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Home > Personality
 
Celebrities as crusaders - Aamir Khan

Neeta Lal / 27 June 2012

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s mint-fresh avatar as ‘activist’ espousing social causes on his TV show Satyamev Jayate raises profound questions about celebrities doing double whammy as crusaders.

Should Khan —who tugs at the national tear ducts with his real life stories and humanity-infused messages — be the vehicle for social transformation? More importantly, if he chooses to become that vehicle, should others object?

Satyamev Jayate resonates with India’s one billion by highlighting contemporary, contentious issues with its hard-hitting, research-based template. Each episode of the show has ruffled feathers in some quarter or the other. While doctors are roiling streets in protest against an “unjustified maligning” of their profession, feminists are crying foul over the episodes on marriage and “sex-selective abortions”.

The bourgeoisie, meanwhile, are pressurising the political elite to take action against the perpetrators of injustices. After watching the show, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot volunteered to help bring justice to women who have had to forcibly abort their fetuses. The Maharashtra state administration has also been galvanized enough to initiate action to prevent female feticide. Khan is penning newspaper columns, putting out messages through a radio show and utilizing every public forum to promote the show and project himself as a social activist.

Is the actor doing this for publicity? Is he India’s Oprah Winfrey, getting people to bare their dysfunctional lives in the full glare of national TV to milk every moment of that catharsis and grab eyeballs? May be, may be not.

NGOs are piqued that savvy Khan is stealing their mojo. Their underlying insecurity is ostensible. If the actor can banish malaises, which have bedeviled Indian society for centuries by simply sprinkling his stardust on them, then why should cash-rich foreign donors be knocking on their doors?

In any case, activists are chary of filmstars trampling on their turf to be part of social campaigns as their range and effectiveness is far better than their own. One example: the polio campaign endorsed by Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan has practically decimated the dreaded disease from the country, a feat that couldn’t be achieved despite decades of governmental and NGO intervention.

The celeb-as-crusader trend isn’t India-specific. Hollywood stars are known to leverage their star appeal to promote social and humanitarian causes. Brad Pitt, an architecture buff, has worked in synergy with Global Green USA to promote the rebuilding of New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He is also supporting environmentalism, alternative fuels and energy-efficient cars and global issues of trade, poverty and AIDS.

Pitt’s close pal George Clooney’s foray into activism, which began after reading Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns chronicling the unfolding tragedies in Sudan, has seen him lend his heft to a welter of public causes. Hollywood also uses its considerable clout to influence public opinion during any national crisis. American Presidents actively court big names and encourage stars to campaign for them, or speak up when required on topics ranging from gun control laws to abortion.

What needs to be lauded here is that rather than continue to live out their uber existences, while choosing to ignore injustices happening to lesser mortals, these celebrities consciously chose to raise awareness and help others.

Khan says he eschewed a whopping $20 million in brand endorsements to focus completely on the production/research/anchoring of ‘Satyamev Jayate’ for over a year. And that for him, the overriding factor wasn’t the programme’s commercial aspect but the communitarian one. You may choose to believe him. Or brush it aside as baloney.

But whatever we choose to do, why not celebrate the fact that these people are using their brand equity strategically to highlight dire humanitarian situations rather than turn a blind eye to them? In our hero-deficit public spaces, increasingly shorn of political ideals required to inspire and catalyze change, we would do well to appropriate icons from as many arenas possible to better people’s lives. After all, we are all stakeholders in a happier and healthier world.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

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