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Satyamev Jayate: Truth Is God in India's Phenomenal TV Show

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Satyamev Jayate is an ancient Sanskrit saying that means "truth alone triumphs." It is India's national motto and appears on the national symbol. Since it is so closely associated with government iconography, its mention in a conversation is likely to be steeped in irony, rather than optimism or belief. It is not something that is widely contemplated or debated.

In the past few days though, "Satyamev Jayate" has become one of the most searched, tweeted, shared, liked and talked about terms in India. The reason for this is not a sudden outbreak of spiritual contemplation, but simply a television show that has captured public attention like few others. The first episode featured a woman whose face was nearly ripped off by her husband. The subject of the episode though was even darker. It was about families that kill their own children. Sometimes, soon after they are born, sometimes even before they are born. But in every case, it is only one kind of victim, the babies are all girls.

"Satyamev Jayate" is an unusual television show. Until the first episode appeared last Sunday on India's Doordarshan and Star Plus networks, there was little sense of what the show was even going to be about, except for the fact that it was going to be hosted by the Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan. Promos for the show featured an inspiring anthem and evocative images of Mr. Khan interacting with children, fishermen and people from different parts of India. Everything suggested a reprise of Discovery of India, the famous work of history penned by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and made into a TV series in the 1980s by the acclaimed director Shyam Benegal.

But there was also an expectation, if a carefully orchestrated one, that the show would be something more than a celebrity's travelogue, given Aamir Khan's past record. Unlike heroes who sing and dance and bash up the villains (though he does that too in his films), Aamir Khan has come to be associated with roles and stories that carry a social or political message, not a small accomplishment at all given the long-standing gap that existed in India between Bollywood and "serious" cinema. "Lagaan," a movie that was a bit incomprehensible perhaps to awards-committees in baseball countries, told an inspiring story about a group of peasants challenging their colonial British rulers to a game of cricket in protest against an unfair tax. Taare Zameen Par saw him play an art teacher who nurtures a gifted school boy cruelly trampled upon by the militaristic expectations of middle class Indian family life. Most importantly, his Rang de Basanti came to be seen as uncannily prescient about a wave of middle-class anger and activism against public corruption that peaked around the quasi-Gandhian figure of Anna Hazare last year. The production house led by Mr. Khan and his wife has also become associated with powerful, critical and unusual films like "Peepli Live," a dark satire about 24/7 news culture and the serious issue of farmer suicides.

When "Satyamev Jayate" finally appeared, it became clear what kind of show it was, and what kind of a persona Mr. Khan was going to now become. They are calling him "India's Oprah," and of course, Bono. And he is Aamir Khan too, to begin with. There has perhaps never been this sort of media power lined up against infanticide and feticide in India until now. The question, though, is what will happen next? Will truth indeed conquer?

There is a temptation for those who study the media to think that the media can be a magical tool to create a better world. That temptation exists not because of a naïve idealism but because of its opposite; we know the media serve interests, commercial and political, sometimes even the much celebrated new social media. There is comment, even if subdued at the moment, about all the business and money riding around on this new TV show despite its ideals. There is skepticism, and not an unfounded one, about the effectiveness of text-message voting activism, whether a nation can vote out a persistent evil as easily as a contestant on a reality show. The solution that the first episode offered, despite its touching Oprah-like format, did not seem especially powerful. Mr. Khan concluded his show with an appeal to viewers to send text messages to the government to press for the setting up of a "fast-track" court to more quickly try and punish those who violate the law (it is illegal for hospitals to reveal the sex of an unborn child). Government officials, for their part, do not seem embarrassed by this, and have welcomed the support. It may well be the case that the level of exposure Aamir Khan has brought to the issue would make those who break the law a little less brazen about it. But the greater promise this show has, in my view, has less to do with the modest activism it offers, but in the way it is starting to tell a story about reality, a way that might provide the cultural will needed to face some life and death issues. That promise is right there in the title. It has something to do with truth, and God.

