Over the past two decades, the Indian media has been flooded with entertainment that commercialises every aspect of human life and promotes the most bizarre voyeurism. From reality shows that commodify children's abilities to game shows that offer the promise of easy money, such entertainment has entered the small screen in a big way.
This has led to the shrinking of the media's engagement with civil society. It is in this scenario that Satyamev Jayate, a weekly show meant to be for a thinking audience, was launched on Star Plus last Sunday. Hosted by Aamir Khan, produced by his company and directed by Satyajit Bhatkal, it aims to engage with live issues and bring these into drawing rooms, trains, buses, taxis, blogspots and social networking sites. More important, Satyamev Jayate promises to go beyond mere discussion to social transformation by trying to engage with the state machinery, along with and as part of civil society. This is a promise that people with their hearts in the right place would want to support.
Yet it also raises questions in the minds of the more sceptical among them. Although as a celebrity and a brand Aamir Khan has supported diverse movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Anna Hazare movement, the fact that he is deeply imbedded in the entertainment industry and faces the pressures of surviving in the business of cinema-making could severely limit his commitment and ability to influence movements dedicated to social transformation.
Given these contradictions, we should receive his intervention into the civil society space with both generosity and constructive criticism, with the ultimate goal of strengthening the chain of sane voices in times of great turmoil. Such chains are what change society.
Occupying the same Sunday morning slot as BR Chopra's Mahabharata did three decades ago, Satyamev Jayate is being advertised as a show that brings Aaj Ka Bharat to the fore. While the former highlighted every myth in the epic, the latter proceeds to challenge the myths around contemporary issues of Indian society. The first issue that Satyamev Jayate chose to address was that of sex selection and the declining sex ratio. The show must be congratulated for shattering three important myths. The first is that the woman is responsible for the child's sex. Instead, it showed how the father critically determines this, thus placing the onus - if there is a need to do so at all - on the man. The second is that sex selection is limited to one religion or to the rural, uneducated section. By airing narratives of women from different religions and classes, the show established that the practice cuts across social strata. The third is that sex selection is practised only in shady private clinics. The show highlighted, through a medical practitioner and two journalists from Rajasthan, how it is done also in and around state institutions.
The show's analysis of the negative consequences of the declining sex ratio included both the conservative argument that 'men won't find brides' but also the progressive one this it will led to the further disempowerment and dehumanisation of women. Gratifyingly, the show ended by highlighting a grassroots movement in Punjab against sex selection.
Having said this, the show would have benefitted from a stronger historical approach. It was surprising that women's and feminist movements against sex selection and Mumbai's special role in this found no mention. A Mumbai-based campaign in the 1980s, led by the Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-Selection, for instance, was instrumental in pushing Parliament to enact laws against sex selection.
The campaign included sting operations by activists, parent-child rallies by leading city intellectuals and the staging of the Marathi street play, Mulgi Zali Ho, which has become a classic. This landmark movement became a model for others in the rest of India.
The show also failed to place female foeticide within the larger context of patriarchy. For instance, in one uneasy moment, it glorified an underprivileged child-mother's rejection of sex selection, unwittingly overlooking a more fundamental problem that Indian women face: under-age marriage and motherhood. Perhaps Satyamev Jayate consciously chose to leave this out in order the keep the spotlight on the issue.
Despite its disjointed tearful moments and other hooks needed to pull off a popular show, perhaps we should for the time being suspend our scepticism towards the limitations of celebrity shows and allow the star to do what he does best: Draw dramatic attention to difficult issues.
(Gita Chadha is a Mumbai-based sociologist.)