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Oprah? No,it’s Donahue

Aamir’s message can’t transcend the medium

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: June 2, 2012 1:51:23 am

Aamir’s message can’t transcend the medium

This column reappears after a break,during which an elephant got into the TV room. Aamir Khan launched Satyamev Jayate in May and critics from Kolkata to Karachi nominated him South Asia’s Oprah. Maybe it was the emotional parts — the fierce tears that Khan brushes aside with masculine impatience. Cathartic libations for a satellite sacrament between a star with a conscience and a nation that mistakes its anxieties for a conscience. When did he last cry on screen? Maybe in Rangeela,when he almost lost the girl to alpha hero Jackie Shroff.

Satyamev Jayate has now broken out of the gender box,after three episodes which projected homely problems like female foeticide out to homes where they mostly watch KKKyunki Saas Abhi Bhi Behnji Hain,or similar. It took on medical malpractice last Sunday but unless you’ve been living in a hole with no newspapers,TV or internet,it was short on news. Except that star attraction had reeled in unexpected guests like the chairman of the chronically embarrassed Medical Council of India,who would normally avoid journalistic attention. Otherwise,the programme re-documented issues and data that activists and the media track quite diligently. And it severely oversimplified the debate about branded versus generic drugs.

Fatigued,I began to surf away,but a wild surmise stayed my hand. This is not tropicalised Oprah,I realised. Khan has reeled way back to Phil Donahue,the innovator of tabloid talk TV. Before his programme degenerated into a freak show exploring the amplitude of human behaviour,Donahue was an influential documentarist. He had helped to mainstream the Love Canal tragedy,the modern world’s first industrial disaster,which became a test case for liability law. But he was late on the scene,and this is a routine failing of his format.

In 1955,Hooker Chemical (now the Occidental Petroleum Corporation) was pressed to sell land contaminated by 21,000 tonnes of waste in Love Canal,Niagara Falls,to the government for development. Birth deformities were reported in 1976,Jane Fonda visited in 1979 to drum up support and the next year,President Jimmy Carter declared a national emergency. Only then,four years after the event,were residents of Love Canal invited by Donahue. But,then,his show triggered media campaigns which forced Occidental to pay almost $250 million in reparation.

Apart from the emotionalism,Satyamev Jayate is following Donahue’s documentary formula — old wine distilled into stinging new spirit. But Oprah would appreciate its modern business plan — huge production budgets and matching revenues,achieved by simulcasting across networks and languages with cross-media support. Aamir Khan is promoting causes and organisations for a record Rs 3 crore per appearance,which is almost Rs 3 crore more than what brand ambassadorship of NGOs would have earned him. And he is establishing a powerful presence in television.

Meanwhile,Satyamev Jayate is taking modern concerns to underserved homes and broadening awareness about ongoing activism,media coverage and government policy. It cannot do more because,barring a sting operation in the first episode,it does not go to the source. In last Sunday’s programme,criminal doctors were not named and shamed. By way of activism,Khan only urged the Medical Council of India to cancel their licences — which,he noted,it never does.

On the small screen,Aamir Khan is playing a role that surpasses anything he’s ever done in cinema. Yet Satyamev Jayate leaves us only a little more sensitised to familiar problems,and with a lot to still get mad about. But that’s the limitation of Donahue’s format,and Khan’s message can’t transcend the medium.

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