Published: July 26, 2012
MUMBAI, India — Aamir Khan spent more than two decades as one of India’s most admired movie stars, appearing in a string of socially conscious but mainstream films. Now he has gained even more fame as the host of a hugely popular weekly television show that is calling attention to some the country’s longstanding social problems.
Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Aamir Khan, right, is the host of a hugely popular weekly television show that is calling attention to some of India’s longstanding social problems.
Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Khan addressed journalists in June after appearing before a parliamentary panel to discuss medical problems plaguing India.
Taped in front of a live audience, Mr. Khan’s show, “Satyamev Jayate,” or “Truth Prevails,” is something more than a talk show but less than “60 Minutes.” 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 indignities in the caste system.
In just three months the show has become a national phenomenon, distributed in seven languages and drawing a cumulative audience of nearly 500 million, according to Star India, India’s largest private TV network, which is owned by News Corporation and which commissioned and broadcast the show.
One of the early programs, in May, provided a vivid example of the show’s influence. Mr. Khan, 47, highlighted a seven-year-old sting operation by two TV reporters who had broadcast footage of more than 100 doctors offering to illegally abort female fetuses. While the legal cases against them languished in India’s notoriously slow 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 the dispensing of justice.
That kind of swift reaction 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 of Parliament about the country’s health care system after he did a program on medical malpractice. And 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 weekly column in The Hindustan Times, takes calls from viewers 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 and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Shyam Benegal, a respected TV and film director and a former member of the upper house of Parliament, said Mr. Khan has done what many others have 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, frequently show him crying as he interviews his guests and include jokey banter.
“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 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.
In an interview earlier this month — after spending two hours at the gym to prepare for an coming action film — Mr. Khan likened his approach to the show to his 2007 movie, “Taare Zameen Par” or, literally, “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.
“If I tell you I am making a film on dyslexia, how many people are going to walk into the theater?” he said in a discussion at the Taj Land’s End, a five-star hotel frequented by Bollywood stars. “No one will walk in: ‘Oh, come let’s watch a movie about dyslexia.’ So, I have to tell you it’s a film about childhood and children.”
In the same way, he said, Satyamev Jayate does not announce in advance the subjects he intends to cover.
There is little in Mr. Khan’s upbringing to suggest he would end up hosting such a show. He dropped out of college to pursue his movie career and his first breakout film, in 1988, was a popular Bollywood musical in which his character elopes with his girlfriend because their families do not approve of their relationship.
Starting about a decade ago, however, Mr. Khan began to go down a different path tinged with social activism. In the 2001 Oscar-nominated movie “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” Mr. Khan played a villager in colonial India who challenges a British regiment to a cricket match to determine whether his village must pay an extortionate land tax, or lagaan.
Some entertainment industry analysts trace the change to his relationship with Kiran Rao, an assistant director on “Lagaan” who became Mr. Khan’s second wife. Ms. Rao is known for eclectic interests and for making films that do not hew to the well-worn Bollywood formula.
Since “Lagaan,” Mr. Khan has starred in and or produced movies that deal with issues like political corruption, indebted farmers and India’s regimented higher education system. Most popular Indian actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Salmaan Khan, who are not related to Mr. Khan but with whom he is often compared, have largely shied away from such subjects.
“It’s hard for people to remember now that in the 1990’s, that he was a huge star — one of the three Khans,” said Rachel Dwyer, a professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the University of London. “It’s in this decade that he has remade himself.”
Mr. Khan said he does not see “Lagaan” as a turning point for his career. But he acknowledges that Ms. Rao, who he described as “full of life,” helped him become less insular.
While his show has won much praise, it has also been criticized for its sometimes simplistic treatment of complicated subjects. The Indian Medical Association has protested its portrayal of doctors, which it says casts doctors as money grubbing and unprofessional on the basis of a few errant examples.
Mr. Khan and the top executive at Star dismiss that criticism as self-interested.
“We are very clear here that we are mass media, you cannot take the masses out from it,” Uday Shankar, the chief executive of Star India, said in an interview. “In order to keep the masses engaged if you have to simplify, so be it, because anything less would be meaningless. Then it would become an academic paper on the health sector.”
Other critics have argued that the show is too meek in identifying culprits. For example, it did not name the doctors accused of offering illegal abortions.
“He needs to catch a few throats,” said Dilip Cherian, a newspaper columnist and founder of Perfect Relations, a public relations firm. “A little bit of name and shame will probably work well for the show.”
Mr. Khan said he never intended to make an investigative show along the lines of “60 Minutes” and argued that he was having a much bigger impact by bringing big issues in front of mainstream audiences in a way that seeks to shame them out of their apathy. “We are not mincing our words,” he said, but added in Hindi: “Our attitude is not to blame this or that person. We are all to blame. First, you have to understand that.”
Both Mr. Khan and Mr. Shankar declined to provide financial details about the show, other than to say that Mr. Khan’s production company is paid 35 million rupees ($630,000) for each of the 13 episodes of the first season, which ends on Sunday. Both say they would like to do another season of “Satyamev Jayate” but will wait a few months to make a decision.
In the meantime, some of Mr. Khan’s supporters have suggested that he run for elected office, which has often served as a sinecure for Indian film celebrities. Mr. Khan denies any interest in politics.
“He could definitely make a good politician,” Mr. Benegal, the filmmaker and former legislator, said. But he added: “I think. ‘why should he?’ He has already been successful in politics now without being in mainline politics.”