about us. The week since, we have responded exactly how he expected us to, on mainstream media, social media and in casual chats and impassioned tirades, with all our heart, dil se, just as we were asked to do.
The Facebook page for Satyamev Jayate had 6,41,707 likes by Tuesday. On Twitter, the show generated the single largest reach for any Indian content so far (according to digital media company Pinstorm, it overtook the other big movements Barkhagate and Anna Hazare with a reach of 20 million). On Sunday the website for the show crashed twice, it became the top search in India on Google Trends, and in a span of a day as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan said, “Aamir became the most well-known sociologist in the country.” He ties it to Aamir’s earlier experiments with national and social issues, as brand ambassador for Incredible India’s Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, his clarion call to apathetic youth with Rang De Basanti, raising sensitivity to disability through Taare Zameen Par, critiquing our education system in 3 Idiots, and involving himself with polarising projects like Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Anna Hazare movement.
In Satyamev Jayate, we see him as someone who has acquired supreme confidence about his point of view and his ability to convince others of it, occasionally pedantic, mostly restrained. Social commentator Santosh Desai says it is the “consummate marketer” in him. To sell the show he tapped into a rhetoric of “har Hindustani”. Benjamin Zachariah, a
historian at University of Sheffield, says, “He knows that the best way to enable his critique of national life is by emphasising his nationalism. It creates the legitimacy he needs to raise difficult issues.”
The first episode tackled sex selection and female foeticide with an unrelenting focus on the subject and no allowance for entertainment. The field is now wide open; there is speculation that starving farmers, urban slums, corruption could all fall under Aamir’s hawk-eyed scrutiny. Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, who has been researching female foeticide for 10 years, stands by the message of the show. “The issue of female foeticide has reached unsustainable levels. He broke many myths, for example the tendency of the middle-class to blame all social ills on the uneducated, or those from small towns. Yes, a complex issue has been over-simplified, but when you do it on a popular level, you play it at that level.” For many who have worked on the issue, the show’s greatest strength, the simplistic approach to a complex problem, is also its greatest weakness. There are murmurs about women’s right to abortion not being given consideration and a patriarchal bent in the content, where a woman is valued as a life giver and partner of men, mainly in the segment showing single men from a Haryana village.
For many, the show’s format of an extended public service announcement (circa Doordarshan of the 1970s and ’80s) is a novelty. A post-liberalisation gener-
For many, the show’s strength, a simplistic approach to a complex problem, is also its greatest weakness
ation that has grown up outside of the influence of state television, and disengaged from social issues, is for the first time accessing a show like this on cable television. “The irony is that for a middle class that takes its film stars and cricketers seriously, only Aamir Khan could have put female foeticide on prime time, while others might cry themselves hoarse,” says actor Gul Panag. Media personality Pritish Nandy says, “Satyamev Jayate falls in the crack between news and entertainment. What it needs now is more journalistic muscle, cutting edge, less tears and more dispassionate reporting. If Aamir wants Satyamev Jayate to be taken seriously, he must behave on screen like a real journalist, not someone trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions. That is the actor’s job.”
SATYAMEV JAYATE is one of the most lavishly produced shows on Indian television, a show that uniquely marries social and commercial considerations. Much has been made about the cost of production of the show, the marketing juggernaut, the advertising rates and the fee Aamir is charging, even though he has annulled all his advertising contracts for the year on ethical grounds. On Twitter, quips were made about how the show should be dubbed Satya “Meva” Jayate.
It taps into the zeitgeist of dissatisfaction in the middleclass of the country. Will it do more as it moves from one issue to the next? Is one week enough to reform deep-rooted problems? Each week an NGO will be identified for donations made through the show, and the website carries instructions for how you can help. Santosh Desai feels that the show lulls us into a false sense of action, by SMS- ing Yes or No. “Yet, it legitimises change and that is a powerful contribution.” The coming Sundays will complete the story.
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