Shining light on inequities such as the rampant abortion of female fetuses, caste discrimination and the murder of brides in dowry disputes, actor Aamir Khan has reached an estimated one-third of the country with a TV talk show that tackles persistent flaws of modern India that many of its citizens would prefer to ignore.
“Satyamev Jayate”, or “Truth Alone Prevails,” is a clever blend of hard news and raw emotional appeal — part “60 Minutes,” part Oprah Winfrey. Its influence has even prodded the notoriously lethargic government machinery into action, although it is too soon to know what policy changes may be in the works.
Indians have not seen anything quite like this. Hard-hitting talk shows are rare and certainly none has acquired even a fraction of the popularity and buzz Mr. Khan’s has generated since its debut 11 weeks ago. Bollywood superstars usually venture into television only to host glitzy game or reality shows.
For many middle-class Indians — comfortable in their belief that their country has moved beyond most of these problems — Mr. Khan’s show has been a gut-wrenching and poignant dose of bitter reality.
“Definitely it’s reminding people that there are problems within our society,” said Narendra Kumar, an environmental researcher in New Delhi. “It’s also creating discussions and sometimes helping people find solutions to the problems.”
In the opening episode of Mr. Khan’s program in May, Ameesha Yagnik haltingly recalled how her husband forced her to abort six female fetuses in eight years. She also said he threw her out of the house and refused to let her meet their infant daughter for months until she agreed to divorce him.
Mr. Khan and his audience were in tears.
The show forced Paromita Dey to confront an act she had tried to bury.
Four years ago, Mrs. Dey and her husband Souporno — already parents of a teenage daughter — ended a pregnancy because she was carrying another girl. Like millions of Indian families, they wanted a son.
“Yes, I killed my baby because she was a girl,” a shaken Mrs. Dey said, sitting in her home in a posh neighborhood in the northern city of Lucknow.
Census after census has revealed that fewer and fewer girls are being born, despite strict laws against sex-selective abortions and a slew of failed government incentives and programs.
Yet Mr. Khan’s show created such an outpouring of outrage that the government of the western state of Rajasthan, with one of the most-skewed gender ratios, promised action, and a village head there formed a committee to check against the practice.
“It’s both ironic and amusing that it took an actor from Bollywood to shine a light on the yawning gaps in Indian journalism,” political commentator Tavleen Singh wrote in a recent column.
The show has done “what we hacks should have been doing over and over again,” she wrote.
Mr. Khan, 47, began his career in Bollywood as a romantic hero in the late 1980s. In the past decade, he has broken new ground in Bollywood, fashioning a career path combining the social consciousness of George Clooney with the hero appeal of Tom Cruise.
Now one of the industry’s very biggest stars, he has the cachet to push through any project he chooses. He produced, directed and acted in a film about the journey of a misunderstood dyslexic child. His film “3 Idiots” examined the sorry state of India’s education system. He has thrown his weight behind social causes — joining anti-dam protesters and embracing an anti-corruption activist. The talk show has cemented his status as Bollywood’s first true activist-star.
Mr. Khan initially was asked to host a TV game show. He refused.
“I want to do something dynamically different,” he told Open magazine. “I continued to think about it, and slowly this idea was conceived.”
“Satyamev Jayate” has tackled many horrors unique to India: the torture and murder of young brides for bringing insufficient dowries to their in-laws, and the shunning and degradation of those at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy.
Others topics such as alcoholism and child sexual abuse are more universal but made worse by a conservative culture unwilling to deal with the issues.
The program is broadcast on several networks estimated to reach about 400 million people in India. Mr. Khan’s reputation as a thinking person’s superstar adds to the show’s credibility, but for the most part he keeps to the background — only speaking when someone looks lost for words or to explain something to his audience.
Mr. Khan interviewed a university professor who had battled years of discrimination for being a dalit - the lowest Hindu caste. Kaushal Panwar spoke about being taunted in her village school, about not being allowed to drink water from the same clay pot as upper-caste children.
Mr. Khan interjected only a few times, mostly to give Ms. Panwar time to hold back her tears, and once to admonish his audience and viewers .
“If I believe an accident of birth makes me superior to you, that is a mental illness,” he said.
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