EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What triggered the idea for you?
We often see things happening around us that disturb us but don’t know how to intervene. I thought TV is a very strong medium and if I can use it to reach every home, maybe a small dent can be made. The idea is to try and bring about an attitudinal change. We often want to point fingers at the government — sarkar yeh nahin karti — but there are many issues for which we are the solutions. We have to decide whether we want to think a certain way or not. Crimes like these are planned in bedrooms but you can’t have a policeman sitting in every bedroom.
So the entire attempt is to talk to every Indian and see whether we understand an issue, and if after understanding the issue fully, we can have a change of heart. Through these shows, we’ve tried to bring out the personal angle, the sociological angle and, depending on different issues, the economic and, sometimes, the legal angle. Sometimes we have focussed on the way forward because we’ve found somebody has found a solution in different parts of the country. Can we learn from that?
This is an effort to take 13 topics, one at a time, and really attempt a 360 degree perspective on it. What I understand from it is what I am presenting. For me, the journey is an internal journey of my change. I believe each one of us has to see if it makes sense to them.
After the idea struck you, did it take a long time for you to cave into it? To decide to risk moving from cinema to TV.
It started with Uday Shankar from the Star Network offering me a game show. But I wasn’t interested so he said, “Okay, think of something you’d like to do.” When I thought about it, I was pretty clear only two things would interest me on TV. Either something which is fiction, which is not suitable for films and needs a longer, episodic telling. Or a show which has the potential to bring about dynamic social change. He said, “Okay, tell me when you are ready.”
For the first four to six months, I thought about it alone. At most, I shared it with Kiran. Once the thought became slightly more concrete, I called Satya (Satyajit Bhatkal), who is a friend of mine and asked him, is this idea making sense to you? I needed someone I could trust completely. Being a celebrity it becomes difficult for me to go to the grassroots and have people talk to me in an unbiased manner. So I needed people who are unknown, who can go out there, but whose ears I trust, whose eyes I trust, whose sensibility I trust, whose sense of judgement I trust, whose value systems I trust. And that is Satya, whom I have known for 30 years now. I told him, he got excited, so we put together a team of four — Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, Lancy Fernandes, him and me.
Initially I said, let’s work for six months, start our research, then we’ll take a call. I said, “I want you all to know this is still just a process. It may or may not land us a TV show. But at the very least, we’ll all learn something.” After six or eight months, all of us felt it was working. So a good two years after Uday had first come to me, I called him back and said, “I’m ready.” Did I feel nervous about it? I always feel nervous about everything I do. So that’s nothing new. Obviously, we worked with a lot of passion and love, so we want the show to connect with people. And that concern is always there whether it will connect or not. But the reaction to the first episode has been so overwhelming and so heartwarming, it really brought tears to all our eyes. We are thrilled.
What was the toughest part to crack about the show?
See, all these issues are actually already covered by print or television media. What I felt is if we cover them in a very knowledge-based way, or in current news style, the stories have no emotional impact. My purpose is to actually touch people’s hearts. That is the thing that we spent a lot of time figuring out. What I find when I research a topic is the same, but if I present it to you in an interesting and emotional way, it can change you, and change the way you look at or think about something.
Television viewers are famously fickle. Was there any resistance from the channels to your desire to make the show one-and-a-half hours?
I have never done TV in my life, so it’s not a medium I know much about. So yes, the length was always an issue. I wanted it to be an hour but I found I couldn’t fit in all the aspects of the research because in one hour, remember, there are ads also. Right now, I am getting 66 minutes of content in a 90 minute slot. These are huge topics. It’s very difficult to tell you all about it in one-and-half hours. But we are trying to.
You are right, TV-viewing habits are fickle. People tend to switch channels. The reason I chose the Sunday morning slot was because it’s considered graveyard time. But that’s the time I wanted, when nobody is watching anything else. I did not want people to have anything competitive to switch to. I wanted people to switch their TVs on for my show at 11 am and if they didn’t like it, they could switch their sets off. That’s an option you always have. But I wanted your commitment. I wanted appointment viewing. As an audience, I wanted you to take that step towards me. Ki yaar, I don’t normally watch anything at 11 am on Sunday but I’ll make the effort. I was requesting you to come.
