A movie star makes India confront its taboos

Bollywood megastar Khan is making India confront its dark side by shining light on inequities such as the abortion of female fetuses, caste discrimination and the slaying of brides in dowry disputes. — File Photo

NEW DELHI: A Bollywood megastar is making India confront its dark side.

Shining light on inequities like the rampant abortion of female fetuses, caste discrimination and the slaying of brides in dowry disputes, actor Aamir Khan has reached an estimated one-third of the country with a new TV talk show that tackles persistent flaws of modern India that many of its citizens would prefer to ignore.

''Satyamev Jayate'', or ''Truth Alone Prevails,'' is a clever blend of hard news and raw emotional appeal — part 60 Minutes, part Oprah. Its influence has even prodded the notoriously lethargic government machinery into action, though it's too soon to know what policy changes may be in the works.

After an episode exposed rampant medical malpractice and championed giving cheap, generic medicine to millions of India's poor, Khan was invited to address a Parliament hearing on health care.

Indians haven't seen anything quite like this. Hard-hitting talk shows are rare and certainly none has acquired even a fraction of the popularity and buzz Khan's has generated since its debut 11 weeks ago. And Bollywood superstars have ventured into television only to host glitzy game or reality shows. For many middle class Indians — comfortable in their belief that their country had moved beyond most of these problems — Khan's show has been a gut-wrenching and poignant dose of bitter reality.

''Definitely it's reminding people that there are problems within our society,'' said Narendra Kumar, an environmental researcher in New Delhi. ''It's also creating discussions and sometimes helping people find solutions to the problems.'' The show forced Paromita Dey to confront an act she had tried to bury.

Four years ago, Dey and her husband Souporno — already parents to a teenage daughter — ended a pregnancy because she was carrying another girl. Like millions of Indian families, they wanted a son.

In the opening episode of Khan's program in May, Ameesha Yagnik haltingly recalled how her husband forced her to abort six female fetuses in eight years. How he threw her out of the house but refused to let her meet her infant daughter for months until she agreed to divorce him. Both Khan and his audience were in tears.

So were the Deys when they watched the show.

''Yes, I killed my baby because she was a girl,'' a shaken Paromita Dey said, sitting in her home in a posh neighborhood in the northern city of Lucknow.

That India's highly skewed gender ratio is a cause for concern isn't new. Census after census has revealed that fewer and fewer girls are being born, despite strict laws against sex-selective abortions and a slew of failed government incentives and programs.

Yet Khan's show created such an outpouring of outrage that the government of the western state of Rajasthan, with one of the worst gender ratios, promised action, and a village head there formed a committee to check against the practice.

''It's both ironic and amusing that it took an actor from Bollywood to shine a light on the yawning gaps in Indian journalism,'' political commentator Tavleen Singh wrote in a recent column. The show has done ''what us hacks should have been doing over and over again,'' she wrote.

Khan, 47, began his career in Bollywood as a romantic hero in the late 1980s. But over the last decade he has broken new ground in Bollywood, fashioning a career path combining the social consciousness of George Clooney with the hero appeal of Tom Cruise.

Now one of the industry's very biggest stars, he has the cachet to push through any project he chooses. He produced, directed and acted in a film about the journey of a misunderstood dyslexic child. His film ''3 Idiots'' examined the sorry state of India's education system.

He's thrown his weight behind social causes — joining anti-dam protesters and embracing an anti-corruption activist. The talk show has cemented his status as Bollywood's first true activist-star.

Khan initially was asked to host a TV game show. He refused.

''I want to do something dynamically different,'' he told Open magazine. ''I continued to think about it, and slowly this idea was conceived.''

''Satyamev Jayate'' has tackled many horrors unique to India: the torture and murder of young brides for bringing insufficient dowries to their in-laws; the shunning and degradation of those at the bottom of Hinduism's caste hierarchy.

Others are more universal — alcoholism and child sexual abuse — but made worse by a conservative culture unwilling to deal with them.

The program is broadcast on several networks estimated to reach about 400 million people in India. Since its debut, more than 13 million people have posted suggestions and messages of support on the show's Web site.

The alcohol abuse episode sent 60,000 phone calls flooding the Alcoholics Anonymous helpline, said the show's co-director Svati Chakravarty.

''It was unprecedented in the history of AA worldwide.''

Rights workers say Khan has used his celebrity with remarkable effect.

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Comments (10) Closed

Jul 24, 2012 03:05pm
He has invested more than 30 crores in this project - It is his right to take whatever seems good to him. Very easy for somebody to sit somewhere and comment - why is he doing this or doing that.
Jul 23, 2012 11:16am
Are we going to have the same thing in Pakistan and face the unfaceable, unspeakable to make the society better. I would hope so. In Pakistan, there may be Muslims but the basic humanity is same as in India with all its goods and bads. Every one of the problems talked by Mr. Aamir Khan exists in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We as Desis need to face and correct it. The first step in solving a problem is to accept that there is a problem and we can go forward to correct it.
Jul 24, 2012 12:34pm
No matter the cost, at least there has been an impact - others charge too. There are no free lunches, not even for the greater good Never been an Aamir Khan fan, but this is commendable!
An Indian
Jul 23, 2012 08:30pm
If this is a social service then why amir khan takes 3 crore Indian rupees(5 crore Pakistani rupees) per episode. Its a just commercial tv soap.
Another Indian
Jul 24, 2012 12:39pm
He is covering his costs in producing the show. Also, he can make crores if he acts in a movie instead of doing this show - he hasn't done a movie in 2 years, incurring a financial. You can accuse StarTV for commercialism, not Aamir.
Gaurav Arya
Jul 24, 2012 04:29am
Amir Khan conducts the show with devastating effect. I was surprised to see Amir talk about issues which Indians would love to ignore because of the "India Shining" hogwash that the government tries to feed us. I dont know how successful Amir will be because India is a huge, huge country. But as a common citizen of India, I would like to say to Amir Khan "Thank you for being an Indian. Thank you for using your star power to better the lot of common Indians and awaken them." Because of Satyamev Jayate, Amir has left behind Shah Rukh, Salman and all the Kapoors and Bachchans. These stars are just big movie stars. But Amir Khan is like a loved family member who visits us every sunday at 11 am. And India waits with bated breath for its son to speak.
Jul 24, 2012 05:38pm
It goes to charity which is run by Nita Ambani. But that is not the point at least he is using the money to create so much impact for the people who have been or are being abused
Jul 25, 2012 09:46pm
Amir rocks!!!!!!!!!!ist step in solving a problem is to get out of denial mode.....we havemany problems in our society
Jul 25, 2012 11:57pm
We alreeady have these kind of shows in Pakistan however what we need in Pakistan is for the people to snap out of their misery and do something about the miscarriage of justice that is so prevalent in our society.
Jul 30, 2012 09:30pm
and I guess thats where Amir clicked!? Yes, we do have news programmers, talk shows on these subjects but why have they not clicked? India too had myriad shows on such issues BUT never has the impact been so pronounced and prominent like this show had. I am we have some one in Pakistan who can use his / her stature to ignite / reignite and bring any topics that plagues your country / society in public domain again.