The importance of being earnest


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Sequels are always risky. The stakes are high, as are the expectations. And when the show features someone like Aamir Khan, the bar is automatically raised a few notches. Last year, as Satyamev Jayate went on air, it shook viewers by bringing India’s uncomfortable realities to their homes. On 2 March this year, the show returned to the small screen with a new format and a renewed promise — and the same chutzpah.

In its first season, the issues and the interviews gripped audiences, but their intensity made it difficult for viewers to watch it at one go. “The biggest lesson from the first season of the show was that the content needed to be in line with the audience’s ability to absorb it and act upon issues that concern them,” says director Satyajit Bhatkal. Timed to run alongside the upcoming Lok Sabha election, the show has been broken up into three seasons of five episodes each and is being simulcast in seven languages. “We wanted to see if we could create a micro-agenda for change in a television format,” says Satyajit, explaining the show’s vision.

In its first episode on 2 March, titled “Fighting Rape”, the emphasis was on the need for a change in the balance of power, which is currently skewed against rape survivors. While endorsing Judge Usha Mehra’s One Stop Crisis Centre proposal for rapid, rational justice, actor Aamir Khan, the show’s host and interviewer, pointed out the deep-rooted flaws within the police, medical and judicial systems. Viewers were asked to ‘Vote for Change’ for One Stop Crisis Centres to be set up across the country. Over 63 lakh citizens voted for change.

“Although the show allowed reflection on the issue and pinned down some solutions, they should have been fleshed out,” says Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research. The first episode of the show has been criticised for not talking about marital rape or rape by the armed forces, but Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, co-director and head of research of the show, feels that these issues deserve an entire episode. The episode is a product of a year-long research and was shot by an all-women crew to ensure that survivors were comfortable speaking on camera.

After highlighting police apathy in cases of sexual violence against women, the second episode of the show opened with a montage of police atrocities against the common man. “But what ails India’s police force?” asked Khan. Through conversations with police officers, both serving and retired, the show talked about the abject conditions in which the police constabulary works and how politicians use the police for their personal ends. The show articulated the need for a people-friendly police force. Through its ‘Vote for Change’ campaign, Satyamev Jayate called for the implementation of the Supreme Court’s directives on police reform. Over 20 lakh people have responded so far.

If its first two episodes are anything to go by, then the show breaks no new ground. But is there harm in repeating these points of discussion? The Satyamev Jayate website doubles up as a platform, where citizens can engage by signing petitions to advocate change. Svati’s team has also put together micro-information on the issues discussed on the show.

“The biggest lesson that the last season taught me was that people are hungry for change and are willing to go an extra mile to make a difference,” says Svati. “But we wanted to ensure that our approach was rights-based and not charity- based.” The digital platform has put together additional information on the issues addressed in the show. For example, the section on fighting rape has information on action to be taken, on the importance of counselling, medical care, etc. The website also documents stories of individuals and organisations fighting for a cause. With a doubled fan base on social networking websites, the donations that the show has gathered for NGOs has gone up to Rs 1.06 crore.

As it continues to probe the collective conscience of audiences, Satyamev Jayate remains one of the most lavishly produced shows on Indian television. While ad rates have gone up by 8-10 percent, the deals with title sponsors Bharti Airtel and Axis Bank have been pegged approximately at Rs 18- 20 crore and Rs 13 crore, respectively. The production costs seem to have paid off with the overwhelming response that the first two episodes have received. Yet, the show continues to be dogged by controversy.

After the first episode of the current season, a message posted on Facebook alleged that donations collected at the end of the show were being used to construct religious buildings for a particular community, although people from all communities gave donations.

The same message was also posted on other websites such as Twitter and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. Last week, Khan clarified that these messages were “false and malicious” and that all donations sought in Satyamev Jayate were being used and channelised for entirely deserving and secular causes. The actor said his TV show was associated with the Humanity Trust at Hanspukur in West Bengal, a charitable hospital run by Ajoy Mistry and his mother Subhashini Mistry and not the one being mentioned on social media. An FIR has now been lodged in the matter by the Mumbai Police.

Although it is too early in the day to judge this season of the show, it can be safely said that it continues to appeal by challenging the status quo. At the heart of its popularity and appeal lies the fact that Satyamev Jayate informs and educates viewers without pretending to offer a magical cure. As Svati says, it never intended to. “We wanted to create a balance of power by educating people. Satyamev Jayate is, and always will be, a communicator,” she adds.

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