MUMBAI (Reuters) - It's 10.30 on a Friday night -- an unlikely hour for an interview. But Aamir Khan has been busy the whole day, shooting for the Bollywood film "Dhoom 3" and then appearing on a news channel programme about his TV show "Satyamev Jayate".
Khan took time off to talk to Reuters about what "Satyamev Jayate" has meant for him, what he hopes it will achieve and whether he fancies himself a good Samaritan.
Q: This Sunday, the last episode of ‘Satyamev Jayate' went on air. How do you look back on the show?
A: "Well, emotions are mixed right now. I have to say I am absolutely thrilled with the kind of response the show has got. The way people have connected. I won't even call it response, you know. The deep emotional connect, right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, across different languages and across urban and rural, across economic groups.
"All the more because when we were setting out, we had no idea. This was something which had never been done. People who knew what I was doing used to tell me ‘Aamir, you don't know television. People only want entertainment. A show about social issues is not going to work. People are not going to connect with it.' But, I felt differently. I just did what I felt like doing, basically. It indicates that people are ready for change. India is ready for change.
"The fact that it is the last episode makes me feel a little sad. Somewhere, this journey which started two years ago -- actually a little more than two years ago, will come to an end. I am hoping this is not the end, this is just the beginning. It may be the end of the first season, but it is the start of a longer journey."
Q: Is there relief?
A: "Relief … no. Why relief? In what sense?
Q: In the sense that you'd planned this for so long and it's finally come to fruition?
A: "(Pauses) No … relief is a different emotion. I just feel happy at the way it has gone. I also feel enriched by the way. I feel that I have learnt so much. In the last two years, I feel I have met such amazing people from across the country. I have connected with different parts of the country. I feel so much more connected to my country and to the people of my country, because of the journey of this show."
Q: When you started out, you must have had an objective in mind for the show. Has it achieved that?
A: "Yeah! I think it's been a fantastic response. You know what me and my team would term a dream response. Not only the people, but I am so happy to say that the administrative class and political class of this country have been extremely pro-active in their response to the show. They have shown such courage at times … they have been very dynamic. For example, generic medicines, we've seen a lot of movement in that area, a number of states have announced it. Female foeticide, a number of states have announced strong action -- political will is behind that action. If you look at the episode we did on alcohol, Alcoholics Anonymous has received 2 lakh phone calls. Two lakh people have contacted AA to come out of alcoholism. That's a huge number."
Q: Which brings me to the question, do you need a celebrity to talk about such issues in India?
A: "That's not the question I am asking -- whether we need a celebrity or not is not important. What is important is to look at the positive side. What if people hadn't responded? What if people had said ‘Arre yaar, I am not interested in social issues'. But that hasn't happened. People have connected at a deep level. The journey for me has been on several levels. My show comes on Sunday, but every day I am on a radio channel, and then I am on All India Radio and Vividh Bharti. All India Radio covers 174 centres, so it reaches every corner of the country. I do a one-hour programme on that. I am also writing articles, which is translated into many languages, we have a pretty active website.
"Who is doing it is unimportant. What is important is that the country is connecting and indicating that these are the issues that are affecting them and they do want to come out of it."
Q: Let me rephrase my question. Do you think these issues would have got the same response if it hadn't been you raising them?
A: "Well again, I am saying what is important is that we often complain that the political class doesn't move fast enough or doesn't respond, but that has not been our experience. So I am saying, the good thing is that everyone is responding and that is what is what we should respect. If a person in a position of strength decides to do something, that is a positive thing and I would like to appreciate that."
Q: Are you talking about the political class or you?
A: "(Laughs) Everyone, everyone. Whether it is me or whether it is the political class or someone in administration. Anyone in a position of strength, to whatever extent their strength is, if you feel that this is something I would like to be a part of, that's a positive thing."
Q: You've dealt with some pretty wide-ranging issues -- like manual scavenging and caste. These are also very complex issues at heart. Do you have to dumb them down to make sure they reach a mass audience?
