Thursday, June 7, 2012

Satyamev Jayate: Entering the No-Irony Zone

Just a note - as of this post, I have only seen the first three episodes and my understanding of episodes four and five is based solely on the reaction in the press and from online commenters.

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.*

[The laying on of hands is important. It's easy to scoff and be all ironic but let me tell you that this this moment made me cry.]

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?


maxqnz said...

Oustanding! This was right on the money, in my view, and I especially liked the way you linked the "Indian Oprah" slur to the sexism behind it. For me, the key here is, as you say "He didn’t have to do this" - he may be getting paid well, but he would have anyway, even if it was as marshmallowy as "Ellen". For trying, and for aknig so many uncomfortable in the process, I salute him.

Filmi Girl said...

Oh, thank you so much! I always worry a bit when posting things like this that I'm overstepping my mandate (so to speak) but I was genuinely moved by the first three episodes and was dismayed at the reaction the show was getting in some corners.

I think episode four and five might be stinkers but it doesn't erase the fact that he's trying.

OG said...

Hey FG,

I love the show! Really admirable of Aamir to make this show and highlight the problems that we, as a country face....... We (many indians including me), kinda have the habit of turning the other way...... so it was good of him to bring these issues to the forefront!

Btw, do you need eng subs for hindi? or do you know the language now? :)

Filmi Girl said...

@OG I'm so glad to hear that! Personally, I think that was his ballsiest move of all - to feature a whole show on female foeticide as his opening gambit, when he knew the most people would be tuning in to watch.

And we Americans aren't any better at facing our problems as you know. :/ Just look at what's happening in Florida with the George Zimmerman case.

My Hindi comprehension is fine for the ishq-vishq stuff but a show like this I need subtitles. :)

OG said...

haha! well, that means our competence in Hindi is just about the same....... :) I face a problem when a lot of urdu is sprinkled in.....(in many songs)

But hey, I am sure that my accent is better :) haha

Filmi Girl said...

@OG LOLOL!!! Probably - I'm sure I sound like Katrina Kaif if I ever try to speak Hindi. ;P

Moimeme said...

I wrote a really long comment, then decided it was too long, so I have emailed it to you. :)

thediva_1 said...

Loved this post! The thing that draws me the closest to the show is that Aamir is actually trying to make change. He even offers solutions! Every news channel highlights these problems, but no one ever tries to fix them.
The best part: the show has helped pass new laws!

And I LOVE how even as an American, you are watching and connecting with an Indian show, about Indian problems :)

P.S. How cool would it be if a show like this, by let's say, Tom Cruise was hosted for American audiences.
Now, I can guarantee he'd be called "oprah" and probably even "gay"! :/
People never change!

Moimeme said...

I disagree that "Aamir didn't have to do this." I think he did "have" to do "this", since he knows very well that he can't do a game show type of format, where he needs to hold the audience with his personality, and, more importantly, has to be spontaneous and unscripted. So he came up with a format that suits his talents as well as his interests.

maxqnz said...

@moimeme - I still think he didn't have to do this. He could have done a KwK style show (and given how much I HATE that toxic filth, I'd have watched AK do one with delight), using his star power to chat about the industry, perhaps offering "exclusives" that less connected hosts didn't. The fact is, being Aamir, he could have made a stinker of a show, something as awful and pointless and inane as KwK, for examnple, and STILL got a healthy cheque. Kudos to him for not taking the easy way.

Dr. Dang said...

Loved this post!! Very well written.

Moimeme said...

@maxqnx - True, he may still have got a fat paycheck doing a game show, but if it had failed, could he live with that failure? (think of SRK's Panchvi Paas and Jor ki Jhutka, or whatever show it was he did to get money for
Ra.One) I think he's very careful about preserving (and promoting) his "Mr.Perfectionist" who can do no wrong image.

lalsub said...

I have been reading your blogs occasionally, but never really commented ( maybe once a while back...dunno). this time--I MUST comment--this was such a perceptive and sensitive article--and I commend you an American for having such a frank and unbiased view--far better than the silly pieces written by cynical commenters here in India, many of them quite unimagitively terming Aamir a desi Oprah--a charge unfair to both Aamir and Oprah.

