New Delhi

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Aamir Khan has always stood out from the Bollywood crowd in his choice of subjects, his risk-taking, his controversial opinions and his refusal to do the things that other stars do (he refuses to endorse consumer products, for example).

Khan keeps surprising and his television debut has proved to be equally original: every Sunday morning Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails) takes one of India's worst social evils into people's homes.

If anyone ever doubted the power of celebrity, they should see the public reaction to the first episode on female feticide. Some of the comments have described the show as making 'television history'. It has been called 'a movement for social change' and a harbinger for 'revolution'.

Khan interviewed three women who had been forced by their in-laws and husbands to commit female feticide. The stories, heard by a studio audience, are powerful. Khan, 47, supports them with statistics and suggestions for how viewers can stop the crime.

'Our standard response is to blame the police or the government. I'm asking people to do what I am doing myself, which is to look within and ask what am I doing about it. Female feticide is a crime planned in our bedrooms and we cannot have the police in the bedrooms to monitor us,' Khan told Outlook.

He is the first to admit he is not offering new information. For decades, most Indians have known their country has a skewed sex ratio. They know this is the result of 20 million female fetuses being aborted in the past few decades. They know doctors and radiologists are complicit in the practice.

'When a film star like Khan tells you all this, the impact is huge. When a male superstar tells viewers that it is the man's sperm that determines the sex of a baby, Indians listen and believe,' New Delhi gynaecologist Dr Pratibha Nayar said. 'If he can alter attitudes, it will be more effective than the law that bans feticide.'

Commentators have praised Khan for using his star power to tackle difficult subjects instead of restricting himself, like most film stars working in television, to talent or reality shows. The Indian film industry has no tradition of celebrity activism.

'What Aamir has shown everyone is that there is space for socially relevant entertainment in India, not just entertainment,' programme director Satyajit Bhatkal says. 'He has rewritten the rules of television and got the whole country engaged.'

Bhatkal said the team was shocked by the stories viewers called in to relate. One man said that, after having two daughters, he forced his wife to undergo eight abortions in his quest for a son. When she conceived the ninth time, she died of complications arising from the abortions. 'He broke down on the phone, 18 years later, while telling us his story,' Bhatkal said.

It's far too early to tell what real, long-term impact the programme will have on society, but Khan has already elicited the sort of response from politicians that social activists can only dream of.