AAMIR KHAN could have done nothing. Privilege is a blessing very few entitled Indians use for anything more than lining the already silver clouds they inhabit. But Aamir stepped up and created Satyamev Jayate (SMJ), a show unprecedented on Indian television. It wasn’t a risky thing to do in the classic sense: there were no struggles for money; no threat to life; no power structures breasted. But there were the possibilities of failure, rejection, loss of popularity — the breath cinema stars live on. Aamir didn’t linger to calculate those ephemerals. Having decided to do the show, he mounted a massive and staggeringly meticulous operation to get it right. With his core team of three, Satyajit and Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal and Lancelot Fernandes — co-travellers, he says, he’d have been crippled without — Aamir went about acquiring 1,600 hours of background footage, capturing personal testimonies from across the country, ferreting out experts, statistics, legal positions and solutions. On the sets, he had 10 hidden cameras so guests wouldn’t feel their intrusive eye, and generated more footage per episode than entire seasons of other shows on Star TV Network.
There are many other impressive statistics. Over a billion mentions of SMJ on the Internet; between Rs 27 lakh and Rs 2 crore raised for each of the organisations mentioned in the 13 episodes, and many real-time administrative and political impacts. But Aamir’s real achievement is to have leveraged his stardom to reposition the moral spotlight on public discourse, and bring scale, sensitivity, nuance and a civilising intelligence to issues of burning importance, neglected too long by the media. The intangible ripple effect of this will always remain unmeasured: thought seeds sown in unknown hearts; ginger windows opened in anonymous minds. Emotional transformations unrecorded.
There have been carpers who have slung specious shots at Aamir even for this. Journalists who’ve sneered that SMJ is a personal brand-building exercise. Tweeters like Taslima Nasreen who’ve wondered why SMJ should get so much attention when there have been civil rights groups fighting in the trenches for so long. And other sundry critics who’ve claimed SMJ is the noble equivalent of Star’s saas-bahu serials.
These seem nothing but the pincer moves of the habitually negative. Anyone who sees the show would know that SMJ does not set itself up as competition to civil rights groups: it sees itself as their amplifier. Within the confines of a television show, SMJ has done everything it possibly could: it has made difficult issues like female foeticide, alcohol abuse and water crisis seem the most engrossing of stories with a rare dignity and devotion to complexity. In a country parched for serious engagement, this is welcome rain.
With the first season of SMJ coming to an end, Aamir Khan talks to Shoma Chaudhury about how being a change agent changed him and where the slog has got him and his team.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Coming from a world of entertainment, do you feel your intense immersion in issues through SMJ has changed you? Looking back, do you feel you were in a cocoon before?
That is certainly true. It’s been a huge learning. At an emotional level, the journey of these two years – and the background research and testimonies is much vaster than what you see on the show – has been very shocking and heartbreaking and difficult to deal with it at times. But it’s also been extremely inspiring. You marvel at the human spirit, at ordinary people who have no obvious signs of power like money or position but show such courage.
But the biggest change is at the level of information, my knowledge of what is happening around me. Take a simple thing like I didn’t know where the water in my house came from. I had no idea till we began our research. Now I know it comes from a place a 100 kilometres away and that people living there do not have water because of me. Or take the issue of untouchability. Given my upbringing, it was difficult for me to believe it’s so rampant even in a city like Mumbai. So much has come to light for me. I feel I’ve come to understand – actually understand is the wrong word because I’m still grappling to try and understand it, but I have come to know so much more. At least in terms of observing what is happening around me, I have improved. I feel I’ve grown up as a human being. The other change is, at the level of human interaction. I’ve lived a very sheltered life. Until we did this show, I’d probably never have had the opportunity of meeting people from so many different regions, languages, backgrounds and social strata. That has been extremely enriching.
Are you finding it difficult to fit back into your own circle? Do you feel an information divide separates you from their concerns now?
Well, not yet, because right now my circle is still limited to the SMJ team. But I have to say this. I recently started shooting for Dhoom 3 and I found the team on set – technicians, spot-boys, assistant directors – everyone had been watching the show and they wanted to discuss the people or issues on the show or tell me their own stories. I think a lot of people around me, who otherwise would not have been aware, have connected with the show, so I don’t find them that out in the cold.
‘I asked my team what is the one thought that emerges from the millions of messages? They thought about it and said: ‘I’m not alone’
There’s also something interesting I want to share with you. We’ve hired a company called Persistent to do the analytics on the show’s impact. They have a team of 500 people whose brief has been to capture all the discussions, messages or anything said about SMJ in the last few months in the digital domain. They have collected more than a billion traces, which makes SMJ the most talked about show on earth. I asked this team one question: can you tell me in one sentence, what is the one thought that emerges for you from the millions of messages that have been flying around on the show? They thought about it and the one line thought the team has come back with is: “I am not alone.” That’s a very big thought and also a very personal thought. Because people shared such intense personal stories on the show, the response has also been very personal. After the show on untouchability, for instance, we got many messages from young people saying from here on, at least in my environment, I am never going to discriminate. That’s a very big statement. In other ways, for instance, people who’ve suffered from child sexual abuse have realized that almost one out of every two people has suffered something similar so they feel less isolated. So to return to your question, am I able to connect to people around me after SMJ, the answer is yes. Because they have all been part of this journey, I feel I’m able to connect even better.
