Though he plays an eccentric extraterrestrial in “PK," his latest Bollywood hit, actor Aamir Khan was refreshingly down-to-earth as he addressed a crowd at New York City’s Lincoln Center last night. But the 50-year-old star, who was a featured speaker at the sixth annual Women in the World Summit—a three-day conference focusing on issues from maternal mortality to the rise of sexual assault on college campuses, hosted by journalist Tina Brown—wasn’t on stage to recap his prolific acting career (which has included four prestigious National Film Awards in his native India).
Instead, Khan, whose fellow Summit participants include celebrity change-makers such as Robin Wright, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, was there to discuss social change and women’s rights in India, both themes that repeatedly surface on his popular weekly television talk show, “Satyamev Jayate” or “Truth Alone Triumphs.”
“In the five years I’ve researched subjects for my show, I’ve seen both the worst and most beautiful of mankind,” Khan revealed to interviewer Zainab Salbi, founder of the non-profit Women for Women International. “I quickly realized I should stick to what I know best, which is storytelling.”
Since launching in 2012, “SMJ,” as Khan dubs it, has boldly tackled traditionally-taboo subjects like India’s struggle with rampant female feticide (often driven by fears surrounding high wedding and dowry costs) and the bleak status of mental health care across the country.
“I wanted to combine the goodwill that I’ve earned from my acting career with investigative journalism,” shared Khan. “There are two ways to bring about change,” he continued. “One is by making laws or policies and expecting people to follow them. The other way is a longer route but it’s an attempt to transform hearts and minds at a young age.”
“India wants to improve itself—I think that’s what the success of the show tells us.”
SMJ’s solutions-driven approach, equal parts “60 Minutes”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and a scoop of frothy, Bollywood-inspired melodrama, is clearly effective: it’s attracted nearly 600 million viewers and sparked a series of concrete social change initiatives. Last year, a SMJ episode on fighting rape catalyzed the creation of India’s first one-stop crisis center, committed to holistic care for survivors; a village that was highlighted for its inventive water-conserving abilities on the show’s very first season became a template for nearly 100 others. “None of us imagined that a show picking such heavy topics would be so popular across the country,” Khan said. “India wants to improve itself—I think that’s what the success of the show tells us.”
After receiving a handful of critical emails from men’s organizations that felt neglected, Khan devoted the final episode of SMJ’s third season to the notion of masculinity. “Who is a real man? Someone who goes and beats people up? A protector?” he probed. In certain contexts in India, “real men aren’t supposed to cry or hold their wives’ hands,” he added. “Based on those definitions, I am completely not a real man,” Khan declared, laughing. “Not a single episode goes by without me crying.”
When the conversation briefly veered into cinematic territory, Khan offered a quick synopsis of his forthcoming movie, “Dangal”, proving that shaking up the status quo isn’t something he reserves for SMJ. The film, which is slated to release later this year, revolves around a retired wrestler who has gold-medal ambitions for his future son. “He then proceeds to have four daughters,” divulged Khan. “So it’s about how they fulfill his dream.”