Considered one of the greatest actors of all-time, Robert DeNiro has this to say about acting: “One of the things about acting is, it allows you to live other people's lives without having to pay the price (for it)”.
Five years ago I was invited to be on a panel of judges for the annual function of a school. You know the ones where they celebrate their foundation day with songs, drama, dances and comedy skits. It’s a good opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills beyond the academic courses. Almost all parents attend too. Why not, especially parents of the participants would like to see their kids win some praise and prizes. I remember the girl who won the prize for best drama. She did a 15-minute solo act. She was from Class-4 so I presume around 9 years of age then. Her script was forceful and so was her acting and dialogue delivery. I must admit I was stunned to see a kid emoting in a manner that turned many faces in the audience grim and some men and women even had tears in their eyes. What was she playing? Well, she was playing the role of a female foetus in the womb. She was pleading from the womb with her father and mother not to kill her. This was in Junagadh in Gujarat. It was creative, impactful and dramatic to say the least.
There has been a campaign going on for long in Gujarat against female foeticide. At the end of her performance the audience spontaneously gave her a standing ovation that lasted nearly 3 minutes. The only question in my mind was whether a child of 9 can really understand female foeticide, its implications for society and all that. Hard to tell but maybe she was explained very well while being coached for her act. What is important is that the message of the social evil of female foeticide had reached even the primary levels of schools. But wait! The country doesn’t know! Umm.. Not unless Aamir Khan says so.
First, a confession: I have not watched a single episode of Satyameva Jayate (SMJ) and I don’t intend to. I have also not watched any of those Saas-Bahu soaps or any of that stuff either. I have watched Oprah Winfrey when there were fewer channels and hardly any private news channels. In principle, this blog does not ever comment on any entertainment shows. And it is not about to either. I’m not a movie or drama critic. And, therefore, I do not intend to pass any comment on SMJ, being that it’s an entertainment show, even if in the ‘Glycerine’ category. I would imagine it’s the modern day TV version of Meena Kumari. The only difference between Oprah and Aamir that I could think of is that Oprah claimed to have gone through many of the problems she discussed on her show during her childhood and part of her adulthood. Aamir, on the other hand, has been an actor since he was 7 years old and has lived a largely luxurious or at least comfortable life. The comparison ends there. What did get my attention was an article in Outlook magazine by S. Anand titled ‘Silence Eva Jayate’ (July 23 edition). So let’s quickly look at a few excerpts (in blue) from Anand’s story:
I had spotted Bezwada Wilson in the audience…. He too was asked to narrate his early life, and he too shed tears. As did Khan with practised ease. The next day I called Wilson and told him I was annoyed that even he did not bother to mention Ambedkar and Reservation. Wilson clarified that he indeed had. It had been edited out, as was his rant against the SC and Parliament—since both institutions had been dragging their feet on the issue of manual scavenging. Then he revealed something that shocked me. He said he had not been in the audience when Kaushal Panwar was being interviewed by Khan. I countered saying I had seen him ‘reacting’ to what Kaushal said on stage. “Even I saw myself in the audience and hence was shocked,” said Wilson. He said Kaushal had been interviewed in total isolation, in an empty studio. And yet on Sunday we saw, every once in a while, close-ups of fretful, anxious, pained and agonised faces of members of the studio audience as Kaushal was narrating her story. They even clapped on cue, like when Khan asked Kaushal her heroic father’s name. Clearly, all this had been manipulated and faked—with clever editing and splicing of shots.
I give all credit to Anand for so meticulously narrating what he researched. But this is television – and SMJ is not ‘Live’. It’s not even like Sagarika’s LookLive. Studio audiences are coached for responses, unlike the audience responding to that little girl acting in her school function. In the old days a man would shuffle signs written on cardboard to prompt audience response in the studio. (Doordarshan used such placards for program and credit-titles, you can see those in their archives). With audiences, the man with a placard will prompt the audience to ‘Clap’ or go ‘Awwwwww’ to respond to a transaction. (See pic).This is done even when the main performers and actors aren't present and recorded only with the audience present. This can also be done with 'doubles' as in regular movies.
Since then studios have evolved to use digital prompters as can be seen for ‘Applause’. So when it says applause, people clap. When it says “Shock” people turn their faces to a grim expression which the camera will honestly capture. When the prompter says “Aww” the audience will let out a loud “Awwwwwww” either in sympathy or empathy or in happiness at a couple kissing. The prompter in SMJ might even say “Cry” and some might force a few tears. Now, that is not so hard to fathom really, is it?
In fact, when Chandra Bhan Prasad, mentor to DICCI and an exponent of ‘dalit capitalism’, watched the show with Kamble in Pune, they could not believe their eyes. Kamble’s interview with Khan had been shot with Dharmadhikari and Kamble seated next to each other on the studio couch; but Kamble had been weeded out. Prasad wondered if some ‘dirty trick editing’ made this possible. More likely, Dharmadhikari took a leaf out of Khan’s book and did not mind giving a ‘fresh take’ minus the unsuitable presence of Kamble. I also discovered that every participant on the show is forced to sign a ‘confidentiality agreement’ saying they will not speak about their participation—recorded many months ahead—in any social media.
Okay, there is no trickery involved here. This is normal editing out of what is inconvenient to a show that is supposed to deal with ‘facts and truth’. The confidentiality agreement is also a normal practice in such shows. The question Anand didn’t ask is: Did the people who appeared for interviews get paid an appearance fee? In all probability they did. People are also chosen for views that “suit” a program’s agenda and not randomly or purely on their expertise. You see, confidentiality agreements aren’t signed unless there is a ‘consideration’ of some nature. Now, if the interviewees were paid in cash or kind then they have no option but to abide by the confidentiality clause because it probably includes a clause that says the footage may or may not be used. So while Anand genuinely talks about it from a moral point of view, given the show is treated as ‘social conscience’ program, the mistake he makes is that he doesn't see it’s just another ‘entertainment’ show. It is just another Bollywood movie. The viewers expecting something larger is their own fault. But this is how TV fools people which Anand explains clinically.
Khan and his team not only deviously censored any discussion of Ambedkar and Reservation, they seemed content to use the 1920s language of high-caste reformers. A friend chided me saying I shouldn’t expect Khan to be an activist. But surely my friend did not know how Khan manipulates and fools his audience—in the studio and outside—to nod and cry at moments he chooses. Wilson said, “In fact, during the shoot it was not I who actually began crying. Aamir Khan started to cry, so I was forced to cry along.” Khan obviously thinks we can flush away middle class shit with tears.
Lately, in the incident relating to the Guwahati molestation there has been discussion on whether it is ‘politicized or not’ or whether it should be ‘politicized’. Shows such as SMJ cannot afford to be politically incorrect. Thus, any references to Ambedkar, facts, truths or accuracies are false expectations that viewers should not nurture. Anand’s friend is right. Like Anand many viewers too expect or believe Aamir Khan is some kind of activist. He is not. He is an actor, first and last. Period! Still, one must applaud S. Anand for his effort to reveal certain truths about SMJ.
Like Robert DeNiro said, actors can live other people’s lives without having to pay the price for it. Aamir can wax eloquent about any problem and any social evil but he doesn’t have to pay a price for it or for the lives of those who suffer. His job in SMJ is to act out a part scripted for the show. Does he act well? Does he act badly? That should be the assessment viewers should be making. As with movies, so too in a program that isn’t live, Aamir can get 17 shots, 17 retakes, 17 camera angles, thousand expressions and a few tears. To help his acting there is also glycerine and prompters that will tell the audience to Shock, Aww and Applaud. Enjoy the show!