Why Satyamev Jayate worked

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Media Practice | 01/10/2012
A HOOT ANALYSIS- Looking back, its resounding success was because it borrowed the format of family soap to discuss social malaises. The victim was the veritable script-writer of the show.
And its marked propensity to please the middle class worked, says AJAZ ASHRAF Pix: the honour killing episode
Satyamev Jayate has carved out an enduring and significant niche in the history of Indian television. Its popularity is particularly astonishing as it was predominantly a talk show on social problems already analysed threadbare in the media as well as handled sensitively in NCERT books reputed scholars have written for high school students. In recent years, though, editors in print media have contemptuously underplayed such topics, believing these no longer agitate or engage their middle class readers.
The astonishing success of Satyamev Jayate consequently raises the question: did its creators invent a new communication technique of discussing socially relevant yet trite topics without constraining its charismatic host, Aamir Khan, from enticing millions to his talk show? It was to answer this question that I began watching the videos of Satyamev Jayate on Youtube, weeks after the programme concluded on August 15, 2012.  I excluded from my viewing list the last two episodes – We the people and Independence Day Special – which did not discuss either societal problems or issues clubbed under what is commonly known as social evils. I replayed the footage many times over, pored through surveys quoted in Satyamev Jayate, and searched for narrative similarities in the 12 episodes I reviewed. A new picture gradually emerged.
It is a picture in which Satyamev Jayate has the Great Indian Family as its ideational framework. Most of its episodes, and the topics these tackle, train the spotlight on the family and the problems it spawns or encounters. The family is the site of tension and conflict, oppression and rebellion. It is in the family you find the hero – the daring daughter-in-law, the rebellious wife, the adventurous grandfather. It is also in the family that the villain lurks – the insensitive husband, the authoritarian mother-in-law, the indifferent child. Occasionally, the family is challenged because of the disabled child, or brought to ruin by an alcoholic father/son/husband, or distressed because of the doctor’s fraudulent methods.
Of the 12 episodes, five pertain to female foeticide, dowry, honour killing, the neglect of old people and domestic violence. These problems emanate directly from the behaviour and decisions of the dominant members of the family. The episode on alcohol abuse is seen to directly impact family ties and its economic condition. In the family, too, are located the stories of the helpless and the courageous child/individual, as in the episodes on sexual abuse and the disabled, stoking its fears, testing its fortitude and seeking to inspire a change in its behaviour.
Perhaps Aamir Khan views the world through the lens of the family because television viewing in India still remains a collective household activity. Therefore, he alludes to the consequences of even medical malpractices and pesticide poisoning, each a separate subject in Satyamev Jayate, on the hallowed institution of family; for instance, harping on the debilitating impact of high medical bills on children’s education.
From this perspective the inclusion of issues of untouchability and the water crisis is a tad surprising. Perhaps his palpable lack of command in handling these two issues arises from his having to move away from the familiar backdrop of the family. The show on untouchability rambles, lasting 25 minutes more than all the other shows. The one on the water crisis doesn’t have the drama and pathos, arguably the two defining features of Aamir’s talk show.
For all its meticulous research, Satyamev Jayate borrows the format of family soap to discuss social malaises. Just about every episode, in its initial ten minutes, has a victim narrating his or her tragic story to roil our emotions. The audience is not allowed to recover its balance, for the emotional tension is promptly heightened through yet another maudlin narrative. The victim is the veritable script-writer of the show – she and he identify their tormentors and their cruel methods, and then, at Aamir’s prompting, describe their valiant fight for liberation. Their tales are TV soaps in miniature. Those fighting to secure justice for heroes who perished in the fight against their tormentors are invariably shown to possess an extraordinary nobility of spirit that is both moving and mesmerising.
To this emotionally overwhelmed audience, Aamir now cites surveys and statistics to etch out the epidemical proportion of the social evil under discussion. Experts are brought in to analyse the problems; there are random snaps and voices from across the country, either providing a contrasting picture to the dominant trend in the urban middle class or furnishing fresh evidence to bolster Aamir’s proposition. As the audience is on the verge of recovering the fine balance between emotion and reason, yet another victim presents his or her mushy story. Truly, Satyamev Jayate is about communicating emotions underlying our social reality.
Like all good soaps, most episodes have their moments of comic relief. Don’t you remember the bachelors of Kurukshetra featured in the episode on female foeticide? In their typical Haryanvi accent, they ask Aamir to send Salman Khan to lead their team of ageing single men who are unable to find wives because of the declining sex ratio. Yet all this can’t leaven the dreariness inherent in a talk show on social issues. In Bollywood style, therefore, every episode must end on a happy, hopeful note. So we must have a disabled manage a successful gym or a glimpse into a campaign against deplorable social practices; we must have parents who opposed their daughter’s decision to marry outside the community organise a traditional wedding ceremony for the couple on their 25th marriage anniversary. Truly, what is life without hope?
The episodic format of Satyamev Jayate deters Aamir from establishing a connection among issues arising from the structure of the family. Isn’t the phenomenon of female foeticide linked to the menace of dowry? Isn’t there a linkage between domestic violence and alcohol abuse? Such linkages can’t be interrogated because it would otherwise lead to overlapping of subjects that the creators of Satyamev Jayate have decided to treat separately. This format also disallows holistic treatment of the institution of family, decidedly the overarching theme of Satyamev Jayate. For instance, we can never know the process through which yesterday’s oppressed daughter-in-law becomes tomorrow’s exploitative mother-in-law.
Holistic treatment apart, Satyamev Jayate predominantly links all social evils to the mindsets of individuals. It is as if he and she live in isolation from society. This suits the format of Satyamev Jayate, for to provide a context to social evils also entails running the risk of portraying the villains in each episode with a modicum of empathy or providing a more textured understanding of their impulses.

