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Jaya Hey to Jai Ho to Jayate: Sumana Roy

May 27, 2012

Guest post by SUMANA ROY

I watch Satyamev Jayate on Doordarshan. The word ‘National’ below the Doordarshan logo seems rather appropriate for Aamir Khan’s show about issues of mass frustration. In one of the many interviews that prefaced the airing of his show, the kind of airgun shooting that now heralds any and every kind of release – films, books, television shows, automobiles, increasingly, even babies – Aamir Khan said that he argued with channel producers who wanted to give it a prime-time slot: ‘I wanted to telecast my show on Sunday morning. I want each family to watch the show and connect with it. We have watched Ramayana and Mahabharata and it used to come on Sunday morning. The shows created a different atmosphere’.

Sunday mornings, as every churchgoer knows, is possible confession time. In an India just before economic liberalisation, the Hindu epics were broadcast in the brunch slot. After a heavy breakfast, middle class India watched the victory of Good over Evil in weekly instalments. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharata created a national audience whose identity, even if shifting, was temporarily Hindu. It would be improper to forget that the broadcast of these serials was temporally followed by – scholars have argued that it was even an abetment to – the Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December 1992. Much ritual accompanied the viewing: burning joysticks, ululation, sharing of food as if it were prasad, and re-production of the Hindu history-myth mocktails.

Ravan had ten heads and Dhritarashtra a hundred sons. Multiples of ten have their post-liberalisation equivalent in the many zeroes that squat in bank accounts of ministers and officers, the villains of Corrupt India. In the new national epic playing on television, Aamir Khan is Rama and Yudhisthira, slaying Evil, vouching Truth, all this without cumbersome props. His research team, much praised, and singled out for admiration by people like Shabana Azmi who thinks the programme has the potential to launch a ‘movement’, remains invisible – that is visually more efficient than showing a hundred monkeys building a bridge or a monkey carrying a mountain top. Aamir Khan is looking for a cure too: in this his sanjeevani booti is the humble letter pad. He writes letters, the nation’s catharsis.

We couldn’t communicate with Rama or Arjuna. But we can send text messages to Aamir. We can, if we are lucky, even speak to him. Neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas asked us for help in those preternatural days of television. Aamir needs our signatures, our sms-es, hits on his website. We are suddenly more than a button presser in polling booth democracy. The TV is voting machine, its audience Ashis Nandy’s ‘psephocracy’. Everyone with a cell phone is a voter. And voting has rich consequences: the Rajasthan government takes up the cases against the doctors accused of female foeticide with urgency after the broadcast of the first episode, the Pune wing of the Congress writes to the PMO asking why the ‘Pre-conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT)’ cell was dissolved.

All this is fine and good, but there’s a naive reductionism at work here – Aamir’s petition-signing India asks for the intervention of the legislative and judiciary in solving its problems. What about problems that lie within the self, those that cannot be rid by laws and the police? I wonder whether Satyamev Jayate would look at communalism (Twitter and Facebook are full of wish-lists of issues that people would like Aamir to intervene on) given the majoritarianism that’s evident in the programme, and if it did, what its take on the issue would be. Would legislation help to tackle a problem like that? Satyamev Jayate, and good intentioned programmes like it, ignore the complex career of the self – when everything becomes outside (the problem and the solution), then what is the role of the self in it? It’s so much easier to blame things that lie outside us – so chalo, let’s blame the Indian polity.

India is Kurukshetra, the mobile phone a quiver of Arjuna’s arrows, the television Janak’s special bow that only Rama can lift. Aamir talks, explains, writes letters. After Munnabhai’s Gandhigiri and ‘jadoo ki jhappi’, the pre-Anna Hazare cures, Satyamev Jayate gives India Aamir’s ‘jadoo ki chhari’. Aamir’s programme is change.org in AV. It is the middle class armchair activist’s version of the Lokpal Bill. In that communal tear-fest abetted by social guilt, Aamir Khan is teacher and therapist: this is his Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan on Corrupt India. Take note. Take notes. There’s only one thing that unites India now – not the Constitution. It’s Corruption. Aamir Khan is our Sunday morning Chhota Bheem fighting that villain.

