Nothing underlines the power of celebrity as much as the outpouring of public reaction to Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan’s new television show. The issue of sex selection and female infanticide is hardly a new or undocumented one, and stories similar to the heart-rending ones we saw last week have been brought to us before, even on television. And yet, it seemed as if all of urban India awoke to this problem with a startled yelp one Sunday morning, thanks to a TV programme. The kind of attention that the issue received, entirely on account of a star’s backing, seemed to eclipse the years of hard work by activists, journalists and writers, and in a manner that borders on the cruel.
And yet, it would be a mistake to attribute the public response, both good and bad, solely to the presence of a celebrity. For one, if Aamir were to be replaced by another celebrity, the effect would not have been the same. There might be others who might be able to pull it off, but the choice would be determined not by the scale of their fame, but by the nature of their reputation.
More importantly, it is Aamir’s ability to begin with an idea, execute it without compromise, and find ways to make it valuable to the consuming ecosystem that makes his effort so remarkable. In some ways, what works for him is not his celebrity but his obstinacy. Here we have a show that airs across channels, including Doordarshan, at a time slot long abandoned by advertisers and viewers, dealing with subjects far removed from entertainment, dealt with in an unremittingly grim manner, and which ends up being followed by us as if it were a prime-time entertainment show, full of glitz, glamour and East European cheerleaders. The most remarkable thing about Satyamev Jayate is that it takes everything that the market swears is commercial disaster, repackages it and forces the same market to pay obeisance.
Those who criticise the high fees rumoured to be charged by Aamir miss the point altogether, for his ability to make money at commercial rates is precisely what makes this show a true radical breakthrough. It underlines the fact that a real celebrity brand, by which I mean someone who stands for not fame, but a driving idea and belief, and acts accordingly without compromise, can shape the market and bend it to his or her will. Aamir Khan is not a social crusader like a George Clooney, who uses his fame to support a cherished cause, but an entrepreneur who sees social ills as a market that needs to be catered to. He manages to reconcile the mostly incompatible ideas of commercial viability and rarefied cause and restores to the market some notion of social legitimacy.
And unlike others who come from the market, he is able to protect the purity of his idea from what are touted as the deadening compulsions of the market ecosystem. He caters to the market by not pandering to it, but by sensing its unarticulated and barely discernible needs. At a time when the market works hard at flattening out choice and drowning us in sameness, where television channels vie with each other in bringing us versions of the same banality, Aamir’s ability to make this show and command a price for it is proof that the market can operate at a more elevated level, that the current epidemic of sameness is a function not of some inherent mechanism at work, but of its unimaginative use.
That does not mean that the market plays no role at all. The outer limits of possibilities do get defined by the fact that this is, after all, a commercial proposition. Truly contentious issues are unlikely to be covered, and the somewhat spurious and contrived call to action at the end reduces a complex issue to a postcard or sms message that will allegedly change the world is a product of the needs of television and the urge felt by viewers to “do something real”. Also, every issue, no matter how pressing, gets only a week to sort itself out.
And what about bringing about social change? Unlikely, given the nature of the problems we are talking about. Of course, the show might well heighten awareness, enable the efforts of those doing real work at the ground level, and get the issue out of the denial closet, where it is currently ensconced. But it is a little unrealistic to expect a film star and a TV show to change the world. Even on Twitter, that touchstone of the terminally excitable, the show trended only for a single day. Satyamev Jayate is a television show and a powerful one at that, but it will not make us better people. What it might do is help the market finds its better self.
(Adman and social commentator Santosh Desai is author of Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India)