Some 11 years back, this writer happened to be at an event where Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was the main guest. Since he was in a hurry he came in dancing into the hall and immediately asked the audience to ask him some questions.
After a few questions came this gem, “Swami ji, jeevan ka matlab kya hai?. To which he replied “jisne jeevan ka matlab bataya usne samjha nahi, aur jisne samjha usne bataya nahi.”
This philosophical gobbledygook, or to use a simpler term mumbo-jumbo, left the audience impressed, and they kept talking about it for some days to come. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was an upcoming guru back then who was trying to find his audience and we all know he has done rather well since then.
Over the years I have thought a lot about the statement that he made on that given day. Why did he really say that? I guess those were the days when he was trying to build a story around what he stood for. He was trying to create an image of himself in the minds of people, which was significantly different from the gurus already present and doing roaring business in the market for ‘spirituality’. And his story had to be different from them.
The story that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar perfected and spread over years is that of spreading happiness and peace, targeted at the upper middle class segment of society with a dash of yoga and music thrown in for good measure. He supports this story with a bit of philosophical gobbledygook at times.
The fact that his rise coincided with the so called India growth story is no coincidence. People worked longer hours under a whole lot more stress. They also made a lot of money, something which they could use to be spiritual on weekends and seek peace, a few times a year.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is not a mass market guru like the Sai Baba of Puttparthi was, or Baba Ramdev is these days. He does not hold his sessions in open grounds like Baba Ramdev does. He holds them in air-conditioned halls. And he makes sure that he stays true to the story he stands for. Recently when Baba Ramdev went on a fast against corruption in the country, Sri Sri was asked, why doesn’t he go on a fast like Ramdev had? To which his reply was “I have so many followers outside the country. If I go on a fast, it will become an international issue. This is our problem and it should remain in India.”
So even though Sri Sri thinly associated himself with Ramdev’s campaign against corruption, he didn’t go all the way with it. Associating himself with a mass market guru on a mass market issue would have spoilt his story of being an international guru promoting peace and happiness through yoga, music and mumbo-jumbo, to the upper middle class. He had modeled himself along the lines of Osho Rajneesh (though Sri Sri is nowhere as radical as Rajneesh was), who was also a rich man’s international guru and he stayed that way till his death.
Spiritual gurus in India are big brands and big brands over a period time build stories around them. These are stories that help the mass market to relate to them. And when it comes to big brands, they don’t make bigger brands than film stars.
Dilip Kumar was the brooding lover. Raj Kapoor was the Indian Charlie Chaplin who got lost in the big bad city. Dev Anand was the gunda with a noble heart. Rajesh Khanna was the boy next door who got the girl in the end with some hiccups thrown in between for good measure.
As times changed, people forgot Khanna rather quickly, and Amitabh Bachchan became the angry young man. Bachchan tried to do something different now and then, but was unsuccessful at it during his heyday. Chupke Chupke and Alaap, two of his best performances during his peak, didn’t set the box office on fire. In the late 1980s, he played the man with no name in the superb Main Azad Hoon (inspired by the great Hollywood flick Meet John Doe), directed by Tinnu Anand, who had also directed the Bachchan comeback movie Shahenshah. Main Azad Hoon tanked at the box office.
In the next generation, Salman Khan became the bhai next door. Shahrukh Khan became the new Rajesh Khanna, the sophisticated guy next door, who gets the girl in the end, after singing a few songs in between. This story became attached to Shahrukh Khan since Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) released in October 1995. His anti-hero movies of Darr, Anjam and Ram Jaane all came before DDLJ.
Almost all of his biggest hits after DDLJ have had Shahrukh playing the sophisticated guy next door, who usually gets the girl in the end. Be it Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil to Pagal Hai, Chalte Chalte, Main Hoon Na, or Veer Zaara.
Whenever he has tried to go against this, be it Swades, Paheli, Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna or, for that matter My Name is Khan, it hasn’t worked for him. And most recently that assault on the senses called Ra.One.
In the recent past Chak De India has been the only Shahrukh movie that has worked where Shahrukh did not play the guy next door. The reason the movie worked was that it had a strong story line, which isn’t a characteristic of most Shahrukh movies, and had a fairly limited budget.
So that leaves us with Aamir Khan, the other big star of the generation. What is his story? His story can be expressed in that old Maggi Tomato Ketchup line “It’s Different”. Aamir Khan over the last 10-12 years has been associated with movies which do not fall under the ambit of conventional Bollywood cinema. Be it as an actor or even as a producer.
As an actor he has done movies like Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Mangal Pande, Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots and Dhobi Ghat – Mumbai Diaries. These are movies which would be categorised as “different” in the scheme of Hindi cinema. Almost all of these movies come with an overt social message as well, something that Bollywood isn’t really known for. His next release Talaash, looks like what crime writers call a “police-procedural”. It is a sub-genre of detective novels where a murder, or murders for that matter, are investigated painstakingly by normal police detectives, who are not as smart as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Getting back to the point, during this period Aamir has also done an out-and-out masala flick like Ghajini, where his role required him to shave off his hair, something that no other Hindi film super star would have agreed to do. The only normal masala film that he has done in the last few years is Fanaa. And that is the exception that proves the rule. Aamir Khan likes to do movies that are different from the usual and have an overt social message.
Even his films as a producer, Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat and Delhi Belly, fall into the “it’s different” category. And other than Delhi Belly, which was an out and out zany adult comedy, the other movies had an overt social message.
So that brings us to Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan’s latest big hit. As Aamir has repeated in many interviews, around four years back he was approached by Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India, with an idea of doing a game show. This Aamir rejected, as the Open magazine reports, saying “I don’t want to do a game show. I want to do something dynamically different”.
There you have it from the star’s mouth himself. He wanted to do something that was “different”. Aamir Khan probably understood much better than the people who wanted him to do a game show that the image he had built over the years wouldn’t allow him to do a game show. A game show required a star who didn’t really have a “serious-thinking” sort of an image that Aamir has. A Salman Khan could pull off a Dus Ka Dum. But an Aamir couldn’t. A Shahrukh could do Zor Ka Jhatka in his informal sort of way. But even he couldn’t pull off a Kaun Banega Crorepati which required the gravitas of an Amitabh Bachchan.
Media reports suggest that Aamir Khan and Star TV’s CEO Uday Shankar did not leave it at that. As Business Standard reports, “It started some sort of engagement between the two to leverage the power of television. After over one-and-a-half years Khan, who undertook extensive research with his creative team, hit upon the idea of Satyamev Jayate.”
So convinced was Aamir about the idea that other than hosting the show he even decided to produce it under his banner Aamir Khan Productions, which will get paid a whopping Rs 45 crore for the 13 episodes planned.
The entire concept of the show jelled with Aamir Khan’s image of being associated with work that is “different” and has an overt social message to it, though the social message in Satyamev Jayate is much more than any of his movies.
Aamir Khan went looking for an idea like Satyamev Jayate and found it. But it can also be safely said that an idea like Satyamev Jayate needed a presenter like Aamir Khan. They are “made for each other”, as the old Wills cigarette ad went.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at email@example.com