By: Mrinalini Shinde, NLSIU.
This post is in response to the growing popularity of the television show ‘Satyamev Jayate’ that airs every Sunday morning, hosted by actor Aamir Khan. Every episode of the show highlights a major socio-systemic problem in India, incorporating interviews of people who have suffered from the same, experts’ opinion regarding the issue, and mini-documentaries that are token representations of public opinion. The show always ends with a plea for donations to a selected charity that deals with the issue discussed followed by a song relating to the theme. The show has been receiving a lot of mixed responses, but its general impact cannot be denied.
I have followed the show from its pilot episode, and I sit down to write this after just having watched the eighth episode on toxic food. Earlier episodes have dealt with the issues of female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry, medical malpractice, honour killings, persons with disabilities, and domestic violence.
The makers of the show made a brilliant choice in casting Aamir as the host because he has a carefully constructed image, within the Indian population of being a ‘thinking actor’. Tags of ‘perfectionist’ and ‘method actor’ have been endorsed by popular media. He is seen in the light of his recent films like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots which had strong underlying social messages. Prima facie, Aamir Khan seems like the sort of man that one can have an intelligent, sensible conversation with, who is unaffected by his screen personas, something that cannot be said about a few other Khans of the Indian film industry. Aamir Khan has always made a tremendous effort to appear effortless, and it is this effortlessness that I think stands him in extremely good stead as the host of Satyamev Jayate, that demands him to connect with people in more ways than one.
Also, the show comes at an opportune time in contemporary history when dissatisfaction with status quo has become the nucleus of participation in public life, having witnessed massive movements like India Against Corruption. Also, it somehow seems like discussing socio-political issues is more fashionable now than it has been for quite a few years.
What is great about Satyamev Jayate is the fact that issues we deem affect only unknown names in newspaper articles, are wrenched into your living room, and the format of discussion wrenches you into the identifiability of the concerned issues. The show also tries to ensure discussions with people from several socio-economic strata that ensures greater appeal. It showcases neither holier-than-thou experts nor sufferers in extreme misery, in the singularly focussed manner with which most news items tend to portray such issues.
Let’s face it, after being shown the sad state of affairs that exist, hearing heartbreaking stories of child abuse, honour killings and domestic violence and the mind-numbing reality of foeticide, dowry harassment and pesticide poisoning, to hear equally inspiring stories of people who tried to make a difference, tried to defy the systems in place, is great viewing.
Also the public interest that Satyamev Jayateis generating is commendable, as can be seen by the increased crackdowns and arrests of doctors involved in sex determination and foeticide, the mails and calls received by individual guests on the show for support, solidarity and for help, and the mere fact that people are talking about these issues on all kinds of fora, from facebook to the local elders’ evening adda. Also, time will tell whether the petitions to the government at the end of most episodes will actually bear fruit, but the initiative, even if it is tokenism is not a bad one.
However, the popularity that the show has been bestowed with demands a certain amount of credibility and responsibility on the part of the makers. It is imperative that the research that is put in is extensive and qualified, because a few episodes have made glaringly sweeping statements, that have the potential to misguide viewers, and half-baked awareness is dangerous. This was seen most famously in the healthcare episode, that resulted in nation wide protests by the medical faculty. There have also been allegations against the show, of being deceptive by selection. Understandably, due to constraints of time, a deep analysis of the issue is impossible, however, I thought that, many times, the approach of the show was superficial to the extent of being ludicrous. This is seen in the transparent, scripted nature of the interactions between Aamir and the guests. The guests seem genuine enough, but the single-minded probing nature of Aamir’s questions that ensure maximum opportunity to emote can get a bit irksome. It is true that the huge dollops of melodrama are requisites to ensure appeal, but sometimes, the oft-seen reality show tears, cheesy lines assigned to the guests can tend to shift focus away from the severity of the issue at hand. Moreover, the narration of the mini-documentaries borders close to being comic, thanks to its Crime Patrol-esque style. Surely, a less ‘sansani’ style can also do a good job.
Satyamev Jayate refuses to identify or label itself and its goals distinctly. Maybe that’s a good thing, because that gives the makers ample room for improvisation, change and malleability. However, this also makes it difficult to gauge the quality of the show because, it’s hard to figure what it aims to be. Whether it is a dramatised discussion forum, or a concrete effort at social change is unclear. And no, they are not the same thing. And the blatant commercial nature of the show, the constant advertisements can be off-putting. Is this the new face of corporate social responsibility? Airtel seems to think so.
I have mixed feelings about the the theme songs at the end of the episodes. The songs by themselves are quite nice, but the live performance where the camera keeps panning to capture the emotive responses of the audience, especially Aamir, seems a bit out of place, an attempt at Bollywoodisation (Yes, I made up that word) of the show, as if we can’t handle the raw truth without there being song and dance involved.
But I’m going to happily excuse this sugar-coating, because the truth that Mr. Khan serves for Sunday breakfast, works. I only hope that there will be more shows, that will ease up on the exaggerated histrionics, and Satyamev Jayate is merely laying the base for the near future, by generating an audience for this sort of television. It was time.