The myth of Satyamev Jayete

Does Aamir Khan’s foray into television really deserve the acclaim?

You have to feel bad for Priya Tendulkar. All that effort in creating a character called Rajni to bring about a social change through Doordarshan only to be relegated to a few academic journals while people celebrated Satyamev Jayete as the most novel programme ever to air on Indian television. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times we live in; for if Priya Tendulkar had been staring down at us from every billboard, hoarding, newspaper clipping, television screen and what have you with a part constipated and part emotional expression, we’d have assumed she was selling washing powder and moved on with our lives. This however was Aamir Khan. The man who helped save his village against taxation by the British. The man who delivered Darsheel Safary from an illness into the hands of a terrible movie career. The Khan who didn’t go around slapping security guards at stadiums. He called on us to listen, and so we did.

One of the biggest laments of those focusing on Indian television in academia has been the complete lack of documentation of critical shows within televisual spaces. While Hum Log, Buniyaad and recent soap operas like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi have been written about with regards to their effects on the Indian family unit and advent of advertising, other shows have been largely ignored. With Satyamev Jayete however, one finds a unique and ready made case that must be, and will be studied for years to come – not only for the nature of its content but also the grounds it has broken within the televisual space. Thus, before I opine on the show, I feel it necessary to underscore how important the show has become through its very nature, whether one is a fan or not.

Despite the incessant marketing preaching Aamir Khan’s moral superiority to the rest of the country, one cannot deny that Satyamev Jayete is a show with noble intentions. Through research and the issues the show has chosen to address i.e. child sexual abuse, domestic violence etc. Aamir Khan has brought many issues into the lives of Indian families that get swept under the carpet on account of fear and my personal favourite, “values”. While one remains skeptical of how much “awareness” a show can raise given the intangibility of that term (critics will use high TRPs as a metric for impact assessment though the inherent flaws in how TRPS are measured in India automatically disqualify it) one cannot deny that it has led to a lot more people affected by the issues to come out and share their stories. One is not surprised at the divided public opinion between those who believe Aamir is doing a wonderful job and the those who think he is trivialising issues by not highlighting their complexities (completely ignoring how parents are the worst offenders in child sexual abuse cases for example) but what has been revolutionary, without a doubt, is airing the show at 11 A.M. on Sunday’s, which as a time slot in Indian television was almost defunct till Aamir arrived.

Photo: Rohan Lakhlani

Even more interesting have been reactions on social media to the show being broadcast on Doordarshan. Almost instantaneously, the “middle” and “upper-middle” class chatterati co-opted the show as an exercise in highlighting the social evils that plague the nation within its poorer sections. A term commonly thrown around was the “DD Audience”, with the inherent assumption that only people in rural areas and small towns with no access to satellite television watched Doordarshan – and since the problems highlighted on the show were only limited to them – the show would bring about “societal change”. Perhaps viewers were too busy to see how an issue like, say, female foeticide was prevalent at similar if not higher levels in rich, urban areas. Aamir has, in interviews post the show airing, spoken about television being a medium of broad strokes and there being a conscious effort to highlight stories that can affect change on an individual level. What remains to be seen however, is whether this support lasts if Aamir takes sides on an issue that isn’t conflicted.

By focusing on issues such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence and female foeticide, Aamir has, no matter what the level of impact, drummed enough support for having done, in layman’s terms “atleast something”. So disillusioned are we with our socio-political and civic institutions that even the promise of “doing something” has been enough to galvanise support. However, what if Aamir says he is pro-reservation in educational institutions? What if Aamir Khan is against nuclear energy? What if Aamir Khan supports the ban on beef? These are all hypothetical questions – and we will likely not have these answered simply because it is a television show and Aamir cannot afford to get into so much trouble. But how will we as people react?

Will people give him the same wholehearted support we do so now, when it offends our own sensibilities? In people’s minds, Satyamev Jayete has become more than a television show – but I don’t think we’re ready to be confronted by actual truths of our societal order. We are happy as long as we’re making a noise about issues we’re all against – but that’s not even a real debate. We will also avoid the real debate because we’re not ready for it – and instead of worrying about governance deficits we will like to be distracted by Aamir Khan for atleast he’s talking about some things we can all agree on. And that is where the massive support for Satyamev seems to ring a little hollow. And that’s not Aamir’s fault at all – he’s doing what he can with his talent and influence and that’s a good thing – I just don’t know how much we as people are willing to be taken down that road of societal change, especially when it offends what we believe in.

So is then Satyamev Jayete really the magic bullet to our ailments? Is Indian television even ready for a Satyamev Jayete? Is it accomplishing anything more than what Rajni already hadn’t? Or does it even matter, as long as one gets to see more Aamir Khan on television?