Approached the show with love and hope, says Khan.
By Deepak Chitnis
WASHINGTON, DC: Bollywood icon Aamir Khan was honored by the America Abroad Media (AAM) on Monday night, at its inaugural awards dinner here.
Khan, who attended the event with his wife Kiran Rao and son Azad Rao Khan, was one of three honorees; the other two being film director Kathryn Bigelow and the International Center for Non-violent Conflict (ICNC).
The theme of the evening was “The Power of Film,” and all three honorees were chosen because of how they use film as a medium for not just entertainment, but for advocating social awareness and change. Specifically, Khan was singled out for his work on the television program Satyamev Jayate (“Truth Alone Prevails”), a talk-show in which Khan sheds light on social problems in India that often get overlooked or ignored altogether by society and bureaucracy.
During a panel discussion involving Khan, Bigelow, and documentary filmmaker Steve York – who was there on behalf of the ICNC — and moderated by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, Khan explained the unusual circumstances that brought Satyamev Jayate to fruition.
Khan explained how he saw TV as a powerful medium for spreading a message, since television sets are so pervasive now in India. A year and a half after being approached for the game show, Khan counter-offered with the idea of a talk show that would address key social problems throughout the country. However, Khan had three highly unorthodox requests that he felt had to be met before he would go through with the show: first, although Star India reaches around 70% of India, according to Khan, he asked that in areas of the country where it is not the foremost channel, it be aired by whichever channel is the most watched, even if it’s a competitor; two, that it be shown on India’s national TV network, so that it could reach as many people as possible; and three, that it be shown on Sunday mornings, typically called “graveyard time” because no one watches TV on Sunday mornings.
“I requested that time for the show because at that time, people are either watching TV or they’re not. If it’s on a Friday or Saturday, people will be flipping through twenty channels while watching – I didn’t want that. I ask that the audience just watch the show, just take that one step towards me,” explained Khan.
Improbably, Shankar said “yes” to all three requests, and shortly thereafter, production on Satyamev Jayate was underway. Khan had already chosen three topics he wanted to cover: healthcare, child sexual abuse, and female infanticide. Eventually, the show produced 14 episodes that covered even more topics, such as the dowry system, honor killings, the prevalence of the caste system, and pesticide poisonings.
Khan explained that he wanted to approach the show with the intention of telling non-fiction with the same storytelling methods used to tell fiction. “I wanted to combine the power of television with what I feel are my abilities as a storyteller,” he said. “We approach these shows with love and hope, rather than anger and hopelessness.”
Kathryn Bigelow was honored for her feature film work. Although she’s been in the filmmaking industry since the early 1980s, she shot to fame in 2009 with her film The Hurt Locker. The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Bigelow the honor of becoming the first woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
Last year, she was in the middle of a political maelstrom over her film Zero Dark Thirty, which centered on the CIA’s decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The film’s depictions of torture angered many on Capitol Hill, to the point where many believe the controversy surrounding the film ultimately hurt its awards chances.
At the AAM ceremony, however, Bigelow’s unflinching approach toward depicting the war on terror was precisely why she was lauded. Former CIA director Michael Hayden, via previously recorded video message, commended Bigelow for detailing the intricacies of what CIA officials actually do for a living, as well as for showing that the US government and its intelligence agencies are effective and often to unappreciated by the public. “[Zero Dark Thirty] is one of the highlights of American pop culture,” said Hayden. “The CIA is glad you made [that film].”
The ICNC was represented by Pete Ackerman, the founding chair of the organization, and Steve York, a documentary filmmaker whose body of work includes A Force More Powerful, a TV documentary from 1999 that detailed several non-violent peace movements around the world that occurred during the 20th century, including India’s independence movement.
AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel emceed the event. Dignitaries that were present included Californian Congressman Ami Bera, who is also the sole Indian American in the US Congress, as well as Indian Ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao.
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