Are there particular stories that specifically affected you the most?
It’s difficult to say that because every story affected me in different ways. Take the story of Chandrapati, who’s about 65-70 years old, and her daughter Seema from Haryana. Chandrapati’s son Manoj was brutally murdered for marrying Babli, in an honour killing, or what I call dishonour killing. Now these two women living in a small village are threatened by the khaps, boycotted by the entire community, no one sells them milk, no one even sells them a kalash to take the ashes of Manoj. They are threatened with death, offered bribes, brought under political pressure to withdraw their case against the murderer. But these women in a tiny village have so much courage, they just don’t cave in. And that made me think of ourselves in cities, in positions of great privilege, if some party gives a bandh call, or some vigilante group asks for a ban, we all cave in.
There has been some criticism of the show from some quarters. That at times it reinforced stereotypes, for instance, of women as appendages of men. That the show dumbed down some of its messaging, or was not radical enough or skirted some uncomfortable issues. How would you respond to this? While constructing the show did you hold back at any time so you could connect with masses on what is essentially a general entertainment channel?
No, not at all. At no point did we do that. Every one of us in the team – and specially Satya Bhatkal, Svati Chakravarty and Lancy without whom this show would just not have been possible – have approached this with a great degree of integrity. We have not compromised on anything. What you see in the show is what we have felt. Never once have we felt, lets not say this because it’s not a popular thought. Why would we pick up issues of untouchability or dowry if we wanted to avoid disturbing topics that would alienate my audience base? As far as gender equality goes, there is no doubt in my mind that we are strongly recommending it in everything we have said. One of my favourite songs is the one that says Mujhe kya bechega rupaiya. If some people didn’t get that, I guess that’s there problem. Quite honestly, I don’t feel the need to spend my time responding to this criticism because there are some people who are very cynical and have a negative approach no matter what you do. Thankfully there are just a handful of them. So, to those who say I played safe or did this to earn money or build my image, my simple response is they should certainly convey what they want to in a programme when they make it. They are free to do that. As far as I am concerned, we left absolutely no stone unturned in following what we believe in.
‘I don’t give any value to the TRPs. Seven thousand boxes across the country can’t tell me what India watches’
Also, you know Shoma, we had almost 15 guests on each show. If even one of them had felt that we did not accord them enough dignity or felt disappointed or regretted coming on the show because they did not like the way we portrayed their issue, I would have felt we had failed. That is a criticism I would really have taken to heart.
Did you have to struggle with your stardom and how not to make the show end up being about you? Is that generally a riddle for you? That, on the one hand, you’re able to do certain things only because you’re a star with a certain brand value yet you don’t want to be the focus.
No, that was not a struggle for me at all. I’m really grateful that the entire Star Network just allowed me to do what I wanted and was extremely supportive. Initially I was a little worried that, being a general entertainment channel, their creative people might try to skew the show in a particular way, but Monica and Shubro were superb. They were as pure about the intent of the show as us. We were very clear from the start that here is an issue and we ourselves want to understand it in all its complexity and convey that to our audiences. I’m merely the via media, asking questions, listening, the medium through which the strength and expertise of survivors and experts or whoever is in front of me is reaching people. I couldn’t have known this but Satya told me that just as an exercise, because we spend so much time on the edit table, he had calculated how much time I talk on the show and how much others and it turns out I talked for less than 25 percent of the time.
So no, that was not the struggle. The struggle for me was, will I be able to have a meaningful conversation? I’m not a trained journalist; I have no experience in asking questions. For 25 years, I’ve always answered questions. And I’ve noticed that with some journalists I just clamp up, I don’t know why but I don’t feel like talking to them. And there are some journalists with whom I find I’m suddenly unloading and opening up and saying things I would have otherwise not thought of telling anyone. For SMJ, I needed to speak to people about very traumatic and personal experiences. I was frightened about this all the time. Would I be able to connect in a way that would make each of them feel like sharing their life story with me, would I be able to draw them out?