A: "I would not like to use the word ‘dumb it down'. The medium that I am using to communicate is television. The reason I am using television is because of its massive strength. Each home has a television set. Therefore the reach of television is phenomenal. We have multiplied that by appearing in seven languages -- in other words, you are covering the country. We have multiplied that by being also on Doordarshan, which is our national terrestrial channel. Now, when I have chosen a platform which is mass communication -- I am not talking to one person in my study -- so communication has to be in a form which is … something the vast majority of people can consume and understand what I am saying. The moment I am talking to lakhs and crores of people, simultaneously, I have to make sure that my communication is of the kind that will reach everyone. But at the same time I don't want to compromise on any of the issues. So we may choose to discuss the core of it and maybe three or four related issues around it. We may not be able to deal with all 20 layers of it. But that is a good start. If you are able to address the core and issue and four or five issues surrounding it, that is a good enough start.
"Our progammes are information and knowledge based and we are not shying away from that. If you look at the episode we did on untouchability. Just based on statistics, you are aware and I am aware that 80 percent of the population of this country is non-Dalit. But I am still choosing to take up that issue because I think it is an important issue. These are tough decisions for us, but we have tried to be honest, we have been honest to our convictions and our intentions.
"What are my skill-sets? In this show, we have tried to combine journalism -- hard-core journalism, along with what my skill-sets have been for the last two decades and that is communication. Our first attempt is to gather information and in a journalistic manner, do thorough research on every topic. Once that is done and we collect all the data and information we need to figure out how do we communicate this. Because to communicate it to you in a manner that is interesting, honest, of course honest -- we have to be hard-core honest in what we are saying to you. And that is where my skill-sets come in as a communicator. That is what I have been doing all my life. I have been telling you stories and here is a story I have to tell you, which is the truth.
"The word is not dumbing it down -- I have tried to use my skill-sets to the best of my abilities. Of reaching out and telling people -- tugging at your heartstrings -- that's where my skill-sets lie. Those are the abilities I have learnt in my twenty years. So we are combining journalism with good story-telling."
Q: Do you then think that there's not enough good journalism happening?
A: "No, that's not fair to say. I think there is a fair amount of good journalism happening. There are a lot of journalists who have done a lot of important work -- not just now, but over the last 20-30 years. And a fair amount of our research is actually dependent on that. Our attempt is not to break a new story. We have taken the opportunity of using good journalistic work that has been done previously and building on that. What you need to understand is that a journalist works in a newspaper and that has a readership of five lakh, ten lakh or 30 lakhs. Here is a television programme (on a) general entertainment channel. Through the Star network we reach 40 crore people. Through Doordarshan we reach another 40 crore. That is 80 crore people in a land of 120 crore. So assuming viewership is high, obviously, the impact of this will be higher than in a newspaper. You see what I mean?
"So it would be unfair to compare what this show has achieved with what newspapers have achieved. A lot of newspapers have broken very important stories, because of which governments have toppled."
Q: There has been negative opinion on the show too -- especially the caste episode where it was said that the editing was not done in a fair manner or that subjects were interviewed separately.
A: "That's complete rubbish. People who don't understand the form of television or film are perhaps saying that. We edit everything. Without editing, we can't do a program. We have guests coming from different parts of the country. This is not the only episode but in a number of episodes, when a guest is not able to come on the appointed day, we have 15-20 people talking on a show. So to coordinate 15 peoples' dates on the same day is difficult. So if a guest says sorry I can't come on this day but we feel that it important that they be part of the show, we request the guest to come on another day. We record the interview on another day. But we keep the heart of what every guest says … I feel it is silly to respond to a complaint like this. These are all absurd things. They don't warrant my time."
Q: There was also a list of complaints against you by the doctors' body. Do you feel these are some of the negatives of doing the show?
A: "Every episode is taking one issue which is affecting all of us and majority of us are affected in a negative way and want to find a solution to this problem. But there is a small minority which is causing the problem and that small minority is gaining from the problem. They don't want the problem to disappear. So that small minority will not like what we are saying on the show because we are exposing that small minority. People who are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. They will hit out at us. Write lies against us. They will spread rumours. We were aware of that. There is no question of that not happening.
"The fact of the matter is that I have not said a word against doctors. I have only said against doctors who are intentionally doing unethical medical practices. I have spoken against unethical medical practices. Why would any doctor object? Every doctor should say ‘Yes, we agree'. There should not be any unethical medical practices. So those doctors who are objecting to what I am saying, you can guess for yourself where they are coming from."
Q: Are you disappointed by the numbers on the charity section of your website. Had you hoped for people to come out more in support of these issues?