‘There was a woman whose story we could not use. It really made me cry. She was so desolate, it’s tough to get her out of my head’
Personally, what was the biggest shock or learning for you from the foeticide story?
We often think people who are poor don’t want a girl child because of dowry and stuff. These are the preconceived notions. It was a shock for me to realise that people who are urban, well off, and highly educated are more likely to indulge in female foeticide.
One of the things we always feel is, why is our country so backward? We feel poverty and lack of education really pulls us back. Correct? This is our thought. But here with female foeticide, I realised it’s got nothing to do poverty, in fact the rich indulge in it more. It’s got nothing to do with education, in fact, educated people do it more. If, intellectually, we are not rich, if our thoughts are not rich, how does it matter how much money is in our pockets? If I am not a sensible or sensitive person, then how does it matter if I know the answer to difficult physics or economics questions. That was the big learning for me in this episode.
And, of course, the fact that most men don’t know what a woman goes through. Men just don’t understand. They think theek hai abortion ho gaya. There was also this realisation that there are some crimes we don’t do alone. Who is your bhaagidaar, who is your partner in crime? A doctor! Isn’t it amazing? A doctor is someone who is supposed to save lives. But it’s a doctor who is telling you the sex of your child. Just because they wear white coats and are in a hospital room you don’t recognise it to be a crime. But it is illegal to find out the sex of a child.
In terms of the breadth of research that the team did, how many personal stories did you actually get? Were there any that particularly touched you?
We got many stories, much more than we could put in. The three stories that are in the episode really touched me, and I found it very difficult to continue with my conversations. What you do not see on TV is the part where I break down. We had to edit that out from the telecast because obviously you can’t have me crying for 10 minutes on screen.
But there was a fourth story that did not make it to the final cut, and that is the one which really made me cry. It was a girl who didn’t want to come on camera. We had shot with her and blurred her face. And she explained what she went through in a very, very raw and emotive way, as opposed to a more cohesive narrative.
‘We think we’re backward because we’re poor, illiterate. The big shock is that education has nothing to do with it. The rich kill too’
What she said is, when her child was aborted, the child was five to six months old. So she had to give birth to it, she had to deliver it after it had been killed. She explained that they put a tashla, like a metal bowl, in which the baby, the foetus, came and fell in. And she said that the sound of my baby falling in, that is something that I just cannot get out of my system. Even now, when I’m in the kitchen, and some pyaaz falls into the pateela which we cook in, I remember that sound and I just break down.
You couldn’t go with it?
We were at 66 minutes already and we couldn’t change that. We had to choose what to drop. In this case, the girl is unnamed. Even in the show we call her Anamika because she wants to keep her identity unrevealed and we respect that. The face was made fuzzy. A lot of people said the connect will be less because we can’t see the person. I didn’t agree with that. She speaks so desolately it’s difficult to get her out of one’s head.
Also, the other three women are no longer with their husbands but this woman still is. When she gave the interview, she actually didn’t tell her husband. She was just very disturbed by the incident and wanted to talk about it. So she called Svati when her husband was not around. That’s how important it was for her to speak about it. Then a couple of months later, she told her husband about the interview. At first, he was upset but then they spoke about it. For the first time, he realised what she’d been through and apologised to her. Till then, it was an unspoken thing between them. So all that came pouring out. Then I spoke to the guy and he came and met me. He said, “Now I realise what happened, what my wife went through. I shouldn’t have done that.” It was all very cathartic and moving but would have taken even more time to present.
‘There is no logic. I stopped doing ads while this show is on. I don’t know how to put it. I just didn’t feel right selling something’
What made you stop all your advertising contracts for this year?