Previously by Sumana Roy in Kafila:

Aamir Khan with Team Anna in Ramlila Maidan in August 2011. Associated Press photo

In a country where every single citizen is a staunch sub-nationalist of some faith, the fight against Evil (in its many incarnations) could be a strong nationalist force. As Aamir learnt from Anna Hazare, corruption is the new Kargil – it can get an entire nation together. His show takes its name from the national motto of India: ‘satyamev jayate’ means ‘Truth is Invincible’, the words are from the Mundaka Upanishad. It’s telling, even if in a cheeky way, that the words come inscribed with the national emblem on Indian currency notes. In a country that has perhaps produced the highest number of films based on the subject of corruption (especially, and perhaps even exclusively, financial and administrative, not so much the moral), not to mention the many fasts and dharnas, it does call for a lot of courage and imagination to put those words about Truth (allied to honesty, its distant cousin) on currency notes.

The words ‘Satyamev Jayate’ therefore become ironic – they are not an anthem of ambition, rather a snide critique of India Burning. 15 Sundays, 22 hours and 30 minutes – that is the duration of the Do It Yourself Satyagraha. “Dil Peh Lagegi, Tabhi Baat Banegi,” goes its tagline, and this is the programme’s moral economy. Only issues that can be dealt with a ‘Just Do It’ and ‘You can do it’ punchline after 90 minutes are worth television time. Female foeticide and child sexual abuse, the subjects of the first two episodes, can be solved. Together we can. This is the tenor of our times – that verb ‘can’ won Obama a presidential election, it gets Aamir high TRP ratings.

‘Satyamev Jayate’, the song, called the ‘anthem’ on the programme’s website, has a video of Aamir Khan travelling to different parts of the country. It’s the post-liberalisation version of ‘Miley Sur Mera Tumhara, Toh Sur Baney Hamara’. In that song, the voices of different singers came together to create a pastiche that was Nation India. In Aamir’s video, the actor moves, people move, traffic moves – there are too many cars, tractors and different kinds of transport. The word ‘truth’ plays on loop – the search for ‘sach’ takes Aamir on this great Indian journey. The word even appears in one of the sponsor’s advert: ‘Iss safedi main hain sach ki shakti’ goes the tagline for Ujala. All the adverts – for health drinks, toothpastes, shampoos, automobiles – are for self-betterment. Where’s a product that can help the nation? Besides Godrej Hair Colour that is, ‘4 crore Indians ka varosa’.

The show’s format demands some exegesis. The segments, divided – and connected – by commercial breaks, come in this pattern: stories of the abused, interviews with the abused, a researcher, a doctor, an NGO official; the epilogue, which inaugurates the rolling of credits, is inevitably a song on the theme chosen for the day. At first glance, this seems like the sequence of a docu-film. Watching the show on the computer from the programme’s website, one becomes aware of the uncanny resemblance of its structure with the Aamir Khan directed and produced commercial film, Taare Zameen Par (and also to Rakeysh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti). The references to the two films and also to 3 Idiots, I have to confess, was a part of my viewing experience especially in the episode on Child Sexual Abuse. Having spent considerable adult energy on holding up the suffering of children, especially in relation to parental expectations and learning disorders, Aamir Khan changes the direction of his gaze and support – from the world to the mind to the body. Having subverted the meaning of ‘idiot’ in a time when calling someone ‘Einstein’ is actually a snub to his intelligence, or having shown the dyslexic’s colourful visual world to Idiot India, Aamir Khan now takes up the role of a teacher giving lessons on Good Touch-Bad Touch.

