MUMBAI (Reuters) - Over the last decade Aamir Khan has saved villagers from an oppressive tax, led a movement against corruption, educated parents about learning disabilities and fought India’s flawed education system.
But that was all in the movies.
Khan, one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars, is now taking on real-life crusades.
In a country where television is populated with scheming mother-in-laws, coy brides and mountains of melodrama, Khan has used a prime-time talk show to tackle gritty social issues that most Indians are not used to talking about.
From the stigma that dogs millions of Indians of the former “untouchable” caste, many of whom are forced to eke out livings in menial jobs, to the sexual abuse of children, Khan’s show has got Indian tongues wagging.
For the last 13 weeks, the 47-year-old Khan has produced and hosted “Satyamev Jayate” (truth always prevails), which has caught the eye of some of India’s most powerful politicians, but also attracted criticism of sensationalizing sensitive issues.
After one show focused on the illegal practice of manual scavenging, Khan met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss how the government could tackle the degrading practice.
More than a million Indians are estimated to be involved in manual scavenging, which sees them removing animal or human excreta using brooms, tin plates and baskets from dry latrines and carrying it to disposal grounds.
After another show, the chief minister of the northern state of Rajasthan promised a special court to fast track trials related to female feticide, an illegal but widespread practice.
“I don’t think I fancy myself as some good Samaritan,” Khan told Reuters in an interview last Friday.
“I have tried to use my skill sets to the best of my abilities. Reaching out and telling people stories, tugging at your heartstrings, that’s where my skill-sets lie”, he said.
“We are combining journalism with good story-telling.”
The show is broadcast simultaneously across nine channels on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star India Network, as well as on the state-run Doordarshan channel.
In the last episode of season one, which aired on Sunday, Khan touched on religious riots in the western state of Gujarat in which hundreds of people were slaughtered in 2002, an issue that is still hugely sensitive in India.
“The attempt is to look inward. The attempt is to see what am I doing wrong? What can I do better? What can I learn about this issue which I don’t know already?” Khan said.
Khan’s show has become popular with everyday Indians, claiming to reach around 800 million people, in a country of 1.2 billion. The show also has 1.4 million likes registered on its Facebook page and around 69,000 followers on Twitter.
But there has been criticism of Khan and his show.
S. Anand, a journalist who also runs a publishing house that focuses on caste issues, wrote a scathing article in Outlook magazine, accusing Khan’s handling of caste issues as being “manipulative and fake”.
Media observers say Khan has benefited hugely from his great public relations skills.
“He has a certain image that he would like to project through his movies and television - that of an intelligent Bollywood actor who cares and wants to do something for the country,” media columnist Sevanti Ninan told Reuters. “He’s not just a star. He’s also clever about his PR.”
During shows, Khan often wipes away tears as his guests tell their emotional stories and hugs them as they leave the stage.
But this is not the first time Khan has spoken about social issues. Last year, he appeared on a stage with India’s most famous anti-corruption campaigner, Anna Hazare, who has pressured the government over a series of scandals.
Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Michael Perry