The Washington Post

Indian TV show highlights human rights issues

Sometimes it takes a Bollywood movie star to shine a light on India’s darkest corners.

The popular TV show by actor Aamir Khan, called “Satyameva Jayate” (or Truth Will Win), has, in true Oprah-style, got the nation talking like never before about issues like female foeticide, honor killing, child sexual abuse, domestic violence and disability discrimination.

Indian Bollywood actor Aamir Khan speaks during an event where he was appointed as the UNICEF ambassador promoting nutrition for children, in New Delhi, India. (Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press)

A heady mix of soft-voiced chats, hugs, tears and tales of horror and heroism, the show has drawn 400 million television viewers in the past five weeks, and triggered Twitter trends and animated online discussions.

Watch the theme song produced for Khan’s show.

These are not new issues but they had ceased to stir social conscience and debate in India. Since the show began, officials have swung into action, and citizens are calling up radio stations to report changes in families.

The episode on female feticide led the Rajasthan state government to set up fast-track courts to try those accused of killing infant girls.

Police shut down clinics that were helping parents abort unborn female fetuses.

“Our society covers these problems with a veil,” Khan said on his show. “All I want is an open discussion.”

After dancing around the trees, wooing women and bashing baddies in the movies, Khan has turned into the bringer of bad news and a conscience-keeper of the nation. A method-actor, Khan sheds tons of tears on the show, and cleverly marries the old, feudal Indian problems with 21st century crowd-sourcing activism through text messages and Facebook campaigns. He has galvanized Sunday morning TV viewing habit among Indians who were addicted to weepy soaps and talent hunts on prime-time night shows.

In one episode he urged the government to promote cheaper, generic medicines that are off-patent instead of branded drugs.

Within days, the state of Maharashtra decided to open more stores to sell generic medicines. Khan is now urging other states to follow suit.

This week he will depose before a parliament panel that is examining the need to raise foreign investment in the pharmaceutical industry.

A television news channel ABP News devotes a program just to capture the ripple effects of his show.

Khan is also courting trouble. The Indian Medical Association threatened to sue him for defamation because he showed cases of unethical profiteering by doctors. Khan refused to apologize.

(An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly said that the Medical Council of India threatened to sue Khan.)

Village clan councils that are infamous for honor killing have called for a boycott of his show and movies.

If he is not too careful, Khan may begin losing fans, even as he gains a following.

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Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.


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