A Bollywood Actor Goes Deadly Serious on TV

It was perhaps one of the most awaited television programs ever to be produced in India. The top billing was because it is being hosted by India’s number one Bollywood star, Aamir Khan, who appears able to produce both blatantly commercial and meaningful cinema with equal élan.

Aamir is thus the latest to join a growing cadre of Hindi movie stars who over the past few years have joined the gold rush for a transition to television, attracted by the large audience reach and the big profits that can be raked in.

However, he has done it in a new way that has caught the attention of social commentators and critics, shining the spotlight in his first episode last Sunday on female infanticide, a horrifying problem that has skewed India’s sex ratio, turning many North Indian populations into only-male settlements. The second this weekend was on child abuse, another sensitive issue.

What’s more, he ordered the full episodes uploaded onto high-definition YouTube within hours of the broadcast, so far unheard of in India.

That he chose such subjects, and chose to make them free on YouTube says much about both his seriousness as a commentator and the trashy state of most of India’s television. Aamir could have chosen to do a quiz show or judge a dance competition with much less effort. Given his star power, the profit-making would have continued.

By any measure, India is deficient in a depressing range of development indices such as provision of adequate health services, child care and primary education. A majority of the country continues to be poor, grappling with many issues – poverty, disease, child-labor, lack of civic amenities, high rates of rape and road accidents, infrastructure issues, woeful health and education facilities. Infectious diseases abound such as tuberculosis, which continues to kill two people every three minutes every day, or nearly 1,000 deaths daily.

However, these almost never appear on television. Perhaps given television’s role as an escape vehicle, the medium now pervades most of the country along with Coke and Pepsi, with advertising driving the economics. That takes high TRP ratings – “Television Rating Points,” an Indian version of Nielsen ratings in the west, an audience-measurement tool that indicates the popularity of channels or programs within channels that help advertisers decide where to place their money.

The riches in television have drawn a plethora of Bollywood A-listers who have thus taken the TV plunge, including Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar, to name some. Any follower of Indian cinema would know that the above mentioned stars invite top billing. Like cricketers, Hindi film stars are given godlike status in India.

Most A-listers have tried to fit into the TRP ratings-driven TV programming that is the order of the day, however -- hooking audiences by orchestrating high-intensity drama on the screen that shocks, spooks and in general raises adrenalin levels.

In short, most of the stuff on offer is pretty much mindless, apart from the impressive range of some overseas channels such as BBC, Discovery or National Geographic that have a global focus.

Indian TV subscription packages today comprise mostly soaps themed around unreal family intrigues that target bored-in-the-afternoon housewives looking to spice up their lives vicariously. The main protagonists of such serials are overdressed women scheming after men and money.

The news cycle is little better. Due to the competition from the TV serials, a lot of the human-interest matters ranging from murder to suicide, love affairs or marriages gone awry are dramatized into compelling story formats. In sports, slam-bang T20 cricket dominates. Lately, bruising, jaw-breaking cage fighting with instant spurts of blood and gore has made its local debut.

In keeping with such a degenerate TV philosophy, some of the top Bollywood actors have endorsed reality shows such as Bigg Boss that tend to assemble a ragtag group of loudmouthed nobodies trying to attract attention via contrived quarrels, sexual chemistry and more brainless activity.

Other stars have turned to becoming quiz/game show hosts offering astronomical monetary gains to winners, cashing in the get-rich quick aspirations of a rising portion of India’s population. That is a theme that found international resonance in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, in which a young man from Mumbai slums appears triumphantly in the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The movie won eight Oscars in 2009.

There are also quite a few celebrity interview formats, where the same set of stars are recycled for their bytes on relationships, food, fitness regimen, hobbies and sex. For the uninitiated, basing views about India watching the stuff aired on TV would be misleading.

There was much anticipation about Aamir’s foray into TV. Followers of his cinema have come to expect something different, sometimes mindless and also cerebral from the actor. Yet, one underlying feature about Aamir’s movies is that they have been out-and-out money spinners. Aamir has managed to successfully make his large audiences cry, think, laugh and be entertained.

His movie range has included Peepli Live, which spoofed 24/7 news networks; Ghajini, a violent love story, Taare Zameen Par about kids learning disabilities and Rang De Basanti about the angst of youth against a corrupt system. At times Aamir has chosen to bank on the typical Bollywood masala stuff – aggressive hip thrusting dance moves, relentless chasing of the heroine around trees, melodrama and mindless humor that is locally referred as good time pass and paisa vasool (value for money). The movies include Andaz Apna Apna or Raja Hindustani.

Now he has done it again. He has turned the established genre of TV programming on its head. The focus of his new TV show, Satyamev Jayate – India’s motto, which means ‘Truth only triumphs,” was called by one television critic “the biggest social changing television series,” whose purpose is “to highlight social issues that India as a society does not to talk about and keep under the rug. Issues like child sex abuse, female foeticide have been discussed so far. The show brings these shows to light, discusses them, and asks for Indians to come together against these issues. The show host uses his star power to gather support and bring these issues out of the closet—which is amazing for a rather conservative society like India.”

The initiative should, perhaps, have been taken by the news channels. But there is not much play in the mainstream media due to the low response from advertisers and sponsors. The actor deserves kudos for putting the medium of TV, with its vast reach, to such good use.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com.)