Aamir Khan: The only problem with Satyamev Jayate

Rajyasree Sen

May 14, 2012 12:11:09 IST

The nation – and the world of Twitter - spent  last week asking what Aamir Khan would discuss in the second episode of Satyameva Jayate. Would it be child marriage, the lack of distribution of surplus grains, farmer suicides?

The wait is over. Actually the news that it would be about child sex abuse leaked out on Twitter on Saturday night itself.  Whether the show’s PR machinery threw that crumb our way or not it ensured interest was piqued enough to create a Twitter buzz and guarantee people  tuned in on Sunday.

Now my issue with Satyamev isn’t the topics that they discuss, but the entire manner in which the topics are dealt with.  I have no problem with its star factor. To sum up my opinion on the first episode, I felt it had its heart in the right place and only a star speaking about these issues would make people and ministers take some affirmative action and build awareness. And that holds.

I know it’s blasphemy to say anything remotely negative about Aamir or his show, since everyone thinks that he is the messiah who will show us the way, but I do feel that Aamir’s histrionics and contrived reactions through the first episode detracted from it. As did his tall claims about this being a programme which the entire family would sit down to watch every Sunday, just like the days of Ramayana. I also felt that a one-and-a-half hour programme at 11am on such important but dire subjects would not attract audiences back after the first few episodes. ( You can read my  entire take on the first episode here.)

The second episode began with a disclaimer in which Aamir said that viewers should exercise discretion while viewing the programme and they should ask their children to not watch it, if they thought that best. So, out goes the “this is a programme for the entire family to watch” claim. I’m not sure though, whether this was a disclaimer  for  all future episodes or just this one because it was about child sex abuse.

Aamir Khan: The only problem with Satyamev Jayate

At the end of the day the only thing that detracts from the show is Aamir. Raju Shelar/Firstpost

Child sex abuse  is a topic close to my heart because like most children, even I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of desi Pee-wee Hermans. I once got rescued from being kidnapped by two women brothel owners at the age of eight. It’s a topic that I feel that parents must discuss with their children just to make them realise that the children are not at fault. But it’s also a topic that I feel you need to approach with tons of sensitivity. The show did manage to do that –  thanks greatly to the maturity which with the victims spoke about their abuse.

The programme followed the same format – definition of sexual abuse, statistics displayed through graphs, case studies, interviews of the victims of such abuse, a counselor and a clinical psychologist talking about the cases they had seen and how to deal with abuse and the really impressive work Childline has done for years now and the action we can pressurise the government into taking.

What made the stories of child abuse even more horrifying and heart-wrenching was the candour and the stoicism and succinctness with which the four who were interviewed, spoke about their experiences.  But then the only thing which jars in the programme happened, just as in the last episode. The host made his thespian presence felt.

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Aamir decided that if the interviewee wouldn’t shed a tear, he would make up for it. So from wiping away his tears to asking one of the victims to sing in the middle of her utterly calm and frank narration of her traumatic abuse to hitting his forehead with his palm – Aamir pulled out all the stock  emotional mannerisms we know so well from Hindi films.  When Nishit Kumar of Childline said that what was most upsetting was that there was no prevalent law on child sex abuse, Aamir gasped so loudly even Kumar looked embarrassed. When Aamir had nothing to contribute while Harish  Iyer narrated his experience he simply loudly ‘hmmmed’ while Harish spoke. It’s fair to assume that Aamir has seen the video interviews of each of the victims and has spoken to all the people who will feature on the episode and none of what was being said is a  revelatory surprise to him since he obviously keeps very tight control over the flow and what he wants from each guest. So why the need for such exaggerated shock and histrionics as if he is holding up cue cards to tell his audience how to feel? All it does is distract from the real issue.

Also, two other moments jarred for me at least, and only underlined the contrived nature of the programme. Aamir’s curse is that he cannot shake off the controversies which he has been involved with. So to don the mantle of oracle and messiah rolled into one doesn’t sit easy on his shoulders. The episode ended with a children’s workshop. A group of nine children between the ages of 5 to 10 approximately were made aware by Aamir of danger zones on their body and ways in which to react if someone touched them inappropriately. The kids seemed a little bemused, which was understandable. After all Aamir Khan is a stranger to them. It must have been as make-belief to them as it was to us. Why their parents agreed to this is a topic for another episode - the exploitation of child actors by parents. Anyway, the scene seemed lifted straight out of Taare Zameen Par, and only helped remind me, unfavourably for Aamir, of the ease with which Amole Gupte had dealt with children in Stanley Ka Dabba.

Aamir had also said that there’ll no sensationalism or Bollywood-isation of the programme. So Sridevi’s sudden appearance made little sense, even if Harish had said that he loved her films as a child. Why was only Harish given the special gift of an audience with Sridevi – who looked scarily like Michael Jackson in a saree - by Aamir? Sridevi was told how this young man had made it through years of abuse by building a fantasy alternate world for himself thanks to her films and songs. One would think she could have at least held his hand, let alone hugged him. While smiling benignly at him and mouthing some platitudes,  Sridevi refused to come within a foot of the man, let alone touch him. She gifted him four books instead as if he had won a Rotary club essay competition. There were three other abuse survivors on the show, none of them got a special gift. Aamir was kind enough to hug one though.

At the end of the day the only thing that detracts from the show is Aamir. It is after all because of him that people are tuning in to watch it, and it is his practiced, almost scripted concern which leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Also, despite the importance of the issues discussed – and I’m sure we’ll suddenly get to know the next topic on Twitter just the night before – will Satyamev keep convincing people to block off one and a half hours of their Sunday mornings for the next two and a half months? Or once the novelty value of a weekly public awareness programme wears off, will Aamir have to do an episode on the plight of the victims of botox, hair weaves and silicone implants with Salman Khan and Rakhi Sawant as guests? I sincerely hope not.

Updated Date: May 14, 2012 14:38:11 IST

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