Aamir Khan is variously described as India's Oprah Winfrey,
George Clooney or Bono for drawing attention to longstanding social
Seven years after two television reporters broadcast footage in
which more than 100 doctors offered to illegally abort female
fetuses, the physicians continued to practice medicine while cases
against them languished in notoriously slow Indian courts.
Then in May, the slumbering cases received a jolt from an unusual
source: Aamir Khan, one of the most admired movie stars in India.
Days after Mr. Khan featured the journalists' sting operation on his
show, "Satyamev Jayate," or "Truth Prevails," the top elected leader
from the state of Rajasthan, where the journalists conducted their
investigation, met with Mr. Khan and vowed to take action. He
promised to have the cases transferred to special courts that
dispense justice much faster than the rest of India's judiciary.
That swift reaction is a vivid example of the growing influence
wielded by Mr. Khan, 47, who is variously described as India's Oprah
Winfrey, George Clooney or Bono for drawing attention to
longstanding social problems. It also demonstrates why Satyamev
Jayate, a one-and-a-half-hour show that airs on Sunday mornings, has
become a national phenomenon. It is one of the most-watched shows on
Indian television, with an audience estimated at nearly 500 million
people, according to Star TV, which commissioned and broadcasts the
Since the show began in May, Mr. Khan, best known for starring in
socially conscious but mainstream movies, has become increasingly
sought after by policy makers, social activists and others who see
him as a savior or champion for their causes. In addition to meeting
with the chief minister of Rajasthan, the actor testified before a
committee of Parliament about the country's health care system after
he did a show on medical malpractice. Last week he met with Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh to press for a government ban on the
practice of having human waste cleaned and carried away by people
born into the lowest rungs of the Indian caste system.
He also has a column in The Hindustan Times, takes calls on a
weekly national radio show and is frequently interviewed on prime-
time TV 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
& Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the topics Mr. Khan has
highlighted are dowries, the caste system and domestic violence,
problems that advocates say are difficult to get India's middle
class or political establishment to pay attention to.
Shyam Benegal, a respected TV 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, for
instance, always include musical performances and frequently show
him crying as he interviews guests.
"This is effective because Aamir Khan is a film star," said Mr.
Benegal, who once made shows for the state-owned broadcaster
Doordarshan. "And he is a pretty good P.R. man for himself, as well.
And all those things help."
Mr. Khan's show is on India's largest private network, Star,
which is owned by News Corp., and is simulcast on Doordarshan and a
handful of other channels. His fame has helped the show attract
sponsors like India's largest cellphone carrier, Airtel, and the
foundation arm of one of the country's largest companies, Reliance
During an interview this month, Mr. Khan likened his approach to
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 and a school unable to meet the needs of a dyslexic child. …