A brief review of the Satyamev Jayate episodes, highlighting their salient features, will not only substantiate my points of criticism but also provide an insight into the reasons for its popularity, its marked propensity to please the middle class and, occasionally, its simplistic assertions.

II

In the first episode, Daughter are precious, Aamir introduces the topic of female foeticide through a brief commentary on the status mothers command in our society. The connection is tenuous. He is essentially asking: how can we who bestow a god-like status on the mother abort the foeticide which could have grown to become a mother tomorrow? It is difficult for most to perceive the female foetus as the mother-in-the-making. But Aamir understands the pull the mother figure has, for he invokes it in other episodes of Satyamev Jayate as well.
Two women, Amisha and Perveen Khan, narrate heart-rending stories of how they were either tricked or compelled into undergoing repeated abortions, until they rebelled and decided to bear a girl child. They are the victims as well as heroes; the villains are their in-laws. Perveen recounts how her husband mercilessly bit her face. Her scarred, bruised face is flashed on the screen. Aamir seems to be pursuing a shock-and-numb strategy towards his audience. The strategy demands he eschew complexities. He, therefore, will not dwell upon the possibility of women’s complicity in female foeticide.
Aamir tell us that the incidence of female foeticide is rampant in rich states; conversely, it is remarkably low or absent in the poor ones. A woman on the street says she can’t think of aborting her female foetus because it is sin. Dr Shaili Aggarwal weighs in to say the tribals never bother about the gender of their child. What explains the divergence in the attitude between the rich and poor towards a girl child? Is it because a child, girl or boy, is an additional hand which can supplement the family’s future income? Are the rich averse to a girl child because of the expenditure they are likely to incur on her wedding and dowry? Aamir can’t ask the last question because lavish wedding and dowry have been earmarked for another episode. To discuss it now is to let the cat out of the bag.
Satyamev Jayate is chary of alienating middle class viewers, perhaps deeply conscious of their importance in attracting advertisements. Therefore, omit from discussion aspects likely to perturb them. Take the second episode, Break the Silence, in which Aamir speaks of the sexual abuse of children. He cites the depressing findings of the 2007 government survey to point to the high incidence of sexual abuse of children in India. Few of his audience can know that he has glossed over the other troubling aspect of the survey – physical abuse, which was reported by 69 per cent of children, as against 53.22 per cent who experienced sexual abuse.
We do not know what dictated Satyamev Jayate’s selective reading of the survey. Yet you can’t help but ask: is it easier to stoke the fears and anxieties of families, and therefore keep them glued to TV, through a discussion on sexual than physical abuse? Or is it because references to physical abuse could sow dissensions in families watching Satyamev Jayate, prompting angry parents to accuse Aamir of inciting children? I am not a conspiracy theorist. Take a look at these figures: 48.7 of all physically abused children experienced it in the environment of the family; in 88.6 per cent of these cases the abusers were parents.
The survey also showed that of the 53.22 per cent of children who were sexually abused, 5.9 per cent of them experienced it most severe form – that is, sexual assault, including rape and sodomy. The incidence of sexual assault was the highest among street-children (6.53 per cent), those employed (8.7 per cent) or living in institutional care (7.08 per cent), as against those who experienced it in family environment (4.04 per cent) or in schools (2.02 per cent). Yet the first three categories of victims are scarcely discussed in Satyamev Jayate but for a cursory mention a guest makes to them in his recapitulation of the infamous Anchorage case. The Satyamev Jayate team knows that the plight of the ‘wretched of the earth’ rarely bothers the middle class.
