Sunday, 13 May 2012

Aamir Khan on Satyameva Jayate

Aamir Khan’s 13-episode Satyameva Jayate which fuses together the mass appeal of celebrity with the mass reach of the TV medium to raise awareness on social issues, is already the toast of drawing rooms. But it has also sparked questions: do hi-glitz shows such as this have a lasting impact? Or could this, like other shows, end up being just another platform to peddle products? Aamir spoke to Namrata Joshi in Jaipur. Excerpts:

Did you expect the programme would strike such a chord?
I was hoping it would be this huge. It has been a dream response.

Is the response due to the issue, the cause or the sheer power of your stardom?
No, it’s not about my stardom. Perhaps in a broad way people would come to the show thinking let’s see what he is saying. But it’s a combination of the research work of my team and the strength of TV which can, potentially, take change to every home. I am the via media in getting people to watch the show, to see the extraordinary stories of ordinary people.

Female foeticide (the topic of the first episode) has been much covered in the media. But Aamir Khan has got everyone talking about it now. Is the star turning into a citizen journalist here?
I am happy to be called a journalist. The first phase of our job, when we were dealing with research work I was a journalist. What I am doing here is empowering the viewers with 360 degree information on an issue. The information is emotional, social, legal, economic about the possible solutions and the way forward. Of course it is limited to my understanding of it. How my team and I, to the best of our ability, have understood various issues after two years of research.
But I get creative when it comes to taking that material to people. I am interested in reaching people on a human level. It's about what is the most effective way to touch your hearts. I am using entertainment to reach out. Which is not to say I am using fun and games. It's more about underlining things with emotions. Like I did with the issue of childcare and education in a film like Taare Zameen Par. The information people get from a newspaper and magazine article doesn't change their heart. Very few people cry on reading newspapers. I try to affect them emotionally.

The show has been criticised by some for being too manipulative...
I am using honest emotions to say something good. Look at the manner in which I open the show. I talk about mothers and motherhood. Then go on to pick one mother to show how we treat our mothers. I don't say the word foeticide immediately at the start of the show but after two cases have been discussed. I gradually take you to the issue. I am a communicator. I scare you with its eventualities when I talk of women being bought and sold. I am not limited by the format of an article. I am on a general entertainment channel. I am a person who makes feature films. These are my skillsets and I am using them to deal with the issues. Am good at engaging with people emotionally. That's what I have a passion for and am good at and I am using that ability.

Do such shows bring about change? Or do people engage and move on?
Often the stance on any problem is why doesn't the police, the government do something about it. However, here I am asking people to do what I am doing myself which is to look within and ask what am I doing about it. It's not about physical action but an internal, personal journey. The biggest change we can bring about is in ourselves. I am not asking people to come on the roads and take out a dharna. Three crore female foetuses have been aborted in the last 30-40 years. Female foeticide is a crime planned in our bedrooms and we can't have cops in the bedrooms to monitor us. But if we get even a hint that something like this is being planned in our family or by our friends we can create a ruckus. I won't tell you to decide. I won't judge you if you don't do anything. The choice has to be yours, I can't force it on you. I hope people do find courage and desire to change. So if a doctor who has been involved in foeticides decides after seeing the show that he or she won't do it anymore bas mera kaam ho gaya. Even if one girl child is saved then the show is a success.

I will be on TV. I will also be on Vividh Bharati, AIR, Radio Mirchi, Star News. I will write a column in HT. With every issue I want to go wide on many platforms. It's a deep and concentrated approach to reach out in as many different ways as possible. I hope it will make people understand an issue for a life. I hope it will have them converted for life.

People are critical of the way you get involved with a cause and then get out. For instance, the Narmada protest, which you joined briefly.
I find it a very faulty critique. It's actually your desire of seeing me as a full time, 24X7 social activist. I am not that. It's not what I claim to be. I can agree, support, endorse but I can't leave my job which is films. Talaash is delayed right now. But I will go back to it. Am doing Dhoom 3 and P.K. next. But I will continue to support causes while doing my work. I can't measure up to the 500% expectations that you have of me. I am consistent with what I am committing myself to. It's like I have just said that I will come and have tea with you but it's you who are assuming that I am going to come and live with you for life. If my involvement with an issue seems less to you then why don't you do the good work?

You can question me two months hence that you had done a show on this issue and why don't you remain with it your entire life. According to me it's for the state and administration to take forward the job. You, as an individual, also need to take a call, be responsible and decisive.

There are whispers about your charging Rs 3 crore per episode for a show on serious social issues...
I never discuss my fee. But since you asked I am getting Rs 3.5 crore per episode. Firstly what I get is none of anyone's business. Main apni mehnat ki kama aur khaa raha hoon. [I am earning and enjoying the benefits of my hard-work]. I am not doing anything wrong. Main izzat se, achchaa kaam karke roti kama raha hoon aur mujhe fakr hai is baat ka [I am honourably, by doing good work, earning my bread, and I am proud of it]. Secondly to clear the misconception this amount includes the cost of the episode also. The bulk of the money goes into the cost and some of the episodes may have overshot the amount. Thirdly, I have endorsements deals of about Rs 100-125 crore per year. I have stopped them for a year while the show is on. There's no logic in the decision, it's purely emotional. But tell me who has ever said no to Rs 100 crore for a cause?

