A Star Uses His Fame to Put Spotlight on India's Ills ; Show Mixing Bollywood with Serious Issues Has 500 Million Tuning In

By Bajaj, Vikas | International Herald Tribune, July 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Star Uses His Fame to Put Spotlight on India's Ills ; Show Mixing Bollywood with Serious Issues Has 500 Million Tuning In


Bajaj, Vikas, International Herald Tribune


Aamir Khan is variously described as India's Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney or Bono for drawing attention to longstanding social problems.

Aamir Khan spent more than two decades as one of the most admired movie stars in India, appearing in a string of socially conscious but mainstream films.

Now he has gained even more fame as the host of a popular weekly television show that is calling attention to some of the country's longstanding social problems.

Mr. Khan's show, "Satyamev Jayate," or "Truth Alone Prevails," is taped in front of a live audience and is something more than a talk show but short of "60 Minutes," a U.S. news program. Mixing Oprah- style interviews on a couch with short reports from the field, it tries to shine a spotlight on festering issues like dowries, domestic violence and the indignities of the caste system.

In just three months, the Sunday morning show has become a national phenomenon, distributed in seven languages and drawing a cumulative audience of nearly 500 million, according to Star India, the network that broadcasts it.

One of the early programs, in May, provided a vivid example of the show's influence. Mr. Khan, 47, highlighted a sting operation by two television reporters who had broadcast film of more than 100 doctors offering to abort female fetuses illegally. While the legal cases against them languished in notoriously slow Indian courts, the doctors continued to practice medicine.

But just days after Mr. Khan featured the topic on his show, the top elected leader from the state of Rajasthan, where the journalists did their investigation, met with Mr. Khan and promised to have the cases transferred to special courts that expedite decisions.

That kind of swift response has made Mr. Khan -- variously described as India's Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney or Bono -- increasingly sought after by policy makers, social advocates and others who see him as a savior or champion for their causes. In addition to meeting with the chief minister of Rajasthan, he testified before a committee in Parliament about the country's health care system after he did a program on medical malpractice. And recently he met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to press for a government ban on the practice of having human waste collected and carried away by people born into the lowest rungs of the caste system.

He also has a weekly column in The Hindustan Times, takes calls on a weekly national radio show and is frequently interviewed on prime-time television news shows.

"Mr. Khan is doing the nation a service by raising important issues which need greater public debate," said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, which is financed by the government and nonprofit organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Shyam Benegal, a respected television and film director and a former member of the upper house of Parliament, said Mr. Khan had done what many others had failed to do -- reach the Indian mainstream by using Bollywood tropes in the service of larger causes. His shows always include musical performances and frequently show him crying as he interviews his guests.

"This is effective because Aamir Khan is a film star," said Mr. Benegal. "And he is a pretty good P.R. man for himself, as well. And all those things help."

Star India, owned by News Corp., is India's largest network, and Mr. Khan's show is simulcast on a handful of other channels. His fame has helped attract sponsors like India's largest cellphone carrier, Airtel, and the foundation arm of one of its largest companies, Reliance Industries.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Khan likened his approach for the show to his 2007 movie, "Taare Zameen Par," or "Stars on Earth." The film, which he directed and starred in, told the story of a family's and school's inability to meet the needs of a dyslexic child. …

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