Here's how Satyamev Jayate hides the truth!

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 20, 2012 12:47 hrs

The often depthless and exclusionary handling of issues exposes the truth about Satyamev Jayate says Satyen K Bordoloi.

The ostrich is a peculiar bird. Confronted by a problem, it buries its head in the sand and pretends that the problem does not exist.

There is another creature that has made this sandy escape into a fine art - the great Indian middle class.

Why else would our nation - with such high growth rates - be grappling with almost every conceivable issue and problem ever known to humankind?

The answer is simple: the ostrich has its head buried in the sand.

At a subconscious level though, the middle class is aware of the many festering wounds inside this land mass called India. But instead of taking up the broom collectively to clean up the nation, they have - from time to time - outsourced this most sacred of jobs to various messiahs.

And ambitious men through the ages have taken advantage of this crippling habit, to anoint themselves their saviours. Recently, there was Anna Hazare who was relatively successful.

Then a saffron clad man called Baba Ramdev woke up one day, feeling he was too grand to merely stay a yoga guru - he continues to harbour dreams of running the nation. 

Since May 2012, India has seen the rise of a more charismatic wannabe messiah - Aamir Khan.

Click here to read this column as a slideshow

We've heard the lavish praises already: rarely in the history of television has anyone put the power of the medium to such good use. Rarely has a man who had no need to do a show like this done it for the 'greater, common good'. Rarely has any superstar anywhere in the world been so selfless, so giving.

A million eulogies have been penned for Aamir Khan and Satyamev Jayate. While nobody can deny that good has indeed been done by the show, such blanket praise masks truths staring at us and prevents a kind of critical reading that is a must for a show that itself critiques social wrongs.

TV - The Media of Mass Illusions

Television, sociologists argue, has made zombies out of men. It is a medium that is dumbing us down so much that our attention span is the most endangered of all species.

Yet, TV gives us the illusion that we know more about the world and its issues than we did before.

TV today is an instrument of mass deception where most news misinforms us, entertainment is rarely anything more than gossip and debates are a loud rattling of the same empty vessels over and over again, organised by emptier and louder hosts. 

By telling you more and more about things that matter less and less (though there are a few notable exceptions), TV blinds you to the truth that may be lying at your door step.

TV is the ostrich's sand for the great Indian middle class where they shrink-wrap their brains and abandon empathy.

Satyamev Jayate flits between being a glimpse of the reality of this nation and an attempt to consciously hide some facts about our biggest problems with melodrama and rhetoric. 

Every Sunday we watch programs sanitised to suit middle-class taste buds. We cry. We feel a little guilt, but hardly any anger. 

If we're feeling extra lucky, we'll send an SMS so that our Rs 2 goes to the cause. We might even donate to the said NGO once in a while. 

And then what? We go back to life as usual, till next week the cycle is repeated and we get the illusion that we know about an issue. But neither are we any wiser to investigate more, or angry enough to take some affirmative action.

If you disagree, do pause for a moment and try to think if YOU have done any more about the issues aired. 

Have you called up an NGO working for the cause celebre, or have you been smarter and tried direct intervention? 

Have you even participated in a rally against something wrong? Have you surfed the internet to find out a little more about a certain issue you cried copious tears for? 

Well, do you at least recollect the 11 issues that have been aired so far?

Satyamev Jayate and Causes

Despite its claims, Satyamev Jayate is often not about issues or causes - which are often merely like the outer shell of an egg, strong enough to hold the eatable part inside i.e. the success stories - but is in itself unpalatable and discarded weekly for a new one.

Satyamev Jayate, like the magazine Readers Digest, is actually a clever celebration of ordeals of people who have fought the odds. 

You thus rejoice that the woman whose face was bitten off by her husband is finally free of the monster. Or laugh and cry with the brilliant blind man who overcame all obstacles to be a professor in IIT. Or thank heavens that the Dalit woman who faced apartheid all her life managed to overcome it in the end. 

You are sad at the plight of these brave women and men, you empathise with them, you celebrate with them while sometimes feeling a little guilt, but you are rarely - if at all - angry about what caused those problems in the first place.