There’s no logic in that. There’s nothing wrong in doing an ad for a product you would like to endorse, and if there’s something wrong, you shouldn’t do it in the first place. It’s not as if I’m endorsing cigarettes or alcohol or gutkha or something. Two of my endorsements were getting over before this show came on. The other three, the contract was going beyond the date, but I requested the client to relieve me while the show is on. It’s very important for me that I don’t do ads. And I’m happy to say they respected my emotions. Then there were two three other people who wanted me to sign on and I said, “No, no, I’ve stopped doing ads.” I just felt that while I’m doing this show I didn’t want to be selling something. I don’t know how to say it. It didn’t feel right to me.
How much personal time have you dedicated to this?
(laughs) All of it. Professionally, in the past two years I’ve shot for a film for about four months, Talaash. Apart from that, all my time has gone here.
You bring a sort of purity of intent to your creative commitments. Then once it’s ready, you mount super canny marketing strategies on them. How did you work the marketing strategy for this?
I’m thrilled with Star, I have to say. In the first meeting, when I told them I had the concept ready, it didn’t take two minutes for Uday to say, “I’m on.” I told him I want multiple languages, I want Doordarshan, and these are all difficult things I’m asking for. He was bang, Doordarshan, yes, multiple languages, yes. Sunday 11 am — are you sure, because nobody watches TV at that time. I said, “I’m very sure.” So he said yes. This was their attitude. Very dynamic, very supportive. The creative team, Monika Shergill and Shubrojyoti Ghosh, were fantastic to work with. I’d feared that when I enter TV, they may want me to compromise on my, as you say, purity of intent, but they were as pure about it as I was. Be it Nitin Vaidya, the head of Star Plus, or Gayatri Yadav, the marketing head. Everyone down to the digital team.
The agency they hired was O&M, and they asked me what is it you’re doing. I gave them the whole explanation, then said all our sessions are recorded, either on a dictaphone or a camera lying around, like making notes. Why don’t you have a look, it’ll give you an idea. They spent the week looking at the stuff, then came back and said our campaign is ready. They said these conversations you’ve had about shaping and conceiving the show are so interesting, that should be the campaign. It will be true to the nature of the show. So that’s how the idea came about.
Of course, Star has put its full marketing might behind it, plus we had Doordarshan’s marketing. It’s never happened before. A show on a major general entertainment channel, plus on 8 of their other channels, whether it’s Star Prabha, which is Marathi, Asianet the number one Malayalam channel, Vijay in Tamil Nadu, and in Andhra, they’ve taken another channel which is not their own. This kind of platform even cricket doesn’t get; it comes on like one channel and one Doordarshan. But I was really clear I wanted it this way. If you really want to bring about strong dynamic, attitudinal change, then you have to reach people in their own language. These problems are common to everyone, whether you’re from Kashmir or Kanyakumari. This was thought out in a very deep way. I was planning for a very long time that I want it to reach everyone, so it doesn’t end here. Through the week, I’m on Radio Mirchi, All India Radio, Big FM, Vividh Bharti, my articles come in a newspaper of every language. We have a very strong Internet site. It’s a full blitzkrieg.
Has doing these 13 stories changed you?
Yes. It has. I’ll talk more freely when all 13 are over. But let me just say that I and the entire creative team, all of us are going to go for professional therapy. We’ve been through so much raw emotion, I’ve become very brittle. I’m not kidding, we’re all going to go for group counselling. We talked about it and we really need to do it. That’s the kind of impact it has had on us.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
The power of one
Will Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate be the show that changes the status quo, asks Sunaina Kumar
IN A 2006 interview to TEHELKA, Aamir Khan declared in all earnestness that the only channel he watches is Doordarshan, because he finds it calming. “No dramatics, no theatrics, no deep sighs, no wiping of tears!” Perhaps the seed of the idea was in his mind even then. Six years later, Aamir Khan made his television debut simultaneously on Star TV Network and Doordarshan, with a mix of audacity, aplomb and promise. Sans the dramatics and theatrics he abjured, Satyamev Jayate was heavy on wiping of tears. The tears opened a conversation, an introspection, and that’s what he was hoping for.