When Shahrukh Khan left Darjeeling after shooting for his film Main Hoon Na, a young cheeky boy who sold Made-in-China underwear began selling his stuff as used SRK briefs. It gave birth to much trade and humour. When Aamir Khan came to Sikkim a few months back, everyone in my part of the world thought he had come to help victims of the recent earthquake. Such is the difference in perception about the two actors. Myth-making around the personality of the anchor is on overdose. Mohandas Gandhi drank goat’s milk and lemon juice for a few days to prepare for his fast. Aamir Khan stopped signing for new adverts six months before the show went on air.

It is interesting that Hindi film actors and actresses appear on television only in the nonfiction genre: this must be the closest their fans get to see their ‘real’ selves. Each actor’s choice of programme says something about him or her – Amitabh Bachchan and Kaun Banega Crorepati, Mithun Chakraborty and the Bengali Dadagiri, Akshay Kumar and Fear Factor. Aamir Khan rejects the game-show format for the ‘Let’s Confess’ talk-show format that was the USP of television programmes conducted by Simi Garewal, Karan Johar, Raveena Tandon, among others. Only here the aam aadmi is the celebrity, the highest paid actor of the Hindi film industry the interviewer. And so Aamir becomes a Sunday Oprah, holding hands, hugging, questioning, crying, helping, promising, all this to lead to the anthem that created the success story of his film 3 Idiots: ‘All izz Well’. Or will be, if only you watch.

What is most disturbing in a programme like this one is the rhetoric: save the girl child or your sons will remain bachelors; the girl child in the song is inevitably the ‘chiriya’, the caged bird; the conflation of mother with Mother India; the ‘hauley hauley’ and ‘dheerey dheerey’ of the song on child abuse were obnoxiously Bollywood-idiom. But, as Aamir made it a point to say to Harish, a victim of sexual abuse who found comfort and courage in watching the actress Sridevi on screen, the film industry is his ‘biradari’.

Nearly a decade after India Shining, Aamir Khan gives us India Burning. Gandhi, Tilak, Bose, Maulana Azad – the actor-anchor gives us the name of his favourite patriots. It’s our turn to be anonymous patriots now – that seems to be his message. ‘Dosto,’ Aamir asks from time to time, ‘Who are the people doing this?’. It’s a given that the person watching the programme is an innocent – there’s much cheer in that thought. Another point that he takes pain to stress is that these crimes cut across regions, religions, locales and class. In other words, no one is safe. In the end it is fear that drives people to watch this programme, to text, to call, to sign petitions. Aamir the do-gooder wants to ensure that we’ve locked our doors well before going to sleep. ‘I can only pray for you, what else can I do?’ says Aamir to the bachelor boys from Haryana when they ask him for help in getting suitable brides.

In the last segment of the episode on child sexual abuse, a subject that Indian bloggers had highlighted through the month of April, Aamir uncle conducted a workshop on Good Touch-Bad Touch by telling children about “Danger” zones with the help of an illustration of the child’s body. He then asked the children, aged between 5 and 12, to identify a ‘bodyguard’, someone they could trust to protect them. A young boy suddenly began singing his variation of an Aamir Khan song from 3 Idiots: ‘Jab life ho out of control/ Bodyguard ko ja ke bol’. Aamir Khan has mapped the ‘Danger’ zones on the social consciousness of India. Sunday TV is now a ‘paathshala’, Aamir Khan the country’s bodyguard.

(Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College, Her first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008.)

Previously in Kafila by Sumana Roy

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Rakesh Iyer permalink
    May 27, 2012 11:35 AM

    With all due respect, please Sumana Roy jee, this article is high on bombing us with new rhetoric itself and short on your issue with the show. In your own style of writing, it could have been written better, though that would not have been spontaneous. The issues raised are important, and I have read that before on Kafila itself, I guess.

  2. Aritro permalink
    May 27, 2012 11:56 AM

    At last an intelligent and political analysis of the Sunday morning slot. It is analysis like this that makes me come to Kafila every morning.
    Ms. Sumana Roy, you are a very good writer. Please do write more often for Kafila.