The show works desperately hard and succeeds in not making you angry. It thus rounds off the edges, makes you cry and laugh so that by the end of it you feel a sense of catharsis. 

Like commercial cinema, it introduces the grave tragedy, the brave protagonists and the story of how they have emerged successful through blood, sweat and tears. And like at the end of a film, though you cry you are also happy, as if you have been purged of a huge load. 

In an attempt to get more eyeballs, the show thus abandons depth. The people in the show, by clever editing, merely become actors who serve their purpose to a clockwork precision. 

If they had really intended to reform the nation or help the cause, they would have worked hard to make you feel angry, frustrated and left you with an incomplete feeling and a lingering notion that what you just saw was not enough and that you need to do more. 

Ironically it leaves you with a sense of fulfilment and completion, elation even, which does alarmingly little for the cause it espouses. 

Even a cursory reading of world history will show you that unless you are truly pissed, no lasting change will come in your society or the world. 

Yes, inspired by the show, the NGOs will get a little more money and through that and the direct involvement of a few thousand more people, a few thousand people will definitely benefit. But for how long?

Satyamev Jayate gives people a false feeling that they know enough about the issues when in reality, it rarely even properly skims the surface and often carefully sweeps contentious issues under the rug.

Secondly, it is extremely exclusionary in nature. Either deliberately or unknowingly, the show forgets to mention some very important points, persons, movements, etc.

Depthless and Exclusionary

Let's take the show on disability. Fifty percent of the disabled are women. 

In a patriarchal society, a woman is seen as someone who builds the household. 

A disabled woman is an outsider here - she lives in a body not "desirable" for men and hence is rejected by society. While it is easier for disabled men to get educated, the journey becomes doubly difficult for women. These and other points found no mention in the show.

Interviewing a woman with disability, and talking about the issues she faced, could have rectified this.

Secondly, a disabled man in a wheelchair, Javed Abidi, sat next to Aamir Khan and talked about how everything in the country, including schools and colleges, exclude the disabled by not having ramps. 

In such a case, people with disability suffer a loss of dignity as they have to suffer the humiliating ordeal of having themselves or their wheelchairs lifted physically, often by strangers, to their destination. 

If you noticed, there was no ramp, even a temporary one for this episode, that could have taken Abidi to the stage.

The episode on Dalit issues also skirted talking about the very man who made the few success stories you saw possible - Dr B R Ambedkar. 

Why? Because he is no hero to the affluent middle class of India.

Despite Ambedkar's immense contributions to removing injustice in the country, most Indians  hardly know about him because he is not taught in depth in schools. Instead, he is tacitly hated because he made the servants and subservient classes of India aware of their rights. He stole much of the power and thunder from under the hands of the great Indian 'Hindu' middle class.

So, Ambedkar and his inspiring struggle to free the Dalits of the country - a fight bigger  in scope and scale than even the American Civil Rights movement for the nation's African-American population - did not find a mention.

Neither did some very shocking statistics about Dalits, for example, at least two Dalits are raped and three killed every day in this country. (Figure taken from Anand Patwardhan's seminal film on the civil rights movement of the Dalits in recent times, Jai Bhim Comrade).

That Satyamev Jayate is a show for, of and by the middle class - especially the Hindu middle class, becomes abundantly clear.

Every episode has some or the other such loopholes which undermines the extreme gravity of the issues.  

The Problem with Tears

Tears are therapeutic. That is the reason why we watch emotional, tearful and melodramatic films. We cry, but it makes us feel good, happy and fulfilled.

But tears should be handled with extreme caution in a show on serious issues. You don't want people to get cleansed 'off' of an extremely serious topic.

The problem with tears is that when you cry and thus reach an emotional resolution for any issue like you do in Satyamev Jayate, you escape liability for doing anything about it because your emotions have come full circle - from the initial awareness to empathic tears.

In just 18 tear-soaked minutes, you saw the story of the Sanskrit scholar who reached her position of achievement after over 25 years of struggle.

Tears have a strange habit - they wash away guilt, culpability and thus liability for your actions. Tears, in such cases, can become extremely vain. 

If you've cried for something where you have reached and emotional acceptance of the issue, chances are you won't do something about it.

