Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Aamir Khan: Channeling Dickens

"I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures," declared Charles Dickens to E.M. Fitzgerald in December 1838. The 'unfortunate creatures' he spoke of were the mill workers of England, disabused of any modern notion of workmen's rights or safety.

He dealt that blow with Hard Times, a novel he published in 1854. This bleak portrayal of the "Condition of England" is widely believed to have contributed, at least in part, to the awakening of the middle class to the plight of the working class. England is a better place thanks to Hard Times.

And that brings me to this Sunday. I had been bombarded with ads for Satyameva Jayate for at least a month. I knew it would take the same coveted Sunday 11 am spot TV channels once reserved for The Mahabharat. I knew it would feature Aamir Khan and an audience. I could even remember the tune to what I will confess is now a rather grating, possibly plagiarized, opening theme.

But I didn't watch the show that Sunday morning. I felt it was all to 'plastic'. Instead, I followed the lively, opinionated reactions to it on Twitter. By evening, I had read enough to make me curious. And so I did... on YouTube, where a 1-hour clip was posted online sans-ads.

For me, the show brought nothing new by way of facts. Colleagues had been covering instances for years. What the show did for me was put a very real face to the crime. The statistics were now guests with names. The names had faces and life stories. And Aamir Khan was helping us access these stories with empathy. These were real, believable people.

Perhaps the most shocking for me was the story of the mother-in-law attempting to kill her granddaughter. Here was a woman, a vice principal of a school, wife of a Delhi University professor, mother to an orthopaedic surgeon and a PhD in mathematics, kicking a helpless baby down a flight of stairs. It would be hard to find a more repugnant human being. This is a woman who should've known better; should've believed better, should've acted better. In her, I see a collective failure - our collective failure. 

And that's why I think Aamir's show is important. Every Sunday morning, every Indian with access to a television will watch a show that challenges our prejudices, bringing to light a side of India we'd rather to ignore. He must walk a fine line between preaching and awakening. In that sense, I think he has it exactly right - letting his subjects tell their stories. And allowing us to listen, without interruption or judgment.

The negative reactions have ranged from cynicism to, bizarrely, anger. Some folks baulk at the Rs 3 crore Aamir is being paid. Others accuse him for being just another celebrity chasing more celebrity. A handful condemn him for spreading "propaganda". One incensed Tweeter asked me why only India was the focus of such shows. I'm quoting him here - "do u agree/disagree to the fact that female feticide happens in Australia? yes or NO". Later he said "Propaganda remains propaganda".

Yes, there are such folks. I'm afraid they are beyond help. But a great number are being woken up to the horrors and shame that exist in our country. No matter what Aamir Khan is being paid, I wish him success. For, like Dickens, he too is striking the heaviest blow in his power for these unfortunate creatures.