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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The New Hero of Indian Television

The New Hero of Indian Television

A Bollywood superstar has channeled his social conscience into a surprise hit show

On Indian TV, there has never been anything quite like "Truth Alone Prevails." Since its debut in May, the weekly show has reached more than 470 million viewers with its inquiries into issues like pesticides in food, domestic violence and the abortion of female fetuses. Within moments of airing, each episode trends at No. 1 on Twitter in India. Ten million people have sent text messages, emails and comments to the show's website to share their questions, opinions and fears.

Photos: Aamir Khan, On Screen and On The Streets

Associated Press
A selection of moments in Khan's off-screen career.
In two Indian states, the show has prompted governments to bolster the enforcement of existing laws, and a few weeks ago the show's host was called to testify before a parliamentary committee after an episode on medical malpractice. The scale of the response has made "Satyamev Jayate" (as the show is called in Hindi) more like a people's movement than a television show.

More astonishing is the fact that this social and political phenomenon is the work of Aamir Khan, a superstar of India's giant film industry. At 47, Mr. Khan combines something of the glamour and social concern of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Like many Bollywood actors, he made his name dancing around trees and singing in the rain, but over the years he has turned to more serious things. Three years ago he had a great success with "3 Idiots," a comedy about the mind-numbing state of Indian education. Now, having turned down offers to do the game shows that many actors of his standing have taken up, he has created something startling and altogether new in India.
Hindustan Times Via Getty Images
testifying to a parliamentary panel on June 21.
The format of "Truth Alone Prevails" is simple. (The show airs on the Star network, which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp.) Mr. Khan introduces the issue of the day to a live studio audience; a short video is shown, featuring a real-world case of hardship or injustice; and then, with only a modest amount of television wizardry, the lights come up and the person from the video is on stage, seated opposite Mr. Khan. And they begin to talk. Mr. Khan does not dazzle the audience with his star power; for the most part, he just listens. It is his guests, often heartbreakingly ordinary, who do the talking.

What emerges from their stories is a creeping horror, a vision of modern India that is stark and deeply unsettling: the family whose mother's life is snatched away, they say, in a botched and unauthorized organ transplant; the 12-year-old girl who accuses a 55-year-old family friend of sexual abuse; the call-center worker who tells of the forced abortion of her female fetuses—six times in eight years—at the hands of her husband's family. Mr. Khan's style is wry and laid back, but occasionally the stories are too much for him, and his eyes well with tears.
Though all manner of cruelty and casual violence are on display, the show is essentially uplifting.
India has not always been comfortable looking this hard at itself. Mr. Khan's show indicates a new candor and boldness, and the response has been staggering. As he told me, "We used to sit back, my team and I, and discuss how people would react, what they would feel. And the kind of response we dreamed of, and hoped for, that is exactly what we're getting." He admits to being emotionally drained by the show at times: "There's a lot of trauma, a lot of distress, a lot of injustice" out there, he said, and he has yet to commit to a second season. But he also says that he encountered an "equal number of examples of courage, high levels of integrity and deeply honed values."

Critics have accused Mr. Khan of being far less reliable on scientific issues than he is on social ones. Some also say that the show is preachy, even messianic, and that its research is not always up to scratch. After Mr. Khan's episode on malpractice, the medical community raised a furor, and the doctor accused of the unauthorized organ transplant is now threatening the show with legal action.
But most Indians seem to share the view of Shekhar Gupta, the editor in chief of the Indian Express, who believes that the show's emphasis on social justice compensates for its shortcomings. "The most important thing is that people are now willing to talk about what's wrong with them," he told me. And Mr. Khan "holds a mirror up to the society; that's a remarkable thing."

The success of "Truth Alone Prevails" is very much a function of India's rising prosperity over the past decades. Since the early 1990s, a middle class of several hundred million has emerged, and its members are increasingly willing to voice their outrage over the familiar tragedies of life in India. Among them, "Truth Alone Prevails" has an almost religious appeal. As one blogger wrote, in response to media criticism of the show, "If someone tries to do something good for the society, you guys could not bear it.... People need someone to follow, to show them the right path."

This reaction represents a strange truth about the show (and perhaps about India too): Though all manner of cruelty and casual violence are on display, it is essentially uplifting.

What gives "Truth Alone Prevails" its optimism is the voice of India's new middle class, which is increasingly politically and socially aware, though still unsure of itself and its newfound wealth and security. If the old India of my childhood—which was a far bleaker place—is to be superseded, it will depend on this new class's ability to understand and defend the freedoms that have enriched it. Mr. Khan's achievement has been to use his celebrity to show Indians, with rare clarity and grittiness, how far the country has come, and how far it has yet to go.
—Mr. Taseer's "Stranger to History" will be published this fall by Graywolf. He lives in New Delhi and London.
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this story said the film '3 Idiots' came out two years ago, but it was released three years ago in 2009.

A version of this article appeared July 7, 2012, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The New Hero of Indian Television.

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