Have loved all the episodes so far--but IMO, the hard-hitting 4th episode one about medical malpractice--that was needed, very much; no the episode did not speak ill of the doctor community in general; it simply brought attention to the pathetic health care system in India. Aamir is now being targeted by a section of Indian doc community--unfairly IMO. I pray he comes out of it all, unscathed. This brave man deserves our commendation, not condemnation and contempt. But a section of the Indian networld has taken upon itself to decry and mock him. Sad.

PkG said...

Thanks, Filmi Girl! I think you hit the nail right on the head. Especially liked how you point out that Aamir listening to people is the emotional core of the show. After every eoisode, - and I've watched every sigle one so far, - I end up feeling that I met some interesting, fascinating people, some of them real heroes. And in my heart I cry with them, but I also cheer for their strength to have reached where they are now. And that's something I love Aamir for: he never reduces his guests to tragic victims for the emotional kick, he always gives them the full resepct of individual human beings. Aamir makes himself to be the medium rather than the star of SMJ. The stars are ultimtely his guests.

@Moimeme: If Aamir were only concerned about his Mr. Perfectionist imgage (a tag that the film press keeps repeating ad nauseam because they have a hard time grasping what he really is) he could most easily have gone on doing what he's been doing before: make a couple of films that work and make good money endorsing a few selective brands.
In view of the fact that he invested two years of his creative time into working out the concept of the show, making it and editing it it's a bit absurd to think he does this just to keep up an image he never cared about. And on the money side it's also not really such a fat paycheck either. First: the amount of 3 crore that everybody talks about he is getting per episode is not just his hosting fee, but what Star pays him for PRODUCING the episode. This includes production costs and paychecks for his team who did all the background work. Now if you think about how carefully these shows are researched, scripted and edited, I think Star got quite a good bargain for it's 3 crore! Other stars charge 1,5 crore just for appearing as a host. They are on sets for 15 days and never bother in the least about anything else. And all those game shows are concepts they bought from some licence holders mostly in US.
And since Aamir stood back from all brand endorsements during the whole year when he could actually have hitched up his price given the increased range and credibility he's got from SMJ I don't think the charge of making big bucks makes any sense at all. His paycheck balance will definitely be lower this year.

The more episodes I see the more impressed I am how carefully and cleverly those shows are structured to have an universal reach. That's not an easy thing to do. Quit honestly, I think Aamir Khan Productions and the SMJ team have earned every single rupee they got paid!

eliza bennet said...

I like this review and I completely agree on your views re:Indian Oprah and how sexist it actually is.

doonboy said...

Very well written article. Episodes 4 and 5 were also very good. Aamir is doing a amazing job.

Thelondongirl said...

i cant comment on Satya**** partly because i cant stand the over earnest bs that is Aamir khan. and though i find that others who admire him somewhat interesting, i beg to differ that his image is not tainted, nor that this attempt isnt calculated in someway. I'm glad that the Indian audience has connected with it, but will it actually spawn a movement .. who knows. your comment about Oprah irked me. and being irked i had to comment ( do you like how i did that) far from Oprahs self titled show being about her, i believe those talents and skills you mentioned she cleverly used to highlight and compliment the guests she had on her show. how many times did she have a star on her show that was less famous than she was and she would cleverly(imo) use her fame ( still not about her) to be a backdrop for them. dont get it confused i believe this show is as much about Aamir as Oprah's show in your opinion was about her, both are using their fame to highlight their topic of choice. enough about him already...

Moimeme said...

Thanks for your postscript on episode 4. In all the discussion I have seen of this episode, no one was quarreling with the message as you have put it, that there are problems with privatized health care which need to be corrected. But it is telling that you have bought the version of the Rai case as presented on the show. You ask if the family would have complained if the treatments and risks were explained "better" to them. But this is exactly the point under contention. The doctor's side says they were explained, at length, and agreed to by the patient and her family, and that the doctor expressed his sympathy several times after the patient died. When there are such diametrically opposite positions, shouldn't the other side's case also have been presented? This is what the criticism is about.

