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TV STAR ACTIVIST: Bollywood heart-throb has won acclaim and scorn for his hard-hitting social commentary television programme
INDIA'S television, criticised for indulging in trivia to attract viewers, naïve handling of serious issues and for happily being co-opted by the cinema industry, has acquired a new edge, showing the people their seamy side.
A show probing a new social issue every Sunday has millions viewing and debating. Some are even protesting.
Aborting a female foetus in preference to a boy, "honour" killings of young couples marrying in defiance of parents or guardians of caste or faith, taking and giving of dowry -- a no-holds-barred debate has just begun. More is in store.
The show's title Satyameva Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), is derived from a Sanskrit mantra that is also part of the national emblem. The quest for truth has universal appeal; and that has raised high expectations.
Trying to meet them, and holding the mirror to Indian society is Bollywood actor-filmmaker Aamir Khan. One would not generally associate serious stuff with Bollywood that, with numerous exceptions, is synonymous with escapist entertainment. But Aamir is different.
One of the Khan trinity that dominates Bollywood, cineastes place him above the other two - Shah Rukh and Salman -- in terms of critical acclaim and contribution to cinema.
While others are chasing megabucks on entertainment shows worldwide, Aamir is touring India's small towns. He endorses social causes and has not hesitated to speak up on sensitive issues. He has used his star pull, creativity and a unique marketing method: travelling with crew and promoting his programme while shooting it.
To reach that audience, he secured prime time on the state-owned Doordarshan channel, not popular in big cities, but has the largest footprint.
Victims tell their story before a studio audience. A sexually exploited youth recounts how actress Sridevi beating up goons in movies inspired him to say "no" to his tormentor of long years.
An army major narrates how he lost his wife to a hospital that prescribed expensive surgery when none was needed.
A doctor who delivered girl twins accuses the mother-in-law, a college teacher, of pushing the pram with the babies down the staircase.
Pre-natal tests are illegally conducted. Among the worst culprits are in Rajasthan state. A proactive Aamir later met and secured the chief minister's commitment.
Kolkata techie Rizwanur Rahman paid with his life for marrying his rich student. Another couple is being chased by police from three states.
Village elders in another case justify ostracising a family, saying the constitution and judiciary can only interpret law, not established traditions.
Not judgmental on cases that may be sub-judice, Aamir sheds tears and consoles the victims. His deep sighs are infectious. Many in the audience cry.
Some medical associations said the show maligned their profession when there are "bad eggs" everywhere, including in cinema. Aamir said that without hurting anyone, he wanted to raise issues often swept under the carpet.
Heart specialist Dr Devi Shetty, well-known to Malaysians, was on the show to exhort young medicos to "do what your heart says... Anyone who does wrong, will eventually pay for it".
Although the film industry espouses good causes, this seems different. Bollywood is divided at Aamir winning unparalleled respect: "Why does Aamir cry every Sunday?" asked a critic in the Times of India. "Emulate him," a writer in The Hindu advises South Indian film stars.
Not a born crusader, Aamir took long to evolve. For much of his career, he was a "chocolate" hero, romancing heroines. He got into serious mode at the century's turn, producing, acting and directing some of the landmark films of the last decade.
His Lagaan (2002) won an Oscar nomination. Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Rang De Basanti (2006), his directorial debut Taare Zameen Par (2007), Ghajini (2008) and 3 Idiots (2009) are among his memorable movies. Last November, Khan was appointed United Nations Children's Fund brand ambassador to promote child nutrition.
Although he dismisses any talk of joining politics, there is a "political" streak in this descendant of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, freedom fighter and independent India's first education minister.
Last year, he shared the dais with anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare. Unlike him, Aamir's approach is measured: "Corruption is a very strong issue ... but we all are involved in it. A strong law must come in force ... but it is equally important to change ourselves first."
Of his show, Aamir says: "I am nobody to bring change or solve anything. One person cannot improve or bring solution to an issue. Nor (can) the government. I can only bring the issues before everyone. The change should come from within."