The odds were stacked against it. Yet, on 6 May 2012, Satyamev Jayate, anchored by Aamir Khan, went on air on Star Plus (and all the other Star network channels) as well as Doordarshan. More interestingly, the show was back on air on 2 March this year (just last Sunday), with an episode on rape.
But the original question remains: why would a Hindi general entertainment channel fund and telecast such a show (even if it's anchored by Aamir Khan) not just once but for the second time too? Wouldn't the show have made more sense on a news channel?
Star India CEO Uday Shankar finds the question odd. "I have struggled to explain this to people in the last seven years - that there is no difference between how a viewer looks at entertainment and non-entertainment channels. Viewers watch drama on entertainment channels as if it is real. The characters' emotions are as intensely felt as if they were real people."
Strange as it may sound in an industry driven by commercial impulses, Shankar firmly believes that all media content should be about change. "It must capture people's aspirations, it must challenge the status quo," he says. His words are rather un-CEO like, since most chief executives rarely talk about anything except money.
Seeds of change
But Shankar was a news journalist before he became a CEO. He worked as the head of Aaj Tak and Star News in an earlier avatar. His take is therefore more nuanced. As he says: "There are two ways to look at return on investment. One is a cash return. The other is what the investment does to build the business of the future." In other words, it's important to invest in building a brand that stands for something other than just entertainment content (which everyone is doing in any case). "The idea was not to do a show with the highest-ever ratings," he adds. "Aamir and I wanted to force a discussion, a conversation, to bring serious issues, the darkest secrets of our society, into the spotlight and empower people to take the right decisions."
The perceived risks
* Delving into dark, depressing issues like female foeticide and sexual child abuse in long, intense 90-minute episodes
* Disturbing, unsettling programming on a channel known for and meant for entertaining soaps and serials
*Giving viewers an emotionally draining and exhausting experience
*And all this at a high cost - Satyamev Jayate is one of the most expensive TV shows ever; according to media reports, each episode costs about Rs4 crore and the anchor's fee itself is about Rs3 crore
* Not the kind of show advertisers usually warm up to
The plus point
*The presence of a big movie star
As a conversation starter and brand-building exercise, there is little doubt that Satyamev Jayate worked, particularly in the online sphere. According to the channel, the first season saw topics related to the show trending nationally on Twitter every Sunday (the day of telecast); and 15 million messages being posted on the web and on mobile platforms. The show was discussed internationally (Khan even appeared on the cover of the Asian edition of Time) and Star acquired a reputation as a network with a conscience and a heart.
According to Akhila Sivadas, executive director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, who has analysed the portrayal of women on TV and has worked on issues ranging from community health to women and child rights, the show did start a conversation. "People watched the show because everyone was talking about it, and you must have some information about something that's trending," she says. "The workshop that Aamir did in the episode on child abuse, where he taught the difference between a good touch and a bad touch, became a talking point at bus stops, in shops, offices." She analyses why the show works on a general entertainment channel: "Don't forget, Satyamev Jayate had references to a lot of things that you often see in soaps and serials."
Season two trends
But will the show have as strong an impact in Season Two? In the previous season itself, the enormity of the issues and the intensity of the presentation meant that many viewers found it difficult to watch the one-and-a-half hour episodes at a stretch. They would watch, take a break, then come back again. Sivadas also points out that in the previous season, the first few episodes were watched very avidly, after which the enthusiasm waned a little. Perhaps that has been a learning experience because in Season Two, the show has been broken into five-episode chunks, to allow viewers to take a break and also to allow the issues discussed to sink in fully.
Aamir Khan's Satyameva Jayate stint scares his mother
The first episode of Season Two has drawn mixed reviews. "Sequels are always risky," says Sivadas. "You have to raise the bar. But the show is pretty much the same. In the first episode, on rape, we didn't hear anything that we hadn't heard on the subject in the last one year. I also felt that Season One was more emotive."
But she agrees that it's better to have such a show than not have it at all. Points out Anjali Gopalan, founder of the celebrated NGO, the Naz Foundation: "Understanding and action happen only when conversations happen."
That is hard to disagree with.
From HT Brunch, March 9
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch