It is not the fact that Aamir Khan is on the cover of the September issue of Time magazine that is as important as how he is projected.
Recall how our beauty contest winners won with that finale answer about their idol being Mother Teresa? The purpose was a clear need to sell beauty products to the huge Indian market. Once that was achieved, we had the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett philanthropy where our industrial bigwigs were lectured about the art of giving, something they had mastered thanks to income tax exemption to channelise black money. Publicly aired social consciousness is only a part of this.
The extracts from the Time story makes it seem as though the Indian population is a willing hostage to one actor.
The blurb itself sets the tone:
"He's breaking the Bollywood mould by tackling India's social evils. Can one actor change a nation?"
Would they say the same about Hollywood stars who speak on social issues or take strong political stands? India’s social evils have great demand for a hungry media, at home and outside. For the outsider, this obviously has some exotic appeal.
"Now, with his groundbreaking TV show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails), he has dispensed with commercial considerations to indulge his conscience. With it, Khan has taken on the mantle of the country's first superstar-activist.”
Has he dispensed with commercial considerations? We have been through it here before. The conscience does not gather a herd. What does being the first superstar-activist mean? There have been films from years ago that raised social issues - Duniya Na Maane, Do Bigha Zameen, Mother India. These were not a candyfloss look at farmer suicide, widow remarriage, dowry, poverty. And I am not even talking about regional cinema and parallel cinema.
The piece is obviously a paean when it says:
“It's a ballsy move, and potentially jeopardizes his status as the beloved idol of millions.”
If anything, it has got him a new audience, the sort that attends rallies by Anna Hazare or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living sessions. It is utterly patronising to read that the show tackled subjects that “are precisely the sorts of harsh realities from which many of Khan's fans seek escape in his movies”; it probably works for this group.
If anything, the actor fancies that he does films that have a message, whether it is Lagaan, Rang de Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, Mangal Pandey, Peepli Live. He makes a point to go on a road show as a ‘messenger’.
"Can a movie star affect the mores of a nation of 1.2 billion? It might just be possible in India, where a national obsession with cinema, unparalleled in the world, gives popular actors an influence beyond the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters.”
Such a limited understanding. There are places where cinema halls have been shut down. Films are banned. If the national obsession is an escape, then it applies to realistic cinema too, for that reality is not mirroring what people go through, but what characters go through. Cinematic projection of such truths is like sharing misery with others, if we really wish to look at films in that manner.
Hollywood actors use a particular issue and take it to a forum to push for change. One may be cynical about their motives, but the public does not assume they will bring about change.
“Whatever Khan chooses to do next in his quest for grace, there's a good chance it will lift India a little closer to what he - and fellow Indians - would wish their country and society to be.”
This is just so weird. It builds up an individual as a messiah, that too on a personal “quest for grace”. India has several dreams and different people have different dreams. This certificate of granting one person the keys to the kingdom is so feudal. I wonder why Time magazine did not make him wear a maharajah turban in the cover picture. Or, perhaps contemporary maharajahs just look intensely into the eyes of the camera.
(c) Farzana Versey
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The rest of my pieces on Satyamev Jayate are here