To make sure we broke the ice, I met all my guests for lunch a day before the shoot. Then in the studio, we shot for almost 8 hours for every episode that ultimately would last an hour. With many of the personal testimonies, we let the conversation run for hours because I did not want to hustle them or force their story down any preset agenda. We wanted them to tell it at their own pace. So with Vijay Simha in the episode on alcohol, for instance, his story in the show lasts for 18 minutes, but we spoke on camera for two hours. Then there was Rizwan’s mother and Kaushal Pawar in the untouchability episode. Their stories were like a rake through my heart. And with each story the challenge I felt was, how can I make sense of this? What sense do you make of it? How can you make things better for the person? How can I ask them questions when all you want to do is just hug them and somehow protect them. Those were my challenges, not how to deal with my stardom.
You have been critical of the media in the past. Do you think SMJ stepped into a vacuum left by the media, which should really be focusing on all these issues?
It’s not strictly true that the media doesn’t report these issues. A lot of our research, in fact, is based on media reports from the past. I guess the issue is there is not enough analysis in the media; you get surface facts but not the reasons why things are happening or how they affect people. Two, I think certain sections of the media are really disconnected from ordinary people and what they are concerned about. What do you I want to know when I’m reading a newspaper or turning on the TV? Do I only want to know about some political game that is happening? Or who will be the next President? For sure, that is news but I think too much of emphasis is placed on political gossip and fighting which feels very immaterial to people’s lives. That should only be the chutney on the side but it’s been turned into the main meal. People are interested in issues of water and pesticides and medicine and foeticide but the dots have to be joined for them. How does all this impact them? I think we were able to join the dots for our viewers. There are some media houses who do this – TEHELKA is one good example of that – but I think there is scope for many more.
One of the things I liked about SMJ was that the personal stories were handled with a lot of dignity and delicacy. The show could so easily have turned into a trauma fest, where you just juiced people for their stories. But this did not feel voyeuristic in any way.
I’m really glad you say that because you are right, SMJ could have just focused on personal stories. They were so engrossing each of them could have carried a whole show. But our intention was to take an issue and understand it from a 360 degree view – the personal, political, social and legal aspects. We also wanted to empower our viewers by telling them about their rights, where the law stood, get experts voices working in the field for 30-35 years and also bring you people who have found the way forward. In the water episode, for instance, we tried to present several examples of how to deal with the problem. If you are living in a village, this is what you need to do. If you’re living in a city, this is what you need to do. And here is Shanta Sheela Nayar who has done it on a large scale in Chennai. Yesterday, the Water Resource and Supply Minister of Maharashtra came to meet me and he wanted me to connect him to Shanta Nayar, so he could get her advice. Our basic point was that unless we start thinking of these issues collectively as a society, ultimately, it’s not going to be good for anyone either.
There were some reports that the show did not get the TRP rating Star was expecting. Is that true?
If it were true, why would Star want a second season? But either way, I don’t think that’s important. I don’t give any value to TRP ratings because my common sense tells me that seven thousand boxes across India is not going to tell me what India watches. I don’t know how people take this stuff seriously. It’s really daft. In all of Bihar, there are only three boxes. It’s a joke, that’s why I haven’t bothered to react to these media reports. My assessment of the show comes from other sources. I’ve already told you about our feedback from the internet and, mind you, internet penetration in India is just 15 percent but, given that there have been over a billions mentions of SMJ, it feels as if we had almost 100 percent engagement from that segment. Now with the 85 percent of our population who do not use the internet, how will I ever know how many of them watched the show? For that, I did several things. I went on every radio channel. Radio Mirchi, which covers 25 centres, Big FM which covers 45 centres, All India Radio which covers 174 centres, which means it reaches even where there is no TV. The feedback I have got through being on radio is absolutely unbelievable. Towns whose names I had not heard, villages which I didn’t know even existed. All sorts of people have called in and said their entire mohalla watches it. I’ve had calls from students, teachers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, villagers, farmers, women across the country. So I have no doubt about the scale at which SMJ has connected with people.
Have there been a lot of real life impacts from the show? How has the political class responded?
All of it’s been really dynamic. We’ve had a lot of calls from farmers, for example, asking about organic farming, so my team made an all-India list of every farmer doing organic farming, with a state-wise break up and contact details and I read this out over All India Radio. After I met Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, he consulted the Chief Justice and set up a fast track court on female foeticide within 48 hours. Then, already five or six states have announced that they would be providing generic medicines in their states like Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have. There have been innumerable raids on illegal clinics and many people have lost their licenses. After the healthcare episode, Shanta Kumar, who is the Chairman of the Standing Parliamentary Committee on FDI in pharmaceuticals, asked us to share our findings with him, so we spent three hours with his committee in Parliament.
Just a couple of days ago, as I’ve already mentioned, the Maharashtra water minister came to my house at seven in the morning to discuss ways of combating the water crisis in the state. Chief Justice of India, Altamash Kabir told us he was going to take up the issue of the Vrindavan widows and I think the Supreme Court has already taken suo moto notice of it. So a lot has been happening off screen as well.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.