Review: Aamir Khan and Satyamev Jayate failed in their responsibility

Recently, while on a publicity outing for Satyamev Jayate, actor Aamir Khan had one question for all those who delicately wondered whether his talk show host avatar wasn't a little overdone: "I have empowered you with so much of information, what have you done with that?"

He didn't add that he's got something for you to do as of March 2: watch the second season of the talk show with a conscience.

That's really at the heart of Satyamev Jayate's appeal and popularity. It educates and (provided the show's research team and director have handled the available data responsibly) by simply watching the show, you're educating yourself. That's more than a little bit of good for the nation. That's the beginning of change. People do pay more attention to a story if Khan tells it. So when he says that blaming a survivor for being raped is wrong because then we're making the terrible mistake of supporting the rapist unwittingly, the actor has more than earned the crores he's being paid for Satyamev Jayate.

It doesn't matter that Khan glosses over the detail of his astronomical fee when he chooses to begin season two with a statement declaring this television programme is his "social responsibility". Neither is it important that despite Khan being emotionally invested in the show, he comes across as bland and extremely rehearsed. The last time Khan was seeing sighing and weeping in such a fake manner, it was the nineties and he was acting in films like Andaz Apna Apna and Ishq. All this is irrelevant. What matters is that on Sunday morning — a time usually slotted for general, family entertainment — Khan took two hours to talk about violence against women.

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A screengrab from the serial. Image courtesy: Ibnlive

With women's rights becoming increasingly en vogue, there's been a great deal of writing on rape and women's rights over the last few years. Particularly in the English media, there have been debates, reports, as well as introspective pieces by women and men who have been shaken by the gruesome incidents that show up in newspapers all too regularly. Satyamev Jayate covered a lot of the same ground, but there really is no harm in repeating any of these points of discussion. The show drew attention to processes that desperately need revision. For example, the callousness of the police is well known, but chances are fewer people are aware of the prejudice with which medical establishments approach those who have suffered sexual assault and/or rape. Instead of being caregivers, what the doctors and nurses put rape survivors through effectively qualifies as a second rape.

According to an NGO, there's a manual that tells doctors to treat rape survivors with suspicion, but unfortuantely, the Satyamev Jayate research team didn't follow up on this to provide any evidence to support this. The two doctors I asked said they'd never seen any such instruction in writing. However, they did concede that the attitudes of many doctors, particularly in smaller and government hospitals, is similar to what Khan's program outlined.

Perhaps the most surprising and disappointing part of this episode of Satyamev Jayate was the sloppy job done by those responsible for the English subtitles and credits. The English translations of the Hindi dialogue were frequently interpretations rather than translations. For example, "zimmedari" was written as "obligation", rather than 'responsibility'. At another point in the show, Khan said "Hum aapka dukh samajh sakte hain" and the subtitles read, "We empathise with you", which is not the same thing, literally speaking. Most of the time, the show's subtitles referred to those who have been raped as "victims", which is ironic for a show that's supposed to be about women's rights.

When rape survivor Suzette Jordan spoke in English, she was thankfully not drowned out by a Hindi dub the way lawyer Aparna Bhat was, but the English subtitles were frequently different from what Jordan was saying. This is sloppy, lazy work, and not expected from a show that's as expensive and rigorous as Satyamev Jayate claims to be.

The two-hour long episode also discussed the legal system and processes that make it so difficult for a rape survivor to move on with their lives. As Dr. Roop Rekha Verma of the NGO Sajhi Duniya pointed out, it's ridiculous that we take the eighth standard exam so seriously that it can't be missed or rescheduled, but dates for rape trials can be delayed for the flimsiest of reasons (my personal favourite excuse was one lawyer saying they couldn't appear in court because they had a Satyanarayan puja at home). One of the few spontaneous moments in this episode was when Verma bluntly stated that in her opinion, when justice comes after decades during which a raped woman has been forced to be defined as "victim", then it's not really justice.

As far as I'm concerned, if to get positive change we need to have Khan parroting lines and making exaggerated facial gestures, then so be it. When Khan says on national and cable television that the police must register an FIR, that a survivor does not need to prove she's been raped, that it is illegal for anyone to perform the two-finger test, more people will listen. Works for me, even if he's also telling people to send expensive text messages in order to earn Airtel, the show's primary sponsor, money.

Khan deserves a round of applause for keeping the focus of the show on the topic at hand rather than on his star status or the sponsors' demands, but he is turning out to be an astonishingly bland host. Last season, there were a few hints of Khan the human being — he was marginally more spontaneous and open about himself — but this first episode could easily have been hosted by a robot (one programmed to shed a couple of tears about 40 minutes into the show).

It isn't just to establish a rapport with audiences that Khan's personal, human side needs to emerge. If he does each show with this level of impersonality and artificial reactions, then at some point, his audience will start wondering whether these topics really do matter to him. Are issues that concern Aamir Khan the person or are they topics of discussion for Aamir Khan the professional? Sooner rather than later, they will notice they're watching a performance. For example, surely Khan knew before shooting this episode that "evidence collection" in a rape case is usually a cruel joke? If he didn't, then that's pretty alarming. It's more likely that what we saw of Khan in Satyamev Jayate wasn't any indication of what he actually knows. This is what he thinks his audience knows.

Focusing upon one's audience isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it's led to Satyamev Jayate dumbing things down. The show is supposed to offer viewers perspective and understanding, when in fact it delivers partial information and opinion. Watching this first episode on rape, you'd be forgiven for thinking the reason rapes happen in this country is that rapists are encouraged by the facts that the police is prejudiced, the medical establishment is callous and the courts are slow.

There wasn't a single case or mention of rape by a family member or acquaintance, which is far more common than rapes by strangers. This is not to suggest that the police, legal system and medical establishment shouldn't be criticised, but the attitudes they espouse aren't created by these professions. The real cause lies closer to everyone's home: it's the way we are traditionally taught to see and judge women.

But Satyamev Jayate didn't want to make its audience look in the mirror. It found bogeymen in outsiders like policemen, doctors and lawyers, rather than in the family and society that breeds the gender inequalities that lead to rape. To some extent, when it chose to ignore the socialisation that gives rapists a sense of security, Khan and his television show failed their social responsibility.