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We say 'bring it on'

Satyamev Jayate endorses the opening up of traditional sources of information. Namita Bhandare writes.

india Updated: May 11, 2012 23:11 IST

That Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan’s reality show, is rocking TV panel discussions and newspaper headlines a week after its debut, says something about its impact. A ‘movement for social change’, an ‘exquisite piece of journalism’ and ‘television history’ are some of the more measured epithets.

Yes, the cynics are weighing in too: do you really need a celebrity to expose the gritty reality of fem-ale foeticide? Hasn’t the press been writing/talking about it for years? Isn’t this a commercial venture for a Bollywood actor?

For me the interesting thing about SJ lies not so much in its message — yes, it’s important and every voice must be raised — but that it marks a new direction: a celebrity talk show that goes beyond chatting with Bollywood buddies. At a time when TV channels seem trapped by TRPs and news often dwindles down to ‘infotainment’ (to use a ghastly word), here is a film star who seems to be quite happy to employ some of the traditional tools of journalism including interviews, responses and even a sting operation.

As Khan concedes, he has no new information. We know that India has a skewed sex ratio. We know about our missing girls. We know that doctors and husbands and radiologists are complicit in killing off unborn girls. Journalists have been writing about this for years and, incidentally, my own column on female foeticide got zero response. But when a popular film actor makes the same point, it has a different impact.

On Twitter on the day of its debut, 'Satyamev Jayate dominated the top 10 trends. In the real world, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who has a ‘beti bachao’ campaign in his state, said he wanted Khan as a ‘brand ambassador’. The Maharashtra government wants Khan’s help in various public welfare schemes. And in Rajasthan, chief minister Ashok Gehlot promised to set up fast-track courts to try doctors exposed in the programme’s sting operation.

What will change after the photo ops? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it’s enough that one film actor has chosen to stretch himself to venture into areas considered unpopular, un-newsworthy and unwatchable by many sections of the mainstream media. And here’s the irony: while mainstream media dumbs down with entertainment shows, film promotions and Page 3 coverage, at least one celebrity has chosen to get his hands dirty.

‘Satyamev Jayate’ endorses not just the power of celebrity but the opening up of traditional sources of information. Mainstream media no longer sets the agenda and has long ceased to be our sole source of information. And while Khan stands at one end of the spectrum — star power, big budget, extensive marketing and promos — today, anyone with an internet connection is part of the commentariat. Today, anyone with a smartphone can upload a video on YouTube. This is the democratisation of information and we are all chroniclers now.

Mainstream media has, by and large, embraced the change. Big media has a sizeable presence on social network forums seeking to engage and interact with its readers and viewers. Newspaper and TV channels along with individual journalists from Rajdeep Sardesai to Barkha Dutt have huge followings on Twitter, adding to the debate, energy and exuberance that characterises our expanded media.

Articulation is often the starting point for change. We’ve seen the power of Twitter in recent times — would a senior UP police officer have been transferred over his statement on dishonour killing had there not been Twitter outrage? Would Parliament have discussed the North-east discrimination issue had social media not highlighted the deaths of Richard Loitam and Dana Sangma? Sure, there is a dark side. Journalists by instinct don’t always follow the rules of old-style journalism (fact-checking, getting the other side) and rumour masquerading as fact can go dangerously viral.

But as more voices join the public discourse, we will learn to listen and to articulate and to distinguish between credible news and gossip, between social good and entertainment. Tomorrow morning when Khan comes back on TV with a new episode, a new debate, a new dialogue will be sparked. I say: Bring it on.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)

The views expressed by the author are personal