  3. Melanie permalink
    May 27, 2012 1:08 PM

    This brilliant piece by Sumana Roy brings out the whole commercial nature of the programme and the gullibility of the Indian viewer. No doubt, the armchair activism makes the viewer feel that he is doing his bit for the cause, without realising how he is contributing to Aamir’s bursting coffers, besides turning him into a real-life hero! Fools that we are, to watch and be carried away by the rhetoric! What I liked best was the comparison between Mahatma Gandhi’s preparation for a fast vis-a-vis Aamir’s preparation for this programme!

  4. May 27, 2012 1:30 PM

    http://greatbong.net/2012/05/08/middle-class-guilt-and-satyamev-jayate/

    this article is more simple and explains those sentiments much better than your prolonged article.

  5. Surajit permalink
    May 27, 2012 8:05 PM

    Excellent piece.
    In response to the above comment, I would like to say that Great Bong’s is an entertaining read. This is far better written and more analytical. But both can exist in the same space. Why compare an apple to an orange?

    I loved the sense of humour that runs through the essay.

  6. May 28, 2012 12:47 AM

    To call this piece incisive would be understatement!

    But maybe the constituency of liberal ‘mids’ deserve the forthright platitudes of a ‘conscientizing’ tear-jerker? (advertisers running helter-skelter to adapt to the genre)

    (loved that cartoon) ‘zara ankh mein bhar lo pani’_ here comes Satyamev Jayate…

  7. Ravi permalink
    May 31, 2012 10:54 AM

    Author does a great job of dissecting the show and reading deep subtexts that most ordinary people (like myself) seem to miss. One does need a PhD to see these nuances in shows like Satyameva Jayate. Otherwise most people seem to receive these shows quite well, and message gets across quite powerfully.

    On the left, Intellectuals seem to have a thing about corruption. Yes, corruption is as much a societal issue as it is an individual and moral one. It is as much a crime of the bribe giver as it is of the bribe taker. But what is the harm in highlighting the issues and making people aware of them? One can always improve upon the presentation, but I don’t see it coming from anywhere, least of all from such intellectuals. What they seem to miss is that most of the social issues are a result of some corruption somewhere. So if we want to eliminate them, we need to work on the corruption. But I doubt the leftists want to solve anything…

    On a side note, the author does not mention casteism as an issue that needs to be highlighted. Why only communalism. I would argue that casteism affects a lot more people than communalism.

    -RK

    • June 9, 2012 11:43 PM

      Ravi?

      Glad youre interested in the nuances of critique

      Blogs are an important contemporary social medium, but seriously, requiring doctoral ‘epistemic license’?

      But now you can more easily negotiate the knowledge bureaucracy with your research interests

      I feel any agency (cultural and other) that engenders sexism, racism, caste, communalism (and contributes to (unquestioning) environmental depradation) is abhorrent!!
      We need to aspire to a generic understanding of all these (in their various dynamics, thereby attempting liberation of both ‘the woods and the tree’…)

      Best

  8. Anwesha permalink
    June 16, 2012 8:39 PM

    This article is the finest critique of the starsruck euphoria I’ve read so far- especially the sharp analysis of the sunday morning slot and the Gandhi analogy.

  9. Jai permalink
    August 11, 2012 1:57 AM

    You write well Ms Sumana but your comparatives used here to illustrate this show is dissapointing. This show did bring up issues that touches the core of every human being, be it the food that we eat, pollution that we create, the lives that we hurt, the fight that we put in the face of adversity and win, and all this has been done without bringing his star image in the front. I will not judge this program by how much money he earns from it or by how much popularity he gains from the show, rather by his intentions and if this has forced people to look at themselves and their nation and strive for change. If you have seen the show, in every episode he has shown the bad side and the solution as to how to overcome the adversity. And these solutions are not patented by Aamir Khan, rather imagined and executed by the common man himself. He has just given those people a platform to show that change can be made even though it seems ardous. If people are always awe-struck with stardom and fail to see what Aamir Khan is trying to bring to them, then I hardly think that is Aamir Khan’s lacking.
    Sometimes you do not have to be so thorough in cutting someone to size, on the other hand how can you refrain from doing it; he is just a star….

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