In the five episodes of ‘Satyamev Jayate’ aired so far (3rd June, 2012), Amir Khan has been consistent – consistently effective. What makes the show click, what makes it so riveting? I have identified seven reasons (No, it is not another top ten list!) as follows:
1. Deliberate underplay: The subjects taken up by Amir, and the material available with him were such that he could easily have gone ballistic. We would have forgiven him for it. But he did not. He underplayed. He let the viewers fill-in the deliberately created gaps in the narrative from their own knowledge of the subject. Underplay, so rare in Indian cinema, is the first surprise of the package.
(Conversely, some reviews panned the first few episodes for being too melodramatic. Come on! The subjects were such that there was no need to put any additional ‘melo’ in the ‘drama’.)
2. Keep it simple: The argumentative Indian, the thinking elite, the English newspaper reading public, the 0.1 percent of population is zapped at the simplicity of the show (Some called it simplistic.) For the rest of the people, the show was honest and pretty straight-forward. Amir peels off layers of theory to reach the basic facts, the most stunning stories, and leaves it at that. Strong editing and chopping of the material at hand is clearly visible, and it counts.
3. One thing at a time: There is a conscious movement, in each episode, towards a conclusion. Each episode is like a well written essay, though of a vintage variety. Linear and uni-directional. It adds, and not detracts from the impact, as there is no scope of misunderstanding. For a star of his stature, the pressure to perform is immense, but like Amitabh Bachchan in KBC, he does not let the pressure get to him.
4. Empathy: Here Amir’s acting skills stand him in good stead. We will never know whether his tears and his hugs were for real, but they do look real, and draw tears and smiles from the viewers. The choice of the stories and the choice of questions also reveal a degree of sensitivity that is generally missing in Indian television. Amir, in short, does not come out ‘phoney’. Remember, there must be millions who will feel uncomfortable with one story or the other, and would like to have a handle to twist him with, but he seems, so far, to be beyond their range.
5. Alert to possibilities of distortions: At times one feels that Amir is a little too cautious, a little too tolerant. But within a week, he is invariably proved right in being cautious. His episode on medical malpractices repeatedly praised the ‘good’ doctors, and even compared them with ‘God’, but within this week itself, Indian Medical Association is baying for his blood. He realizes, more than we do, that he will upset many apple-carts, and there will be attempts to distort the message. Therefore he takes care to keep the contexts pretty much in sight.
6. Papa doesn’t preach: Some critics have sought to charge the programme with being preachy and condescending. I do not think so. On the contrary, the programme invariably ends with a beautiful song on the subject, that touches the soul. The song delivers the knock-out punch more effectively than any preaching could have done.
7. Solutions: There has been a deliberate attempt to find simple and effective solutions to issues raised in the programme. His research team has made astounding efforts to highlight grass-root level solutions to social problems. The ending is therefore something like a Hindi film, satisfying and positive. The critics however have cried murder – they charge him of trivializing the issues and being simplistic. Again, I do not agree with the critics.
Amir Khan has the sensibility of an ad maker. He is concise, and an effective communicator. We all knew him to be a great story-teller (Tare Zamin Par, Peepli Live, Three Idiots, Lagaan), but the role of an activist is different. We wondered how much of past success would have ruined him. For it is inevitable – success will take its toll. But Amir retains much of the freshness that has been the hallmark of his films.
Like the rest of the million viewers, I await the next episode, gaily sneering at the critics and the ‘wrong-doers’.