Press Release

A Conversation With: Bollywood’s Aamir Khan

26 July 2012

In May, Aamir Khan, the film star, started hosting a first-of-its-kind TV show, “Satyamev Jayate” (Truth Prevails), that deals with large social problems like the caste system, dowries, the overuse of pesticides, medical malpractice and alcoholism. The showhas become a national sensation, prompting changes in policy and earning Mr. Khan an invitation to testify before a committee of the Parliament about health care.

Mr. Khan, 47, who grew up in a film family, is widely considered one of the top actors in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai. In the last decade, he has increasingly performed in and produced socially conscious films that appeal to the moviegoing masses of India. He sat down for an interview with India Ink one recent Saturday morning as he prepared to start shooting for the movie “Dhoom 3,” the third installment of an action franchise.

Q.How did this show come about?

 A.It’s like all of us: you read the papers, you hear about stuff and you see things happening around you which you feel, “You know, I wish things were different.” I used to often feel, “What can I do, what can I do?” And I used to think that, “You know my skill sets lie in communications — that’s what I have learned in the work that I do. So I can use my skill sets to contribute in any way to society.” I used to always feel television is a strong medium, and if I can combine my skill sets or whatever goodwill I have earned, along with the reach of TV, then we can actually do something.

So when Uday [Shankar, the chief executive of Star India] came to meet me, he offered me a game show, I think, which didn’t interest me, then said, “What would you like to do in TV?” I said, “Look, for me to do TV, I feel that TV is such a strong medium and so powerful. In every home you have a TV. I would like to use that strength to bring about strong social change.”

Q.Shyam Benegal, the respected filmmaker and former legislator, told me that your show is effective because it appeals to mainstream audiences. The same appears to be true of many of your movies like “Tarre Zameen Par,” which is about dyslexia. How do you take entertainment and stuff it with vegetables, so to speak?

A.I personally believe I am not doing it the way you are describing it. I am not stuffing vegetables. I am not stuffing messaging into entertainment. What I am doing is I am taking something — you can call it messaging for lack of a better description –I am taking messaging in its pure form and I am making that interesting for you. I feel that anything can be told in an interesting way.

Q.How did you come up with the topics for “Satyamev Jayate”?

A.We went through many topics. And for that, Uday was also part of the discussion. We had a list of 40 topics, then we brought it under 20 and then 16 and then 13. It’s very difficult to say why we dropped one and kept one. And we had hoped that if the show is successful and people do connect with it, then we could take up those more topics.

Q.So far, most of the shows you have done so far have not been very political.

A I don’t know why you say that. Health care is very political.

Q. Each show certainly discusses policy, but you don’t get into political details, the role of, say, the Congress or the Bhartiya Janata Party in any particular issue.

A. The thing is we don’t take names of anybody. Our purpose is not that. Whether it’s an individual, whether it’s a political party or company or agency, our purpose is to not name any individual. Our purpose is to look inward.

Let us be positive instead of being negative. Let us not point fingers and find a villain. One of us is doing it. Let’s find an answer. The person who is doing it also knows what I am doing. When we say India is spending 1.4 percent of its G.D.P. on health care, who is spending 1.4 percent?

Q.The government.

A.So we are very clearly saying that government is spending 1.4 percent. It’s not right. Is that how we value our health? Is that the only value we can put to health? We are not mincing our words at all. We are just not being accusatory in our approach because that is not our intention. Our intention is to understand.

And everybody is part of our society, including a politician. A politician is as much a human being as you and I. You can’t just only blame that person. You and I have chosen him. We have to take as much responsibility.

Q.So you disagree with people who argue that you could have more impact if you named names and held specific people responsible?

A.Yeah, because I feel first of all I have to genuinely understand that I am part of the problem. The moment that I think I am not part of the problem, then I am not being honest.

We look at these issues and see where we are going wrong. That’s the attempt. Can we look for people who have found a way forward? Can we say how have they understood the issue? Maybe they are in the minority and they are not exposed on a public platform nationally. We are giving that platform to them and learning from people who have found a way forward. So the show’s attempt is a very positive attempt.

Wherever there are governments doing great work, we showcase that. Sikkim: fully organic. We put that as an example. If Sikkim can go fully organic, why can’t every state?

Q.But many agricultural experts say it’s not realistic to think that all Indian agriculture can go organic and still produce enough food to feed 1.2 billion people.

A.Who tells you this?

Q.Agricultural experts.

A.No, who tells you this? Think again; you are a journalist. I am pointing the mike at you now.

Q.You want me to tell you that the [fertilizer and pesticide] companies tell me this?

A.Who else? Bingo. Now, let me tell you India is a country of small and marginal farmers. What’s the size of the average farm in India? Less than two acres. OK, why do you need chemical farming for that? Give me one good reason. So if you don’t need it, let’s not have it. Why are you putting poison in the soil, making it less fertile, turning it into sand? Why? How much water is required? How much more water is required with chemical farming? So you are using more water also, spoiling the soil, as well. And how big is your farm in any case?

India is ideal for organic farming. Please don’t believe these people, I request you. America, 500 acres is a small farm. We are not America. In the West, people need to do chemical farming. We don’t need to. Our average farm is two acres, we have a labor problem, people don’t have jobs. Organic farming is slightly more labor intensive. Great, our guys will get jobs.

How many examples have we placed before you on the show of people who are doing organic farming who are time and again telling you that if you do it correctly, your yield does not go down, your soil remains fertile? Why are you turning a blind eye to that? I don’t understand. What more proof do you want, yaar?

Q.A lot of people I have spoken to say something changed about you after your 2001 movie “Lagaan,” that you started speaking out more and doing movies that touched on more serious issues than you had in the past. Was the movie a turning point for you?

A.No, I don’t think so. I spoke out during the Mumbai riots [in 1992 and 1993] also. I have never hesitated to speak my mind, ever. “Sarfarosh” was in 1998, before “Lagaan.” It’s a highly social, political film. So I don’t see “Lagaan” as a turning point.

Q.What kind of influence has your wife, Kiran Rao, had on you?

A.I think Kiran has had a very relaxing effect on me. She has a lot of positive energy. She is full of life. She has always got a smile on her face, a bright smile And I think her happy nature is infectious. I think as a person I have always been very closed, you know, right through my life. I think with Kiran coming into my life, I kind of [breathes out] relaxed. That’s the best way I can explain it.

Q.Where are you planning to take the show? How do you take it forward?

A.The first thing we want to do is understand what we have done. We need to take stock. I don’t think right now we have fully understood what has happened. I don’t think anybody has. And right now we are still in the thick of it. We are still airing our episodes; we are still doing postproduction of the ones that are coming. The last episode comes on 29 July.

Once that happens, I think the next three months the team will spread out once more across the country like they did for two years. And for three months they will travel the country to understand what is it that we have done and what is the extent of the impact of the show. Has it had any impact or not?

Q. And you will go back to doing films like “Dhoom 3”after this?

A.It’s not like this is not a part of my life. All of this is a part of my life. “Satyamev Jayate” is as much a part of my life as “Dhoom 3” is. Neither of the two ends for me; neither of the two is kept aside for me. “Satyamev Jayate” is very much part of my life and always will be. I am looking forward to “Dhoom 3.” It’s a great script. See, I only work on things that excite me.

Q.You have said you are not interested in running for office. What do you want to be doing 10 or 15 years from now?

 A.Telling you stories, hopefully. Hopefully, I will still be able to tell you stories. This is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy touching people’s heart, touching their lives. Making you laugh and cry, feel.

(Interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)

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