In retrospect, the marketing blitzkrieg was justifiable. It ensured that everyone woke up on Sunday morning to see Aamir at the mythological hour of 11 am, a slot we hold close to our hearts. The believers because they believed, the non-believers to prove the former wrong. Then, on 6 May, an unusual thing happened; cynics became believers. Aamir left viewers with little choice, he made it less about himself, more about us. The week since, we have responded exactly how he expected us to, on mainstream media, social media and in casual chats and impassioned tirades, with all our heart, dil se, just as we were asked to do.
The Facebook page for Satyamev Jayate had 6,41,707 likes by Tuesday. On Twitter, the show generated the single largest reach for any Indian content so far (according to digital media company Pinstorm, it overtook the other big movements Barkhagate and Anna Hazare with a reach of 20 million). On Sunday the website for the show crashed twice, it became the top search in India on Google Trends, and in a span of a day as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan said, “Aamir became the most well-known sociologist in the country.” He ties it to Aamir’s earlier experiments with national and social issues, as brand ambassador for Incredible India’s Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, his clarion call to apathetic youth with Rang De Basanti, raising sensitivity to disability through Taare Zameen Par, critiquing our education system in 3 Idiots, and involving himself with polarising projects like Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Anna Hazare movement.
In Satyamev Jayate, we see him as someone who has acquired supreme confidence about his point of view and his ability to convince others of it, occasionally pedantic, mostly restrained. Social commentator Santosh Desai says it is the “consummate marketer” in him. To sell the show he tapped into a rhetoric of “har Hindustani”. Benjamin Zachariah, a historian at University of Sheffield, says, “He knows that the best way to enable his critique of national life is by emphasising his nationalism. It creates the legitimacy he needs to raise difficult issues.”
The first episode tackled sex selection and female foeticide with an unrelenting focus on the subject and no allowance for entertainment. The field is now wide open; there is speculation that starving farmers, urban slums, corruption could all fall under Aamir’s hawk-eyed scrutiny. Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, who has been researching female foeticide for 10 years, stands by the message of the show. “The issue of female foeticide has reached unsustainable levels. He broke many myths, for example the tendency of the middle-class to blame all social ills on the uneducated, or those from small towns. Yes, a complex issue has been over-simplified, but when you do it on a popular level, you play it at that level.” For many who have worked on the issue, the show’s greatest strength, the simplistic approach to a complex problem, is also its greatest weakness. There are murmurs about women’s right to abortion not being given consideration and a patriarchal bent in the content, where a woman is valued as a life giver and partner of men, mainly in the segment showing single men from a Haryana village.
For many, the show’s strength, a simplistic approach to a complex problem, is also its greatest weakness
For many, the show’s format of an extended public service announcement (circa Doordarshan of the 1970s and ’80s) is a novelty. A post-liberalisation generation that has grown up outside of the influence of state television, and disengaged from social issues, is for the first time accessing a show like this on cable television. “The irony is that for a middle class that takes its film stars and cricketers seriously, only Aamir Khan could have put female foeticide on prime time, while others might cry themselves hoarse,” says actor Gul Panag. Media personality Pritish Nandy says, “Satyamev Jayate falls in the crack between news and entertainment. What it needs now is more journalistic muscle, cutting edge, less tears and more dispassionate reporting. If Aamir wants Satyamev Jayate to be taken seriously, he must behave on screen like a real journalist, not someone trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions. That is the actor’s job.”
SATYAMEV JAYATE is one of the most lavishly produced shows on Indian television, a show that uniquely marries social and commercial considerations. Much has been made about the cost of production of the show, the marketing juggernaut, the advertising rates and the fee Aamir is charging, even though he has annulled all his advertising contracts for the year on ethical grounds. On Twitter, quips were made about how the show should be dubbed Satya “Meva” Jayate.
It taps into the zeitgeist of dissatisfaction in the middleclass of the country. Will it do more as it moves from one issue to the next? Is one week enough to reform deep-rooted problems? Each week an NGO will be identified for donations made through the show, and the website carries instructions for how you can help. Santosh Desai feels that the show lulls us into a false sense of action, by SMS-ing Yes or No. “Yet, it legitimises change and that is a powerful contribution.” The coming Sundays will complete the story.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.