The "truth" that "Satyamev Jayate" invokes goes beyond the modern, Western sense of "truth" as a fact, or a statement about reality. Although there is now a well-worn media narrative in place in India about such an idea of truth (the idea of something concealed or unknown being revealed), there is more to the saying than meets the modern eye. After all, the truth that the first episode of the program revealed was not an unheard of one at all. India is fairly aware of its faults, even if a variety of reasons ranging from survival to selfishness make it act sometimes as if it doesn't. A TV series anchored by a Bollywood star featuring ugly, tragic, bitter realities of life in India today does not play in the same way as an expose. That is what makes Satyamev Jayate different. It does not purport to expose the truth, for there is nothing to expose in an open crime scene. What it does seek to do is bring back another notion of truth that abides in India, and it is one that is steeped in its religiosity, in how India sees the world in God and God in the world. It is a Gandhian ideal of truth, that "Truth is God," rather than the other way around. Truth, in this sense, is less an account of reality, than an experience that grasps it, does justice to one's relationship with it. Since it is a human experience, it is not expected to be sterile, dispassionate, objective in the modern sense. It might be the opposite. It might be poetic, emotional, excessive, melodramatic, even. It might make you cry. But in the end, it might make you see right and wrong, clearly. It is about ethics, not formulae.

The last time I heard the phrase "Satyameva Jayate" in a conversation was a few years ago. "It's not like India has abandoned 'Satyamev Jayate,'" a friend of mine who had gone back from America to live in India said. "We still live by it, but the problem is that we think that whatever exists today, no matter how bad it is, is Satyam (truth)." Put another way, we are a nation of the status quo. We imagine customs and virtues where there are none. That is perhaps the unfortunate side of having a liberal, diverse, protean religious culture. It can morph into accommodating virtually anything and even sanctifying it as tradition. It can rarely find the will to draw what we call a Lakshman rekha, a line in the sand, that tells us what is right and what is not. The law might be one, but it is seen ever so often as an inconvenience that must be overcome rather than an ethical imperative. We assume that whatever is going on must be OK -- everyone's doing it. Whatever is brazenly not OK and still goes on, this we assume must be because of corrupt politicians. Aamir Khan has rightly pointed out that not every crime takes place in the street (read his thoughtful interview in Tehelka here). It is in the bedroom, as he says, and in the prayer room, in the conscience ultimately that the idea of truth must be confronted, and won anew. If people convince themselves that crimes can be expiated for by merely bribing the system (or the deities) the culture must unconvince them of such a mercenary mentality. That is what Aamir Khan seems to have set out to do.

The Indian media audience is poised between two different sensibilities about truth. On the one hand, there is a sensationalist, breaking-news, expose, sort of spin about truth in the media culture. Despite all the obvious hype, this sort of news mania rarely makes for cynicism, since cynicism is the very product that the media sell. It is the "truth" that is reinforced through thousands of tiny instances day after day; that the problem with India is nothing more than politicians, that family life is all about hatred and treachery like in the soap operas, that happiness is all about consuming cosmetics and fast-food like the beautiful people in advertisements, and that "reality" is what happens when people pretend to live together and spend their time scheming against each other (while occasionally testing mettle and courage by eating worms or other such dares). All of these things are telling us that this world is a certain way, that this is the truth. Add to these the existence of really serious issues like those Aamir Khan is presenting on his show, and it would seem that there is no hope at all, But the truth that "Satyamev Jayate" offers is a different kind of truth that we desire. It is, first of all, the assurance we are right to feel that all this is wrong. It is the assurance that it is not weird or "Gandhi" to feel the pain of others as our own. It is the assurance most of all that comes from watching those who have survived tell their stories, for their courage is always an example to all those who are similarly suffering, and can use the hope. The real heroes of "Satyamev Jayate" are really its guests, as sentimental as that might sound. They are the truth that will triumph. We need to know from them that goodness can lead to a happy ending, or at the very least the promise of a new beginning. Bollywood has met reality, and it is not a bad thing at all.