The Bollywood hero is using his star power on a TV show that is drawing huge ratings and exposing social ills such as female feticide.
Male superheroes in the world of Indian movies are ageless. Stars like Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Kamal Haasan continue to dance around trees with much younger actresses. But Aamir Khan, when he's not dancing, is taking up life-and-death issues.
This week, Indian TV got a new super-hit, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Prevails), whose initial ratings threaten to dislodge the all-time biggest produced by Ramayana in the 1980s. The show is anchored by Aamir and holds a mirror to India's myriad social evils and is already the number-one talking point in the country's burgeoning "infotainment" sector.
The opening episode featured female feticide, a scourge common in all regions and cultures across India. Hosted simultaneously over the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star Plus and state-owned Doordarshan, sponsors made sure villagers in remote places with no access to TV got to see it through special links.
The 90-minute programme, using the chat format, highlighted how doctors collude with couples eager for a male child to determine the gender of a foetus and abort it if it is female. Among those interviewed were TV journalists who had carried out sting operations to highlight the practice.
"Sex determination has been declared illegal in India. But that does not deter people from taking recourse to it so that their dream of having a son is not compromised," Natasha Singh, a Delhi-based social activist, told Khabar South Asia. Her non-governmental organisation (NGO) Apeksha, has gained repute for campaigning against this issue.
Former Health Minister Renuka Choudhury watched the programme with interest. "Nothing seems to deter people from perpetuating this evil. I hope Aamir will highlight more and more facets of this crime because female feticide involves many strands of society," she told Khabar.
"The same society which kills girls in the womb ends up trading in young women to satisfy the lust of men," Choudhury said. "In north Indian states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab, the gender balance is so lopsided that they now have to traffic in women from the eastern states."
According to the 2011 census, the ratio of female new-borns to males is 914-to-1,000, the lowest in India's history. The 2001 census reported a 927-to-1000 ratio. The southern states of Kerala and Puducherry were the only two with more females than males.
Media hype has already swung into action. The Hindustan Times has described Aamir as India's answer to Oprah Winfrey. "We don't know if we are there yet, but this show is sure to be a talking point for a long time to come," Doordarshan's Associate Chief Programmer, Dharmendra Kant, told Khabar.
Khan: TV can help educate
Khan, like most Bollywood stars, hails from a family immersed in the movie business. He first appeared as a child actor in the 1973 hit, Yaadon ki Baaraat, produced by his uncle, Nasir Hussain. His first film, Qayamat se Qayamat tak, made him an instant hit as a chocolate-faced hero, a genre which rose in the 1980s to take over from the previous decades' macho brigade led by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra.
"I've always been a social activist at heart. I never miss the chance to join a marathon to raise money for a good cause," Khan told reporters at the show's launch. "My decision to take up this offer to anchor Satyamev Jayate was owing to a conviction that TV needs to do more to educate the people on serious issues. I don't like this non-stop entertainment."
On Wednesday (May 9th), Aamir was in the capital of Rajasthan, a state notorious for female feticide. Owing to its feudal mores and its relative proximity to New Delhi, where couples desperate to get rid of female babies drive down for quick abortions, Rajasthan has always had one of the lowest gender ratios at birth (922-to-1,000 in 2001).
The opening episode sent temperatures soaring in this election-bound state because it featured two Rajasthan-based TV journalists who in 2005 exposed 140 doctors involved in feticide. At the time, the government did nothing. An official inquiry conducted was the last people heard of it.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot responded to the show quickly, tweeting Tuesday (May 9th), "Satyamev Jayate is a great and extraordinary initiative to root out female feticide. I'm eager to have a fruitful dialogue with Aamir tomorrow."
Under the gaze of TV cameras, Aamir met Gehlot and requested he set up "fast-track courts" to settle outstanding cases of sex-determination and feticide. The two later addressed a press conference in which Gehlot said he has asked the state's police to be extra vigilant.
But mere promises are not expected to work.
S.L. Dharmawat, head of the NGO Mahesh Ashram, said "Not a day passes in Jaipur without a girl child being found abandoned either at a bus stop or in a box in a garbage dump. The TV show may have opened people's eyes wider, but what next?
"What good is awareness if it's not followed by action?"
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