Bollywood Star Uses His Fame to Put Spotlight on India's Social Problems

Article excerpt

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

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 show.

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 Industries.

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. …


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