There is something refreshing and refreshingly erudite about Aamir Khan. He always struck me as being at least two standard deviations favourably removed from the Bollywood mob evidenced by his economy of films, scarcity of emotions and attention to detail.
It is easy to relate to Khan. You can imagine having tea with this chap, who is akin to a genuinely concerned college student carrying the weight of humanity’s imperfection on his shoulders.
If Khan is agreeable, his films have an uncanny habit of being relevant. And timely. It is as if Khan has the power of telepathy and can see what the collective psyche of India is thinking at any point in time.
The two films that most bring this point across that I have recently seen are Peepli Live and Three Idiots. The former about farmer’s suicide conveyed a point far more poignantly than the scores of editorials that have been published in this genre. A picture truly sets a thousand emotions. The latter, notwithstanding the allegations of surreptitious usurpation of the script from a popular novel, touched on India’s dysfunctional higher education system where innovative thought is sacrificed for mindless rote learning.
Thus, it came as no surprise that the producer of Satyamev Jayate, the highly popular talk show, is Aamir Khan. Celebrities have often been involved in national and international causes of social injustice. George Clooney regularly travelled to Darfur. Several Hollywood stars are involved in the Tibetan struggle, so much so that “Free Tibet” has become a fashionable international cause, a “Giorgio Armani” of righteous indignation.
What sets Khan apart, apart from the fact that he pursues causes closer to home, is that his efforts seem genuinely more about the victims than himself. As an example, on the show the bulk of the talking is done by the victim, punctuated by timely and brief questions from Khan, who does the listening. For a celebrity, such self-restraint is admirable and cannot come easily. For all George Clooney’s effort in the quelling of the genocide in Darfur - smuggled cameras, spy satellite tracking the killings – intentionally or not it became more about Clooney than about Darfur. This is nicely epitomized in Clooney’s admission that “Darfur was his greatest failure” (the holding of the killing of over a million people within the determinism of one person, shows a level of self-regard that is impossible to measure).
I digress. Back to Satyamev Jayate. The show clearly has taken India by storm or, more precisely the Indian middle class, judging by the usual metrics of success in the digital age such as the number of comments on Twitter. Anecdotally, it seems to be reigning the attention of the Indian Diaspora in whom it creates, unsurprisingly, rather mixed emotions – the guilt and shame walled off by the “thank god I left India”.
It is with the latter sentiment that I took exception in a recent discussion with an Indian American, who I will call Ash.
Ash moved to the US over 30 years ago, yet makes annual pilgrimages to the mother ship. He was alarmed by the epidemic of female infanticide in India. His use of the word “epidemic” was not accidental. Belonging to the medical profession he knew it meant a sudden sharp increase in numbers, such as one would associate with an infectious disease such as bird flu. Ash was particularly disgusted that in a country with rapid accumulation of wealth and prosperity such practices were still rampant. “What is the point of having a world class airport when the country is killing female babies left, right and center?” he asked, unwittingly displaying his discomfort at India’s visible progress (a phenomenon not uncommon amongst the Diaspora).
This is a sentiment (minus the lazy generalization) not wholly unreasonable in itself but one that invites further scrutiny lest it leads to the wrong conclusion.
I agreed that there in deed was an “epidemic”. But an epidemic of awareness of selective female abortion/ infanticide not an epidemic of prevalence of female infanticide. In fact, it would not surprise me if the number of cases of selective female abortion/ infanticide had actually precipitously decreased and that this decrease coincided, though not causally, with the increase of awareness.
It is a curious fact that as social injustices begin to be redressed and reach their nadir, the awareness of and indignation from these injustices reaches a peak. The level of anger about a particular injustice is seldom a good metric of the severity of the injustice.
A more relevant question is why the level of awareness and indignation from selective female infanticide has increased and what does this increase tell us about India? I believe the awareness has increased because of the increase in the prosperity of the middle class. The middle class owns cars in increasing numbers, fancy gadgets, appliances that make domestic life easier. They frequent restaurants and social clubs so that their wives no longer have to slave in the kitchen as often. Their neighbourhoods have more sustained electric supply.
Consider the indignation that can be generated with the 2G corruption scam when you are sitting in your living room with the AC on full blast chatting to your work mates over a cup of tea whilst your son is busy buried in to the latest gizmo from X-box, but you are blissfully aware that his place in a capitation medical school is all but guaranteed.
Now compare this situation to the person dripping in sweat trying to generate some air and ward off mosquitoes from a hand-held fan whilst the thermometer outside reads 45° C, in one of those scheduled 6-hour power cuts, worried that his son might not pass the state board medical entrance exam. Do you think he will lose sleep over selective female infanticide? Does he not have enough problems in his own four walls to worry about random women he has never met having their uterus removed without good medical reason?
Indignation is a bourgeois indulgence. It comes after the wealth and prosperity that Ash so disparages; curiously in his mother country not his adopted country.
What does Satyamev Jayate say about India? It tells us that middle class has economically progressed in India to a staggering level. To such an extent that it is ripe for awareness and indignation. It also tells us that there is much to be indignant about in India. But surely that was never in doubt.
Where I diverge from Ash is where he holds the prosperity of the middle class as a mirror for shame I hold it as the gauntlet for celebration. Thank god for the prosperity!
Prosperity is a necessary condition for awareness of social injustice. Awareness can lead to social transformation so long as its energy is directed towards implementation of meaningful reform rather than tortured self- introspection. And it is here that I am somewhat circumspect about the long term effectiveness of the show. The show can be easily become a subterfuge for self-hate (a most addictive indulgence), a voyeurism of ineffectual righteous indignation, an avenue where the materially satiated can periodically offset their pent up guilt within their cocoon of comfort.
As the show progresses and the low lying, nonetheless consequential, fruits are taken Khan will be confronted with the choice between high lying and consequential fruits and low lying but inconsequential fruits. He may have to rattle networks of special interests.
It will be interesting to see if he chooses the path of least resistance as other warriors against social injustice in India who have, to cite one example, found it more inviting to defend free speech for MF Hussain than for Taslima Nasreen or Salman Rushdie. Let us hope that Aamir Khan buckles this trend and matches his compassion with courage so that the truth alone prevails.
Dr. Saurabh Jha, MD MRCS, a British/Indian NRI, is an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. With his natural flair for writing, Dr. Jha will be expressing his views on Bihar, Bihar-related issues, and other topics that are sure to grab the attention of the visitors of PatnaDaily.Com.