Different Types of Issues

At a very simplistic level, there are two types of issues we fight for.

Nobody from the politically correct Indian middle class will publicly contest subjects like female foeticide, domestic violence, dowry, and child sexual abuse, and they will not accept their culpability even though they might be doing it.

On the other hand, controversial issues are those that have a large and extreme polarisation and there can be no consensus on them - think Kashmir, insurgency in the north-east, Maoism in central India, the identity of the Indian  Muslim, reservation, homosexuality, militant Hinduism, etc.

Satyamev Jayate walks a very safe line where it has tried to stay conveniently away from controversy. Even when it does touch a hardcore issue, like in the Dalit episode, it conveniently sidesteps some very important points and oversimplifies them. Perhaps 'truth, and nothing but the truth' isn't really the intention of the show?

Sugar-coated Stories

The biggest argument made in favour of the show is that it is at least bringing the issues out in the limelight. Hordes of people are talking about how the show is exposing topics that we've never talked about in the past. 

That is indeed true, but as has been shown by Aamir Khan himself in the very first episode on female foeticide with those two journalists, the issues he covers have been tackled endless times before. Considering that serious problems deserve more attention, Aamir Khan and the show deserve praise. 

But it could have done better than to use these issues as a mere cover to showcase tearful but feel-good success stories. Secondly, much of the seriousness is lost because the complexity and depth of the issues are lost in over simplification and dumbing down. 

Perhaps one could argue that there isn't time to go deep. But there can always be time for a passing mention of the deeper issues. E.g. like Navayana publisher S Anand argues in his column in the Outlook titled 'Silence-Eva Jayate', that it is almost a sacrilege to talk about the Dalit issue without either talking about Ambedkar or Reservation, the person and the policy that has helped millions to get out of the horrors of untouchability and live a life of dignity.

Aamir Khan's pandering to the middle class perspective takes the punch and power out of an extremely poignant and contentious issue.

Will you call Reader's Digest which does a lot of success stories of people fighting and succeeding against odds, an activist magazine or one rooting for social change? It's a feel good, inspiring magazine whose intention is clear. 

The problem with Satyamev Jayate is that it is exactly that - a feel good, inspirational video magazine that disguises itself as a socially conscious, morally upright show that intends to change society.

Society is not changed by these sugar coated stories. It is changed by angry, informed and aware citizens. And anger is the last emotion they want to raise in this sanitised series.

A lot could have also been done with the hours and hours of recording for each episode, either done inside the studio or in the field. These perspectives could have been put up on their YouTube channel so that those interested in exploring further could do so. And either Aamir Khan, or a little scroll during the show, could have guided people to this web resource.

Check out more of Satyen K Bordoloi's writing

Aamir Khan or Bharat Khan?

Aamir Khan has been praised for taking 'only' 3 crore per show (as if this amount is less) when he could have done something else and earned more.

Rs 3 crore indeed seems 'less' for a 'superstar' of his stature when one considers that other moronic stars sometimes charge many lakhs to crores just to cut ribbons. 

Yet, what people don't see is something very obvious. Since the show is produced by Aamir Khan's own company, Aamir Khan Productions, the profits go nowhere but to his bank account.

One also needs to understand that a star's power is in his branding and stars take up 'causes' based on their branding. Thus Akshay Kumar donates lakhs to a martial arts school and spends much more to hold martial arts competitions, besides hosting a TV show like Khatron Ke Khiladi

Amitabh Bachchan's stature as a popular veteran and Shah Rukh Khan's gift of the gab make them perfectly suited for Kaun Banega Crorepati. Salman Khan's brazen life makes him perfect for Bigg Boss

What suits brand Aamir?

The answer lies in his past, where patriotism and nationalism have become his calling card from a Sarfarosh where he fights terrorism, to Lagaan where he stands up against the mighty British rule to Rang De Basanti where his character stands up against a corrupt system. 

In other films like Taare Zameen Par and Peepli Live, his focus has been social issues. Hence, Satyamev Jayate is the perfect fit for 'Brand Aamir'.

Secondly, what people don't realise is that for film stars, advertising and TV are the easiest ways to make money. A film may take six months to a year to make and yet big stars might get paid only Rs 15-20 crore for it. 

