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‘Aamir is a marathon man’

Not since Ramayan was aired more than two decades ago has Sunday morning’s graveyard hour of television been such a talking point. Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate — where social evils like female foeticide and untouchability are highlighted and discussed — seems to have changed the concept of television programming on social issues.

While Aamir Khan is being widely feted as the prime mover and anchor of the pathbreaking show, Satyajit Bhatkal, who is its director, has been largely a backroom player. A childhood friend of Aamir Khan, Bhatkal started off as an activist, graduated to being a journalist and a lawyer and then finally decided that his calling was the audio-visual medium. He shot hours of footage for the preliminaries of Satyamev Jayate, to “allow the material to speak to us... and saw how it would flow into a show”. Excerpts from an interview.

On Aamir Khan and Satyamev Jayate.

People think that because Aamir helms the show, he dominates it. That’s not true. Aamir speaks for less than 25 per cent of the show. Most of it is about what other people are saying. Aamir is just driving the conversation in a particular direction. He also listens to many different voices. These are voices that you won’t hear on other television channels — where you hear the star anchors more than anybody else.

On working with Aamir Khan.

We had zero creative differences. He creates an extremely enabling work atmosphere. He is a master storyteller and has an instinct for figuring out how best to tell a story. And his style of communication is lucid and simple. We took a huge gamble when we decided that the show would air for 90 minutes as opposed to the standard 60-minute format. Aamir said, “Even if we fail, it would be on our terms.”

If there is one thing I grudge him, it is his ability to work so hard. He can work without needing a break. He is a marathon man. And mind you, he did this in between Talash, Dhoom 3 and becoming a father again. Once he roped me into a marketing meeting that took place at midnight and went on till 4am! Though I can work very hard, I threw up my hands and said that I needed the sleep.

On his friendship with Aamir Khan.

We first met at Bombay Scottish School in Mahim. Aamir had enrolled there only for the Classes IX and X. We hit it off instantly. He didn’t have many friends then. He was very shy, although the shyness is gone now. We were drawn to each other because we asked the same kind of existential questions — does God exist, who am I, what do I want to do with my life and so on.

On his roots as a lawyer and activist.

For over 20 years, I’ve been an activist, a journalist and a lawyer. Sometime in 1999 I wrote Bombay Lawyers. I took the script to Aamir, who said he loved it and that we were to work on it. But he soon got busy with Lagaan. I made Bombay Lawyers, a courtroom drama, for NDTV six years later. Then I made the movie Zokomon for Walt Disney.

On how Satyamev Jayate happened.

Just before Zokomon, Aamir had spoken to me about a new TV show on social issues. He asked me how I saw that kind of a show. I told him it had to be inclusive. That there was no point in saying who was at fault. That we would not find answers just by raving and ranting at politicians. That if we wanted change, we would have to hold a mirror to society in a non-judgemental way. And that the stories needed to be told in an emotional way, instead of an abstract debate.

Aamir instantly realised that we were echoing each other’s thoughts. These discussions happened sometime in mid 2010. And then I forgot about it. One Sunday last year, I get a call from Aamir. He asked me to get as much raw footage for the show as possible and put together a team. We made six documentaries and we amassed a wealth of research material. We allowed the material to speak to us. Once we did that we saw how it would flow into a show.

On criticism that the episode on untouchability made no mention of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar or the issue of reservation.

The focus of the episode was to highlight the fact that untouchability or discrimination against Dalits continues in various forms even today. This discrimination long predates reservation. There is a fair amount of media coverage on the topic of reservation, but there is relatively little coverage on the discrimination that Dalits suffer to this day. I felt it was important to highlight this discrimination and hence we chose to make that the focus of this episode. All the so-called omissions flow from that focus.

On Satyamev Jayate as a catalyst for change.

The response has been huge. The India for Safe Food Campaign against pesticides was launched after our episode on toxic food was aired. Over 500 schools have approached Mrs Tuli of Amar Jyoti School for disabled children offering help in working towards inclusive education for people with disabilities. What’s more, the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka are in the process of making generic medicines available to people, several campaigns against female foeticide have been launched using the material from the show, and Alcoholics Anonymous has received over 1.5 lakhs messages for help from alcoholics or their families.

On life after Satyamev Jayate.

My wife Swati and I will travel to document the response the show has had. There is a clamour for Season 2. Let’s see.