It has felt, of late, as if all of India is talking about Satyamev Jayate, the biggest sensation in television shows in years. Newly released viewer numbers show that indeed, a whopping 90 million people tuned in for the first episode on May 6, making it the most-watched show ever in India.
It is broadcast across eight satellite channels – from the Hindi market at the top of the country to the Telugu one at the bottom – and also on the massive free channel of the state-backed broadcaster. A few million more people have taken in the first two episodes on YouTube. (You can watch here).
The show is the brainchild of dishy Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, whose history of social activism makes him a sort of Indian equivalent of George Clooney. It’s his first foray into television, and Mr. Khan has said he wanted to do a sort of news-magazine-talk-show hybrid. He had the enthusiastic backing of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star channel, but one suspects his producers must have paled when he insisted he was going to do his first episode on the persistent problem of son preference and the abortion of female fetuses in India.
Mr. Khan, however, would appear to have excellent television instincts. The show has been not just a popular success but also a critical one, with television reviewers gushing about his style and his subject choices.
In that first episode he gently interviewed Amisha Yagnik, a woman from Gujarat who told him that six times in eight years, her husband and in-laws forced her to abort female fetuses. He also featured well-educated, well-off women who had been attacked for trying to bear female children – challenging the idea that sex selection is only practised by villagers, a widely held belief belied by the national sex ratio statistics.
The second episode tackled child sexual abuse, and included a blunt lesson for children on good and bad touching. Mr. Khan raised the provocative issue of whether the Indian code of respect for elders can do more harm than good.
“Today our society faces several challenges,” he said in Hindi at the start of the show. “Instead of confronting them we sometimes pretend to ignore them. It encourages the perpetrators of injustice, emboldens them.” By bringing the conversation into the open, he said, he hoped to unite citizens to find solutions. The show’s title translates roughly into “Truth Prevails” and comes from a national motto.
The terribly earnest Mr. Khan has hit upon a formula that works. Commentators, tweeters, and ladies at lunch can’t stop talking about the show. “Of course everybody knows that the things he’s talking about happen – but he also tells you about solutions,” said Aditi Lahiri, who was chatting about the show over coffee with friends in a Delhi café yesterday. She plans to watch every episode, and her husband, two pre-teen sons and mother-in-law are just as keen, she said.
There have been a few high-profile actions after the shows aired – police in Rajasthan moved in on doctors providing illegal gender testing to pregnant women and their families, for example, and Mr. Khan held a much-covered meeting with the state’s chief minister, who vowed to fast-track prosecution of doctors carrying out the practice who were featured in a sting on the show. After the second episode, the country’s little-known child helplines reported being flooded with calls about potential abuses cases when Mr. Khan publicized their numbers.
Part of Mr. Khan’s success may lie in his canny choice of viewing hour. He reportedly battled with Star executives over the odd selection of 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning – they thought the 9 p.m. prime time slot was more appropriate.
But Mr. Khan remembered how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, India came to a hushed halt on Sunday mornings when families gathered to watch long-running serializations of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. He hoped to recreate that family television experience, he has said, and to evoke a national conversation in the same way. Each episode is 90 minutes long.
A reported 100,000 people tried to call in to the first program (11 got through.) There are 11 episodes to come; their topics, like the first two, are a closely-guarded secret.