Aamir Khan’s television show Satyamev Jayate has generated a lot of controversy since it began airing last month. Critics of the program have lobbed charges that Aamir is only in it to further his image as a “different” kind of film star and it’s easy to see why. Other film stars who have taken on television hosting duties have very clearly done it for publicity and a fat paycheck and there’s nothing wrong with that. Stars provide us with entertainment and, in turn, we give them money. Simple. But unlike the game shows and reality shows that have drawn other film stars to television, Satyamev Jayate is a show that wants to mean something. Of course Aamir wants to provide entertainment and to collect a (reportedly very) fat paycheck but Aamir also wants to do more than that - he wants to use his entertaining platform to open our hearts and, hopefully, engage our sense of social justice, too. And it’s this latter desire that makes the critics so uncomfortable.
Satyamev Jayate is designed somewhat like a talk show. The decor of the set is functional but warm, with red brick walls and blond wood paneling, reminding me (at least) of the extraordinarily pleasant Oslo airport terminal. In the center of the stage is a cosy u-shaped couch, arranged so that Aamir and his guest can sit on either end and face each other while they talk. The couch opens onto a set of stairs that leads down into the live studio audience.
At the beginning of the program, Aamir addresses the audience and the viewers at home from the stage. He brings up a topic and then introduces guests who tell their stories while he listens. After we hear a few of these tales, increasing in severity, Aamir brings on an expert to talk about the problem. Lastly, we hear about solutions and actions that we, sitting and watching at home, can take.
It sounds simple, right? Initially, that’s what I thought, too, but there must be something more for a show to raise this much discussion across so many sectors.
Let’s start with the charge that some critics have leveled by dismissively calling Aamir the “Indian Oprah” and work from there. I’m not an Oprah fan by any means but I don’t think it’s fair to either use her name as an insult or to compare what Aamir is doing with her unique take on late 20th century American womanhood. Caitlin Flanagan wrote a fantastic piece on Oprah in the Atlanic Monthly last year in which she explains the bond Oprah formed with her female viewers:
That she can move so easily between episodes about, on the one hand, rape and domestic violence and, on the other, shopping and decorating, demonstrates not a lack of focus but the fact that she understands the full equation of the female experience, in ways that few others before her have. This understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile.
Obviously, Aamir is not going to be sitting around bonding with women over the wonders of a new pair of Spanx but in the first three episodes he did talk about issues that Oprah would have thought were important - female foeticide, child sexual abuse, and the dowry system and like most social issues, these affect both men and women but, as the less powerful gender, tend to hurt women disproportionately more. So, like most social issues, these societal problems get lumped as “women’s issues” and brushed under the rug as unimportant compared to worldly (i.e. mens’) problems - like political corruption and street violence. Calling Aamir the “Indian Oprah” for choosing to highlight topics considered “women’s issues” is sexist bullshit, plain and simple.
Is Aamir Khan going to singlehandedly stop all child sexual abuse by airing a television show? No, of course not. What Aamir can do, however, is listen to the victims of child sexual abuse. And I think that is the what makes Satyamev Jayate (or at least the first three episodes that I’ve seen) so powerful - Aamir listening.
And that is actually the biggest reason that the charge of “Indian Oprah” is sexist bullshit. Oprah was always about Oprah and Oprah’s triumph over adversity (and there is nothing wrong with that) but Satyamev Jayate is markedly not about Aamir Khan - it’s about validating his guests’ triumphs over adversity. Satyamev Jayate is Aamir using his star power and charisma to help forge a bond between the viewing audience and his guests. And it is powerful stuff to watch. Aamir himself uses his skills as a actor to convey a deep sympathy and respect for his guests that will be visible to those of us watching at home. And the camera will also linger on the faces of various audience members reacting to the stories of the guests. In this way, we see our own sympathy for the guests mirrored and amplified.
The issues that Aamir raised in the first three episodes are tied together by shame and stigma - the taint of abuse, the fear of bringing shame to one’s family. Being a victim of something like that is filthy and we don’t want to know about it. How many filmi sisters have we seen commit suicide because of the shame of abuse? Their filmi corpses tell a sad story, indeed. For Aamir to sit and respectfully listen to a man who had been sexually abused as a child and to touch him and offer sympathy and absolve him of guilt sends a powerful message to others struggling with issues of shame. That Aamir would talk to the family of a woman abused by her husband and in-laws and acknowledge that her pain and suffering (and by proxy the pain and suffering of other women beaten down by their families) is important sends a very real message to people. Not everybody will watch and not everybody who watches will absorb the message but some people will absorb the message and some of those people might even act on it. That is where the power of Satyamev Jayate - and indeed of Bollywood itself - to affect social change lies, in changing hearts and minds.*
And let’s talk Bollywood. Buried in the charge of “Indian Oprah” is the charge often leveled at Oprah herself that celebrities shouldn’t be mixing with serious matters. This way of thinking says that entertainment and worldly matters should each be kept in their boxes, so as to spare us the secondhand embarrassment of seeing Bono jet around the globe “saving Africa” by attending swanky fundraisers or seeing some botoxed actress as the UN Goodwill Ambassador for something or other. I am somewhat sympathetic to this view. Does it really help anything when a celebrity lends their face as a brand ambassador for Greenpeace or PETA? Or when a celebrity pointedly drives an electric car or tells us all to pick up litter? No, it really doesn’t. Stories of celebrities building houses for poor people or campaigning to lower the drinking age tend to get lumped in with stories about celebrities trying new hairstyles or campaigning for a role in the hot new film - in one ear and out the other.
