Many identify vicariously with the entertainment media: it plays an important role in shaping their desires and dreams. Often, this has to do with fashion and style. Young boys copy hairstyles, imitate Hrithik, Salman and Sanjay Dutt's machismo and passion for 'body-building'. Some want to walk, talk and act like Ranbir Kapoor. I see newly married women in sequinned saris, heavy jewellery and make-up exactly like the women in Ekta Kapoor serials.
But it does not always stop at that. These media also partly influence people's ideal notions of family (think Hum Apke Hai Kaun? and Baghban), friendship (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil Chahta Hai, ZNMD), relationships and love (Dilwale Dhulhaniya...), and even nation and citizenship (Rang De Basanti and Chak De India). For some, it may also have a bearing on how they think about what constitutes 'the good life'. Walk into a typical middle or upper middle class wedding in India and it is like a set for a Karan Johar movie. Many have imbibed Karan Johar and Ekta Kapoor's belief that the more opulent, expensive and bigger - the better! Bollywood has even influenced travel plans and honeymoon destinations: Switzerland, London and New York can thank Yash Chopra Films for burgeoning tourism.
My complaint is that mainstream Bollywood, since the mid-90s, often portrays an exclusionary vision of India. According to it, India is constituted exclusively by the consuming middle class. Think Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Namaste London, DesiBoyz, or even the more sophisticated - but still showcasing the same exclusive vision - Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The working class and poor simply do not exist (Minorities are absent as well because Shah Rukh Khan is always Rahul, Salman Khan mutates into Prem and Aamir becomes Aakash). Right up until the '80s, the Indian film industry regularly had as their protagonist peasants and working class persons, and focused on socio-economic experiences of the common man. However, Bollywood films of the 1990s/2000s almost always focus on the struggle of a middle class protagonist, which too is of a personal nature. Mainstream cinema ignores social/economic experiences like hunger, economic exploitation, inequality related to gender and caste, and so on.
This is not to say that all cinema needs to deal with such heavy subjects. What is objectionable is the dominance of this exclusionary vision, which unfortunately often reinforces the insularity of many upwardly mobile members of the middle class. In this light, it is commendable that a Bollywood actor has endeavored to burst this bubble; to remind us of alternative experiences and ignored visions.
Given that Bollywood and StarPlus soap operas leave an indelible mark on many minds, it is not entirely wrong to believe that were famous 'stars' from this "entertainment business" involved in campaigns around relevant social issues - be it gender inequality, domestic violence, religious extremism or caste discrimination - they would be extremely effective in raising awareness among ordinarily apolitical citizens. Our hyper-competitive, sensationalist news media rarely misses any such story; this additional news coverage can spark off debates and help to break the silence around social issues. This could only help in making the socially unaware conscious of them.
This is why it is important that Aamir Khan anchors Satyamev Jayate, and not any social activist ignored by the mainstream media and tabloids. What is brilliant and noble about the show is precisely the fact that it is not social scientists talking to themselves; exchanging esoteric knowledge, using jargon, statistics and abstruse theories. Satyamev Jayate is neither an academic book nor a seminar. It is unique in that it aims to dialogue with ordinary persons who might be unfamiliar with the issues at hand.
This is a difficult task for anyone seeking to address a complex issue, let alone for an hour long TV show that must compete for TRP ratings with IPL5 and the likes of Ekta Kapoor. Catering to the 'lowest common denominator' requires one to target persons in the audience who know zilch about the issue, explain its complexities in the most simple, effective way and yet give as nuanced a picture as possible.
Satyamev Jayate, so far, has not aimed to provide us with any 'final solution' to any problem (contrary to what Sohini Ghosh has argued in Kafila on May 9 and Farah Naqvi in The Hindu of May 12, 2012). At no point was his plea to the CM of Rajasthan to fast-track court cases of female foeticide represented as 'the' solution to the problem. Nor was his donation to ChildLine, the helpline for children, represented as 'the' way in which the sexual abuse of India's children can be expunged. These are merely efforts to contribute in some way: to let the audience know that if they feel strongly they can at least attempt to help those who need it, or let the latter know that there is help they can turn to.
The show (so far) has not claimed to address every aspect of the issues it seeks to address, nor the ability to bring about a sudden, total transformation in Indian society. Judged by these yardsticks, Satyamev Jayate will always fail to meet expectations. Aamir's show must be judged by its intent to get us talking about the basics of some of the many complex problems that plague Indian society. Its efficacy lies in breaking the conspiracy of silence about them in our public and private lives. By giving even ten children the ability to recognise what constitutes sexual abuse, by letting even five know that it is never okay and never their fault, and by giving even three the courage to complain to someone - the show will have achieved a lot.
Viewed against this, criticism of it by certain 'liberal'/'progressive' minded people - for not dealing with all facets, for apparently wrongly portraying girls as 'cute little bunny rabbits' that have to be 'saved', for Aamir's (admittedly) contrived reactions - makes one suspect that they cannot but sneer at even a much-craved effort to spark off a genuinely public debate on relevant social issues insofar as they themselves are not monopolising the debate or setting its terms and so long as they are not ones rescuing 'the victim', whoever it may be, in their way. Those who disparage Aamir's "jaadu ki chhadi" - the collective strength of "you" and "me" - as useless in the longer struggle against social evils are either missing the point or being unnecessarily pernickety. It is obvious that this is only an attempt to inspire and jolt us out of inertia, apathy and insensitivity. This adamant refusal to appreciate and encourage this admittedly small, but sincere and much-needed effort betrays a disturbing tendency among some critics to be needlessly highbrow and dismissive.
This blog was published in India Current Affairs: http://indiacurrentaffairs.org/india-why-i-like-aamir-khan%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98satyamev-jayate%E2%80%99-vanya-vaidehi-bhargav/ (June 5, 2012)
Some criticism of Satyamev Jayate -
Sohini Ghosh in Kafila - http://kafila.org/2012/05/09/dil-se-nahin-dimaag-se-dekho-thoughts-on-satyamev-jayate-episode-1-shohini-ghosh/ (May 9, 2012)
Farah Naqvi in The Hindu - http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article3409175.ece (May 12, 2012)
Other opinions on SMJ -
Prof. Ravinder Kaur's opinion (similar to mine) - http://www.indianexpress.com/news/good-at-heart/965572/ (June 23, 2012)