Monday, 14 May 2012

Why I Like Satyamev Jayate

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.



Some criticism of Satyamev Jayate - 

Farah Naqvi in The Hindu - (May 12, 2012)

Other opinions on SMJ - 

Prof. Ravinder Kaur's opinion (similar to mine) (June 23, 2012)


Govind said...

If one was to judge Amir as a moral agent, given his capabilities, it is almost certain that he has chosen that action which has the potential to improve the welfare of the greatest number of people. So I don't agree with anyone criticizing him for making this show.

PS - I would be grateful if you could have a peep into my blog as well. You may find it interesting.


Alok Rai said...

Spot on! Of course there are limitations when anyone works in a popular format - but there are great advantages also, in terms of social reach, etc. - as indeed you have observed! I have no patience with the hyper-sophisticated ones who are smug in their unique possession of the Truth, and too contemptuous of other people ever to engage with them.

Meanwhile, there's room for all - and more.

Prakash K Ray said...

Well argued. I like to put it on that I edit.


anuchenoy said...

I liked it too. Though I only so one episode while reading the papers.
I liked it because it did not preach. It was not conclusive. He did minimum talking but showed solidarity. It brought in both the usual cases and some some resistance too. It brought in minority voices that are never shown.
It requires intelligence to appreciate this. So well done.
Anu chenoy

Rohit Negi said...

I'm curious about the content of the subsequent programmes. The trend so far has been to discuss themes that seem 'apolitical'--in the US, one would use the term 'bipartisan'--in that the really divisive questions have been avoided. One may still do these things, but who in their 'educated' minds would defend foeticide, dowry or child sexual abuse?

My guess is we may see some stuff on other such themes like 'corruption' or even child labour etc, but are there going to be episodes on caste, communal violence, militarization--including Kashmir--or even speculation in real estate that prices out the 95% out of homes?
perhaps not, but let's wait and see.

Rangnath Singh said...

Very impressive line of arguement...

and Completely agree with Alok ji...

Amira Bhargava said...

You've made SO MANY valid points, which you should come and say on Koffee with Karan! But but but... You've completely ignored the power wielded by the audience! The audience isn't as weak as you've made it sound! Your whole argument would get a different perspective if you keep in mind that the audience determines ALOT of what is made. Their role is HUGE in shaping the Hindi Film Industry.

Misha said...

Very well written.

The show might not change everything but I don't see what is wrong in it or in what way could it do anything but good? The show has been very well formatted too and the research and quality of work shows.

It's definitely very pretentious and wrong to criticize Aamir's endeavor. Some so-called intellectuals just love to talk and criticize and blab on and on- they are not going to actually take even half the efforts as the people working on the show- to try and make a difference in the society.

Vanya said...

Prakash K Ray - just saw your comment! Thank you for putting it up on your website :)!!

Vanya said...

Rohit Negi - Who in their educated minds would defend child abuse/dowry/female foeticide- I dont think that's the point. The show is not addressing people like you and me who are familiar with these issues and are shocked by uch atrocities. its addressing the 53% children of india who are victims of sexual abuse, and who may be blaming themselves or may not know what to do or who to approach. Also, there are many educated people who demand dowry! I know a person who someone I knew was going to marry (thank GOD she didnt)- who demanded dowry on the day before the wedding and he had graduated from CORNELL UNIVERSITY!! also, son preference is deep-rooted and defended and followed as a norm by many people!

I think even relevant social (as opposed to political) issues in this country are worth engaging with, considering the kind of silence there is in our public lives about them (you and i are most probably the 'exception', not the rule). though i so also think that social issues hardly remain merely social - boundaries cross between the social and the political even with caste, right?

I would like to see him engage with issues like caste, communalism etc too. as these too are extremely relevant in a country like ours. but if he doesnt i dont think it will detract from the value of the show. i see the show as a bonus, since i have zero expectations from such/most public figures. as Misha has said below, its hard to see anything but good coming out of it - in whatever small or even miniscule measure.

I, for one, do not expect Aamir Khan to tackle each and every single issue that plagues India. Aamir Khan is still more an actor than anything else. he can only do so much - make an effort in whichever small way he feels is right. The primary effort I think - as I wrote in my blog - is to jolt as many people out of apathy/complacency/ignorance/insensivity.

That said, I do hope that somehow issues like caste oppression, communal violence and dicrimination against minorities etc are brought out and dealt with by the show - but i also know that since these issues are complex, a lot of intellectuals will come out condemning these episodes - for dealing with the issue in 'not the right way'. *shrug*.

Thanks for taking the time out to read and comment though! :)

Vanya said...

Anuradha Chenoy (aka Anu Masiiii!) - thanks for reading the blog and appreciating the argument :)!

Vanya said...

Amira - have already written a looong reply to your LOOOOOOONG response to this on facebook :)!

P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
P. said...

Oops, deleted my previous comment by mistake! Here it is again:

I couldn't agree more with pretty much everything you said. The point you make about many of the critics' views stemming from the fact they they themselves are not monopolising and setting the terms of the debate is spot on!

Also, I would think *any* Indian citizen has the right to educate himself/herself on a subject, do the required research and then take to a public platform to spread awareness - so why exclude an actor?? Add to that the mass appeal and awakening factor you talked about, and it seems obvious that this show is a good thing - which is why some of the criticism just seems completely daft.

Great post, going to explore the rest of your blog, too :)