The sky divers

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There were three people who matched Aamir Khan in passion, integrity and intent in the making of Satyamev Jayate.  Sunaina Kumar maps their emotional journey through the first season

Changing hearts Lancelot Fernandes, Satyajit and Svati Bhatkal
Photo: Appurva Shah

THE MAIN ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team, said legendary basketball coach John Wooden. Aamir Khan the star understands the importance of being a team player, and that slightly old-fashioned virtue of esprit de corps is to be found in every member of Team Satyamev Jayate. No wonder then, everyone took ownership of the show. Not one idea was leaked, making the content of the show the most closely guarded pop culture secret since Harry Potter.

For a show of this scale, the core team is surprisingly small and rests on the shoulders of three people handpicked by Aamir. About three years ago, he broached the idea of Satyamev Jayate (SMJ) with Satyajit Bhatkal, who was in the process of completing a children’s film at the time. The two friends had collaborated earlier on Lagaan, where Bhatkal joined the production team and ended up making a documentary on the film. They both were aware that the idea rested on comprehensive research. Bhatkal roped in his wife Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal and long-time collaborator Lancelot (Lancy) Fernandes to head field and desk research respectively. Over two years, these three along with Aamir met every day of the week. The star’s house was the spare office, called the ‘Sultanate of Pali’, where important decisions were taken and reversed on a daily basis.

Bhatkal, a former lawyer-activist, had quit his job to take up writing for television and films. With SMJ, he found his calling. “We weren’t afraid to take up topics that were done to death. We approached it with innocence and naïveté,” he says. Svati Bhatkal, who ended up co-directing the show, worked for many years as a journalist, then switched to publishing, wrote several books for children and worked with a branding and marketing agency. Satyajit says she was chosen to head field research as her time away from journalism kept the hunger to go after stories alive. Her team of three correspondents ended up with almost 1,600 hours of raw footage from across the length and breadth of the country. On an average, each episode took three months of work, not including the desk research. She spent nearly a year and a half on the road, meeting people and recording their stories. It took them six months to view all the material and cull it into a documentary form. The story of an educated, working woman in Gujarat who underwent 13 abortions is one that still haunts Svati. “It has had the most sobering effect on me, to be a chronicler of the defining stories of the lives of many people. I feel privileged that they opened up to me,” she says. These people would often not be told that the host is Aamir Khan, so that they’d not be intimidated.

Everyone on the show worked towards one goal, which became larger than all individuals, says Satyajit, “Most directors end up doing includtheir best work with Aamir because he puts in a superhuman effort. Once he gets the right people together, he gets them to work in the right spirit.” He recalls opening the door to Aamir at 1 am for impromptu meetings that’d last through the night.

Lancy Fernandes, who spearheaded desk research, says that while the stories exemplifying the problems were crucial, the crux was to find the inspirational accounts. “The emotional connect has been phenomenal. One person from the editing team decided to go back to his home in Bihar and start a school for the underprivileged, and get into organic farming. Another crew member is making the effort to start a generic medicine store,” says Lancy. As the show was wrapped up, the camera crew pooled in resources and presented a cheque for all the 13 NGOs. For the team, it was an indication that they were doing something right.

The responses to the show had started flooding in from the first day. A team in Pune monitored the letters, emails, phone calls and Facebook and Twitter comments of an overwhelmed audience. By the end of it, it crossed one billion impressions on the Internet. After the last episode, the extended team underwent an intense counselling session with psychiatrist Harish Shetty. “Living in cities isolates us from reality. But this exposure to emotion for so long takes a toll,” says Svati.

‘One person from the editing team decided to go back to his home in Bihar and start a school for children,’ says Lancy

For some crew members, some moments have truly been memorable. Former TV journalist Prerana Thakurdesai, who was part of the research team, recalls one of the lighter moments when shooting in a village full of single marriageable men for the episode on female foeticide, “the men wanted me to stay back. I still get phone calls from them!” she laughs.

For the Star TV Network, SMJ has set the bar high. A risk, that has paid a dividend of goodwill from the audience. Monika Shergill of Star says, “The show has given us a social agenda, a conscience. For the first time, Indian television has used its strength for something important. We consider it a landmark.”

The team is keeping a close track in documenting the topics that were shown in the first season, and the next season is being planned. A show on the show is also in the offing. This is not the last that you are hearing of SMJ.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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