However, we can’t dismiss the power of the narrative medium so easily. Nobody cares that some mimbo is promoting PETA but people would care if that same mimbo starred in a film that brought up problems of animal abuse. People cared about Rang De Basanti - no major sweeping social change may have happened but people did hear and absorb the message**. Entertainment is entertainment but entertainment is also a cultural conversation. The stories we get wrapped up in, the heroes we idolize, and the songs we sing all mean something. Not everything means something big and, sure, some things mean very little but it’s all part of a broader conversation.
What (at least the first three episodes of) Satyamev Jayate are doing is that mix of entertainment and cultural conversation. Aamir is telling us, the broad viewing audience, a story he thinks is important. Are these new topics? No, obviously not and they’ve all been dealt with in parallel cinema but what Aamir knows is that we, the broad viewing audience, haven’t necessarily seen those parallel cinema films. And he knows that we, the broad viewing audience, may not have read confessional literary fiction or long investigative journalism pieces or even thought about these issues in any meaningful way. But we, the broad viewing audience, are certainly going to tune in to see Bollywood Hero Aamir Khan do something on television - so, why not give us a little cultural nutrition with our entertainment?
Personally, I think Satyamev Jayate is a valiant effort and my respect for Aamir grew quite a bit after seeing the show. He didn’t have to do this. He could have easily earned a nice paycheck hosting a game show or a variety show or even a self-aggrandizing documentary “life with Aamir” show with little effort on his part but instead he chose to use his star power to tell the stories of the aam aadmi - our stories. We the stigmatized, the normal, and the struggling.
As I’m writing this, the show isn’t even halfway through its run and there will most likely be a few missteps along the way as part of the learning curve. But missteps or not, I think Aamir deserves full credit for trying to use his star power for the greater good. I only wish we had somebody like that here in America to step up and speak honestly and earnestly to a broad audience about our hidden problems.
* Episode four, which I haven’t seen, brings up the issue of medical malpractice and has raised a lot of thorny issues - to the extent that the Indian Medical Association is demanding an apology from Aamir. I haven’t seen the episode so I cannot comment on the content but I wonder if the backlash stems from the show tackling an issue that can’t be solved by listening to people’s stories.
** And they absorbed the idea of the candlelight vigil.
ETA June 10th: Having now seen the controversial episode 4, I wanted to share a few more thoughts.
1. I don't think Aamir has anything to apologize for.
2. I think the discussion over the "facts" of the case of Seema Rai's death are misplaced. The point of the segment wasn't for Aamir to play investigative journalist but to show the impact one woman's death can have. Aamir doesn't question their telling of the story because that's not his aim. He wants us to see how painful it is when doctors are disconnected from their patients. Would the Rais have taken the case to court if the doctor had explained things to them better? If he had taken the time to express sympathy for Seema's death? We don't know.
3. Aamir never says all doctors are corrupt and awful, he says there is institutional rot in the medical system. Two very different things.
And, as an American, I'm sad to say that a lot of the problems he lays out are familiar. Children dying because their mothers cannot afford treatment for them are a fact of life here in the United States, too. We went one step further than turning a blind eye to pharmaceutical salesman gladhanding doctors and wrote in a giant sop to the pharmaceutical industry into our health care laws.
4. I'm surprised that a media and online commenterati that embraced anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare are so up in arms over this episode of Satyamev Jayate. Has the mood of the country changed so fast? Aren't these the same issues being raised? Institutionalized corruption and the commercialization of government functions?
5. The bottom line is that commercialization of health care is unhealthy for society. Aamir grilling the head of the Medical Council of India on this topic was pretty compelling television.
6. I thought this piece from Doctor Sanjay Nagral was fair.
One of the 'errors' repeatedly pointed out by those outraged by the show is the numbers that were quoted about private and public medical colleges in India. One wonders, though, what is more important -- the precise number or the fact that India can be counted among the countries that have the highest number of private medical colleges in the world? Isn't the crass commerce of medical education in these colleges, where seats are sold at high prices, the real issue?