In TV, however, Aamir Khan gets Rs 3 crore a day. Let's assume that for two years he has done nothing but this show (we all know he has done films and the bulk of the work for the show been done by his team). So, for 13 episodes, assuming he gets Rs 3 crore, he has made Rs 39 crore. Almost as much as he would make by acting in two to three films that would take exactly that much time or more.

So, he is not being charitable in taking 'just' Rs 3 crore per show. He is being smart and just to himself.

Besides, would anything else have fit the branding he has painstakingly made for himself as a patriotic, different, intelligent and socially conscious star so well?

Satyamev Jayate was a winner from the moment he conceived it and proves why he is considered a marketing genius.

The show is a masterstroke for Aamir Khan because with one stroke, he has programmed himself as the new Mr Bharat. If Manoj Kumar was Bharat Kumar, Aamir Khan after Satyamev Jayate has become his sequel or rather, he has become Bharat Khan.

Fans of Aamir thus need to remember that Aamir Khan needed the show and the issues perhaps more than the issues needed him.

In 2010, the Government of India sought amendments to the archaic Copyright Bill. Aamir Khan was one of a 10-member committee constituted to look into it.

One of the key amendments sought was to give creators of works - like writers, lyricists, music composers and singers - the right to their creation and thus a shot at royalty, something practiced in most countries. But being a producer himself, Aamir Khan took the side of producers - debating against this point in the amendment.

He went to claim that a song's popularity depended on the stars they were pictured on, and not their music or lyrics. To this, Javed Akhtar reminded him that Papa Kehte Hai, the song from his first film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak became a hit despite Aamir being a newcomer.

Instead of having the grace to admit to his mistake, Aamir resigned from the government-constituted body and wrote to Kapil Sibal, "Aggression of this type leaves me feeling very disillusioned and sad and I am unable to function."

Did self-interest triumph over truth, justice and fairness in this case?

Philanthropy Partners. Really?

The involvement of those like Coca-Cola and the philanthropy partners in Reliance Foundation prove wrong the claims that the show did not financially milk itself enough. It did that, but in a roundabout way.

Coca-Cola is not just responsible for the eviction of thousands and thousands of villagers and pollution of dozens of villages in the country, but drinking cola, as researches have shown, is detrimental for kids and adults.

Then we have the Reliance Foundation which is headed by a woman who is part of a business-family responsible for building the world's most expensive, unlived-in house in a city where over 60 per cent people live in filth and squalor in slums.

Praising the show and Aamir Khan is all right, but to give him a stature of demigod is just nearsighted.  

Strangely though, at another level, one cannot even blame Aamir Khan for this. He clearly states that Satyamev Jayate is an entertainment show (though isn't it even morally reprehensible to try to find or claim to find 'entertainment' in such serious subjects). He claims no seriousness (though he assumes the airs of it), but the middle class, eager for saviours, is quick to anoint him 'The One' despite serious moral and ethical lapses.

All of us, especially his fans, need to remember that he is not sacrificing anything. Instead, in a stroke of genius and business acumen that he is well known for, he has figured out how to make as much money from a morally conscious, socially relevant show as others do from shows exactly the opposite.

It is great that Aamir Khan has championed causes that activists, social workers and civil society have been raising their voices against for a long time. 

But there is a great danger in this corporate-funded behaviour. The message of Satyamev Jayate hidden in plain sight, is that unless corporates put their money into social issues, unless these issues become financially feasible, unless it is non-contentious and acceptable to everyone, unless it panders to the lowest common denominator and unless a superstar sprinkles star dust on the issue on TV, we will fail to see and hence won't solve issues even when they lie in plain sight and even when they affect us all. 

A world where pain is no pain unless it causes empathy on television is a sad, disturbing world indeed.

It is also sad for a discerning viewer to see that having brought people in on an issue, after getting them to empathise with it even if at a mellower level, it simply abandons the issue for another the next week..

The problem is people don't demand enough from themselves, their governments and even from a show which could indeed do much more if only the masses raised their expectations.

It will take much more depth than Satyamev Jayate permits currently, to raise the head of the ostrich of the great Indian middle class from its sands of illusion.

Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.

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