So what issues do we see next?
We started off with 20 topics of which we fleshed out 16 and eventually locked in 13. These are topics which affect every Indian. But the topic of next week will not be revealed in advance. Even when I start the episode you wouldn't know immediately. It's not just the topic that's important but also on how I present it and get you engaged and involved with it.

Will you discuss contentious political topics like Gujarat, Kashmir, North East?
The issues will be social more than political. At this point I want to concentrate only on social issues. But it's impossible to cut away political aspects from any issue. Also if we bring about change in the people and their perceptions our political processes will also change over time.
You'll see all kinds of India: the India I have seen. There are heart-breaking and traumatic stories, inspiring stories of great courage and high values and ideals.

Do we see you taking to politics like stars abroad?
I have always been categorical about my no to politics. Political alignments, party affiliations I am not interested in.


Jump cut - His Star Grounded
He was not aspiring to be Balraj Sahni. He was a superstar and he wanted to be accorded his rightful place.
Bishwadeep Moitra

The summer of 2007 brought me a rather unusual invitation. Unusual, because the round table conference in Florida that I was invited to participate in—pompously called the Leadership Project—had little in common with my vocation. But the real hook for me was the opportunity to meet Aamir Khan, who too had been invited—and had consented to come.

Aamir came across like the character he had played in Dil Chahta Hai, charmingly unassuming. He took his wife Kiran Rao’s environmental concerns seriously. When she objected to the engine of our monstrous safari jeep idling every time we stopped for a sighting in the 7,400-acre Wild Oak park, Aamir dutifully went up to the driver and asked him to switch the engine off.

Finally, after doing our bit to save the world in three sessions, we had some time to luxuriate at the sprawling facility. All of us had been allotted chalets to be shared with a fellow delegate. Aamir and Kiran, of course, had been given a chalet of their own, complete with a swimming pool and a sauna. They very generously invited some of us to hang out in their chalet. And what an afternoon it turned out to be.

Aamir’s entourage consisted of a three-member personal staff. A bodyguard who doubled as a physical trainer, another who did his suitcases, and a third who was his feeder (read on). Aamir was about to shoot for Ghajini and had to look big and brawny. Mr Feeder’s job was to make sure Aamir followed the dietary regimen. Every hour, he would bring an egg yolk balanced precariously on a spoon to pour into Aamir’s mouth. This, a rather strange ritual, went about in a very matter-of-fact way.

All evening, Aamir regaled us with anecdotes about the co-stars, producers, directors he had worked with, and his family with great candour. He told us that when Tahir Hussain (Aamir’s producer-father) offered Jeetendra a double-role, Jumping Jack quipped: “Mujhse ek role ki acting to hoti nahin hai, double role kaise karoonga!” He said he watched few films, but read a lot. He didn’t think much of Sholay or any other film—save his own.

Our adda eventually thinned out and I could feel the star becoming more at ease. But I could also sense a rancour. Aamir could not hide his disappointment that he was still not regarded like a Amitabh Bachchan or a Dilip Kumar despite two decades of stardom and a dozen runaway hits. Ghajini, Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots had not yet happened; another Khan was King.

Aamir felt Shahrukh Khan managed the media very well, giving the impression that SRK’s movies were all superhits. He rattled off box-office figures to prove that all of his movies had fared better than SRK’s. The Aamir Khan I was now chatting with had shades of Satyajit Ray’s protagonist Arindam Mukherjee, played by Uttam Kumar, in Nayak. A superstar at the helm of stardom, struggling to be at peace with himself.

I then advance a meek defence, saying, “Outlook has put you on its cover twice.” To which Aamir charged, “But India Today had me on its cover three times.” I said, “Look Aamir, the dignity and gravitas you bring with the characters you play and the high probity you display in public life makes you the modern-day Balraj Sahni, a fine actor and an exemplary citizen.”

The moment he heard the B-word, Aamir’s expression changed from an accommodative amiability to a grim grey.

By way of placation, I attempted another salvo. “When Amitabh Bachchan, hailing from a literary family, wanted to join the debauched film industry, his first director in Saat Hindustani, K.A. Abbas, cited Balraj Sahni to AB’s father Harivanshrai: ‘An industry with which a man like Balraj Sahni could associate himself, your son too should be able to survive honourably’,” I said.

Aamir saw red. He was not aspiring to be Balraj Sahni. He was a superstar and he wanted to be accorded his rightful place. Saat saal baad, surely he has got it?

Bishwadeep Moitra is executive editor, Outlook

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