Regarding the second point by Dr. Nagral, that the exact number of private medical colleges presented by the show doesn't matter, just the fact that India has "the highest number in the world" - well, I have two problems with this. One cannot build up a truthful argument based on incorrect data. If the supporting data are questionable, then the whole argument becomes questionable. It may still be valid, but imprecision or inaccuracy in these matters unnecessarily weakens it.

And there is the greater problem of understanding numbers. Because of its huge population -- the second highest of any country in the world -- practically every statistic you can cite for India will be "the highest in the world". But the important point, if one wants to make a fair comparison to other countries, is a percentage comparison, or a per capita comparison. Now SMJ is hardly alone in not presenting statistical data correctly - almost all mass media either misrepresent, distort, or downright mislead the public when reporting statistical data, through a lack of understanding. That doesn't mean it's a correct approach, however.

I think you may find this article of interest on the show (it seems to be only dealing with the first three episodes):

After reading all the comments not only on the show itself, but on Aamir's columns in The Hindu, I conclude that this show is raising awareness of people on a number of issues that they had no idea about before. Why they had no idea, when I, living half-way across the world, have been aware not only of the issues but of various organizations working to correct them, for more than 20 years, is something that I can only speculate on.

Filmi Girl said...

@Moimeme I appreciate your passion against the project. :)

I guess my major point on Seema Rai's death is just that - she died and left behind a grieving family. She isn't a statistic but a person. That is the point Aamir wanted to make - the exact truth of what happened is beside the point. The family apparently feels wronged and Aamir gave them a platform to air their grief. I don't see how that's wrong.

Maybe this show is just is one of those things you have to see to understand? The dryness of the commentary doesn't really capture the heavy emotion running through each episode.

As to why people don't know or haven't thought about it - I think it goes back to Anna Hazare and the "Middle Class Revolution" (which has fizzled out). People who are comfortable don't think about these things - after all, what's a couple of bucks here or there to ease your way through life if you can afford it? It's only when something happens to YOU or if somebody like Aamir raises the issue that you stop and look at it.

That's just my two cents, anyways. :)

It's funny but you remind me of me during the Ra.1 debates. Hee hee!

Moimeme said...

@FG You can disagree with me, but I must protest your label that I'm "against the project." I think that's a complete misrepresentation of what I've been saying in my comments and in my email to you.

I am always against distortion of facts, no matter who does it. If the distortion is used to support an argument, especially an argument on wide-spread issues, I always call people out on it. I've dealt with too many people and organizations who subscribe to the notion that, because their "hearts are in the right place", they don't have to bother about getting the facts correct. I've never agreed with one of them on that matter and tried my best to get the correct facts in the open, even when I've agreed with their position. In the U.S. there's a saying, "Good policy never comes out of bad science." (Needless to say, this is not a saying among the political class :) )

Now you're actually saying "the exact truth of what happened is beside the point"! I don't think I can communicate with you if that's your premise.

As for being aware of the issues, I am quite confident that my middle class life in North America is more comfortable than the ones in India, and it is far easier for me to ignore what's happening there. As I said, that's the main conclusion that I draw from the show, that it's bringing awareness to a section of society that seems to have been previously unaware. So kudos to them.

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme Well, clearly we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Your comments (to me) seemed very skeptical of Aamir Khan and his intentions, which led me to conclude you didn't think much of the undertaking.

Your points stand here for people to read.

Moimeme said...

@FG Obviously we shall have to agree to disagree. :) I haven't said anything about Aamir's intentions. I just said I don't see why this show is considered so path-breaking when it's not bringing any new information or insight into quite well-known issues. Even on episode 4 I didn't question Aamir's intentions, merely his execution.

But I think we've both said our say now. :)

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme There are different kinds of truths is my point. It's not that I don't care about facts, per se. (I'm a librarian after all LOL!)

Durlov Baruah said...

A great post. I liked your point on the comparison with Oprah's show. That is complete hogwash and illogical.

Keep writing !

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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