As is the dominant pattern, the episode on dowry, titled Marriage or Marketplace, begins with a victim/hero narrating her story with all the customary tragic ingredients – the dream to have a loving husband, the lavish wedding, the husband turning a monster overnight, the dowry demands of the in-laws, their insatiable appetite for money, the cruelty she was subjected to, and eventually her flight to freedom. What’s so new, you’d ask. You have read and heard these stories before. Yet it tugs at the heartstrings because the victim/hero is recounting her story in the studio, in flesh and blood, with moist eyes. Your heart goes out to her, as it doesn’t for others whose plight pepper the one-hour episode, because of the sheer sameness of their stories.
To ensure monotony doesn’t dull our sensibilities, Aamir provides comic relief through Santosh Kumar, who was abducted in the badlands of Bihar and compelled into marriage at gunpoint. His narration is long-winded and evokes much mirth, even though this social phenomenon has been much written about over the last 15-20 years. In the end, Aamir declares that marriages such as Santosh’s are no solution to the dowry problem. Why then give the man from Bihar an extended cameo?
This episode, as mentioned earlier, could have probed the linkage between dowry and female foeticide. Yet he doesn’t even when a woman in the audience, Sufiya, says she has joined a campaign to organise simple marriages to ensure parents do not have to begin worrying about dowry at the birth of a girl child. The episode, you see, is on dowry, and Aamir isn’t going to provide you a holistic picture by talking about female foeticide, already discussed in the first installment of Satyamev Jayate.
Typically, he also desists from locating issues in their social-cultural contexts, evident in the episode, Intolerance to Love, which depicts the phenomenon of love marriages and honour killings. It begins according to the format of the programme, with two stories involving the marriage between Lokendra and Fehmeeda and between Rizwan and Priyanka. In the first instance the Muslim family of Fehmeeda is opposed to the match; in the second the villain is the Hindu business family of Priyanka. These back-to-back stories in which Hindu and Muslim families are alternatively projected as villains stem from the commendable desire of being politically correct and ensuring no community is stereotyped as orthodox.
Perhaps this concern prevents Aamir from asking a few hard questions and digging deeper into comprehending parental opposition. Specific cultural contexts, therefore, are swept aside. Do parents refuse to give consent to inter-faith marriage because it would make them culpable of violating religious laws and, therefore, incur sin? We are also not told whether the two couples – Lokendra-Fehmeeda and Rizwan-Priyanka – married under Hindu, Muslim or civil law. Did any of them convert to another faith before their marriage was solemnised? Answers to these questions could have provided the audience both a clue to fathoming parental opposition and an insight into the younger generation’s indifference to religious laws.

But such discussion could create a discourse political in nature. He, therefore, simplistically ascribes opposition to inter-faith marriages as opposition to love. In contrast, it is infinitely easier to interrogate the khap’s fiat against marriages within the same gotra or lineage. This is because there’s a middle class consensus not only on the illegitimacy of the punishment the khaps impose but also on the irrationality of proscribing intra-gotra marriages. It is consequently safe and easy to laugh at the elders of Meham Chaubisi, presented in the studio as clowns, whom Aamir – and us – can only berate and mock, not understand. Forgotten is the fact that the laws governing marriages in different communities are based on their customs and norms. But then, who cares?

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