Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aamir Khan shows mirror to society

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 15, 2012)


The problem with success is that it spawns an industry of cynics and carping critics who cannot see the balloon soar. They will punch at it and try to puncture it. They seek glory not in inflating the balloon but in deflating it. And they eagerly wait for such occasions to come by. Actor-producer Aamir Khan has given these critics one such opportunity through his recently launched television serial, Satyamev Jayate. Though not all the criticism of the show has been negative, a lot of it has been just that.
On a television talk programme that was devoted to Satyamev Jayate — in itself a confirmation that the serial had made a power-packed impact in its very first episode — an elderly social rights activist slammed Aamir Khan’s venture as mere “entertainment”. She questioned the tears shed by the participants who were discussing female foeticide. She also wondered how one such programme could eradicate the social ill when those of her kind had been unable to do even after decades of struggle.
It is shocking that a social rights activist who has studied the issue from such close quarters by interacting with victims and perpetrators of female foeticide should be so insensitive to the real stories that Satyamev Jayate presented. What did she find ‘entertaining’ in the cry of a woman who was tormented by her in-laws and husband because she had given birth to two daughters? Or in the fact that many family members who tortured women into aborting girl children were highly educated and financially well-off? Or the visual footage of female doctors in Rajasthan caught in a sting operation nonchalantly asking a ‘pregnant’ woman to dispose of her girl child, in which they would be only too willing at a price to help?
The social activist on that television show indeed had a strange understanding of what ‘entertainment’ is all about. And, as for the tears, they have indeed helped the programme enhance its ‘emotional’ appeal. But those tears were actually genuine and not glycerine-induced.
The social activist’s concern that programmes like Satyamev Jayate or celebrities like Aamir Khan can hardly make a difference in the fight to eradicate deep-rooted social evils such as female foeticide is a result of mixed-up argument. She has been working in the field for several decades and yet female foeticide is rampant in the country. Has she then failed? Should she then halt her campaign, because even she has not been able to make any significant impact? This is ridiculous logic. Aamir Khan has not claimed nor must he have been under the impression that his one episode will bring about mammoth change. But change comes when there is awareness in the people, and Satyamev Jayate has aroused that awareness. It is now for activists and other stakeholders including the Centre and the State Governments to seize on that awareness.
Aamir Khan did not have to do this programme. He is doing it apparently because he strongly believes in this sort of a contribution to society. He could have produced a routine soap serial that would have drawn large television rating points and fetched him more money. Or he could have set up a tobacco firm or a plastic manufacturing company. We must compliment him for using the reach and impact of television to spread a social message. But, again, we have the critics carping that Aamir Khan is getting funds for and making money by exploiting the plight of people.
One of the panelists on the talk show mentioned earlier referred to this criticism. Non-Government organisations are said to be working in various areas ranging from health to education to child care to women’s empowerment. Are they not funded? Are they not accountable for the manner in which they spend the money and the results those spendings fetch? Satyamev Jayate is a commercial venture, and so there is nothing wrong if the makers of the programme are focussed on earnings or on accountability in spending. The important thing to keep in mind is that they are not just focussed on the earnings but also on the purpose of the programme. You cannot do much with an empty cash box, can you, however lofty your thinking is?
Moreover, isn’t it too early to talk of Satyamev Jayate being a commercial blockbuster? It’s just two episodes old and the jury is still out on its commercial prospects. It remains to be seen to what extent the programme will be able to sustain the existing audience and add on new viewers. In that sense, Aamir Khan has taken a huge risk, and that fact is getting lost in the din of criticism against him. If he succeeds, he is condemned as a mercenary, and if he fails he is ridiculed as a pseudo-activist. But, let’s be fair to him and acknowledge that, either way, he will have attempted something that has been worthy of praise.
Thankfully, Aamir Khan is far from getting swayed by the negativity. The second episode of Satyamev Jayate highlighted the rampant cases of child abuse in the country. A survey conducted in 2007 by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in collaboration with an NGO in more than a dozen States found that more than half of the children surveyed reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. In 50 per cent of such instance, the exploiters were known to the child or were in a position of trust and responsibility. Should we then compliment the actor-producer for taking up the issue or condemn him for ‘exploiting’ the tragedy of abused victims?
There is some merit in the suggestion that Aamir Khan must not allow politicians to bask in his glory and score political points. The suggestion emerged after the actor met Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with a petition seeking action against those accused of female foeticide in the State. While Mr Gehlot used the occasion as a welcome photo-opportunity, the fact remains that his Government has done nothing over the years to punish the accused. Government doctors who had been caught in the sting operation continued in their posts, with some being promoted even, according to the journalists who had conducted the sting operation.
But look at it in another way. Politicians like Mr Gehlot have not really gained mileage with Aamir Khan’s visit, but they stand further exposed by such a visit. It’s as if the actor-producer is saying, almost mockingly: “Here I am, seeking justice from a Chief Minister who has done nothing so far to bring the culprits to book. Will he have the courage to act now?”
It’s a question the actor-producer will need to ask more people more often as he proceeds with his programme.

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