A: "One of the things I feel is that some episodes have got larger donations and some episodes which have got lesser donations. I don't know the internal mechanics of that. On some level, yes you are right. On certain episodes, I was hoping there would be much more of a support. But I think financial support is not the only thing we should look at. The right to donate is with every individual and if that individual chooses not to donate, I don't think it should be looked at in a negative manner."
Q: The cumulative ratings for the show is something that is been talked about. That it is not as high as was expected. What do you have to say about that?
A: "I don't think 7000 boxes are going to tell me how many people in India are watching my show. I am afraid that logic of it doesn't make sense to me. I don't respond to TRP numbers. Even if you told me they were best in the world, I won't respond to them. Not that TRPs don't matter. Of course it matters to me that people are watching my show. But I don't think that is the way to assess it. I'll tell you what tells me what India is watching. The response I get on AIR and Vividh Bharti. Doordarshan tells me what India is watching. The response that we get on digital platforms, on the internet, on Facebook, on Twitter, which is historical."
Q: If you track a lot of your roles from "Rang de Basanti" to "Taare Zameen Par" to "3 Idiots", one theme that is common is of the good Samaritan. The person who comes in and helps those in trouble. Is that a trait you identify with?
A: "Have you seen ‘Delhi Belly' (laughs)? I was the mad character in the end. Have you forgotten? I don't think I fancy myself as some good Samaritan. I am just a normal human being who has a lot of things in me -- some of them are good, some of them are not so good. Like every other human being, I am struggling to be a better person. That is the fact of the matter. Within all of us there is an internal struggle to try and be better people. I am one of the people who goes through that struggle. To the best of my abilities, I try to be as nice a person as I can. Sometimes I am not such a nice person. Whatever it is … But you try."
Q: One of the things that you are really good at is marketing. How much of the success of "Satyamev Jayate" would you attribute to that?
A: "I just believe I am being honest. You have to be honest about what work you have done. Marketing can only help you bring an audience to the first episode. Thereafter if your episode, your work, your content is not good you don't stand a chance. That's it."
Q: Did you start thinking about these issues before "Satyamev Jayate"?
A: "The seed of the show was in me 15 years ago. Soon after becoming a star and like every other person, I also read the papers, I talk to people. I come to know things and you feel disturbed about what is happening around you. You feel disturbed about injustice at many times. You feel why can't things be better? If I am privileged, how I can change things for those who are not. That was in me many years ago. And it was fermenting in me, which finally somewhere came out through the show."
Q: We have seen you on social platform before. You made an appearance at the Anna Hazare movement, at the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
A: "I have to say that in the past, I may have voiced support for various movements or various issues. If Anna is on a campaign which is to bring stronger legislation to fight against corruption, that is the issue I want to support. And I am not the only one to support that. Lakhs of Indians supported him. Up till now, I had endorsed or offered my support to various issues along the way and those are all issues which other people have been actively participating in and actively fighting for.
"In all of those cases, I was not actively involved. This is the first time through ‘Satyamev Jayate' which I am actively driving and that is the attempt to understand what is happening around us in society vis-à-vis issues and what is it that we can do and we can learn from people who have shown us the way. The attempt is to look inward. The attempt is to see what am I doing wrong? What can I do better? What can I learn about this issue which I don't know already? The attempt of the journey is to understand and having understood, hopefully I can take corrective measures in my life. What am I hoping that this show will achieve? What am I hoping what people will do?
"I don't want people to go out and sit on a dharna. It expects you to understand the issue -- hopefully you are affected by the issue and you are affected enough to make sure that in your own environment and in your own life, you will now take the right steps."
Q: Now that you have covered so many issues, how do you see India as it stands today?
A: "I have a lot of hope in me. I believe that India is wanting to change. I believe it will change. Over the last 3-5 years I have met so many people with a desire to do good. I can see it in their eyes. I can feel it in their voice. Society is ready for change."
Q: Will we see a second season of "Satyamev Jayate"?
A: "The reason is that I am not committing as yet … as you are aware I am shooting for ‘Dhoom 3' right now and immediately after ‘Dhoom 3' I am committed to ‘Peekay', which is this project that Raju Hirani is doing. And both these projects are very important to me. I am little hesitant to commit because I know I have to commit time to this and season 2 of ‘Satyamev Jayate' will be as important, if not more important than season 1. So give me a little time. So I can map my future out a little bit. The intention is very much there."
Q: Any issues that you haven't dealt with?
A: "A lot them that come to mind. But I won't tell you about them (laughs)."