Eyebrows sculpted, not a hair out of place, Bollywood icon Aamir Khan stands on the beach in a tight pink shirt, gazing into the sunset. In the next 90 minutes he won’t defeat the British Empire in a cricket match or destroy the mafia. This isn’t a movie.
Instead, it’s the intro to his talk show, Satyamev Jayate, or Truth Alone Prevails. And since his show debuted in May, Khan has done the seemingly impossible: He’s waging an ultra-hip war against the social issues plaguing India. Picture Brad Pitt championing a cause and getting the entire United States to jump on the bandwagon.
Khan, whose acting recalls a young Michael J. Fox and whose star power and box-office muscle resemble that of a Tom Cruise, can convincingly play a 25 year old (he’s really 47) and launch a nationwide soul-patch craze (that actually happened). And in his quarter-century in the film industry, he’s repeatedly challenged the conventions of Bollywood while still working within the confines of its relatively rigid formula.
Khan is something of a quasi-revolutionary who meets with the Indian prime minister to discuss policy, writes a weekly column in the newspaper The Hindu, and publicly pushes India’s rising middle class to change—between shoots for his next Bollywood film.
“This is what I do,” he tells me on the phone. “I can tell you stories, I can touch you. I can make you laugh, I can make you cry. I can make you change the way you think about something.” And, judging by the estimated 500 million who have tuned in to his show, he might actually be telling the truth.
Born into a film family, Khan (his first name is pronounced Ah-mir) debuted as a manufactured heartthrob in 1988’s tragic love story Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, then ascended to the top of the Bollywood food chain as one of the “Three Khans” (the others being Shah Rukh and Salman—none of whom are related). And while the 5-foot-6 actor spent the better part of the ‘90s with a signature coif, singing and dancing and romancing actresses in mainstream flicks, he’s earned the reputation of being a perfectionist, maniacally devoted to his craft.
Off screen, Khan’s been a bit of a badass. He’s shunned award shows because he thought they didn’t reward acting. He’s had some highly publicized spats with actresses and directors. At a time when actors churned out five movies a year, Khan did one. Kissing on camera? No big deal. And he isn’t afraid to belt out a tune. Khan is a bona-fide cultural icon—though he’s not exactly sure how it happened.
“Even now, if you ask me what is your ambition, where do you want to be in 20 years, I’ll say I have no idea,” he says. “Hopefully, in 20 years I’ll be retired.”
His career-defining moment as a rebel came in 2001’s Lagaan. As a first-time producer, Khan spent six months in the Gujarat Desert filming a period film about rag-tag villagers who challenge the British to a cricket match. Not exactly the ingredients for a blockbuster.
“At the time everyone else was making movies about N.R.I.’s [non-resident Indians] in New York,” says Anupama Chopra, a film critic whose husband’s 2009 film 3 Idiots, starring Khan, is Bollywood’s highest-grossing film ever. “Aamir has the instinct for a great story. He’s the best in the business.”
Despite Lagaan’s three-hour-and-45-minute runtime, it’s widely considered one of Bollywood’s top movies and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Khan attended that award show.
Post-Lagaan, Khan went on a four-year hiatus in which he divorced his wife of 15 years (they have two kids together) and married an assistant director on the film. Some argue that since then, Khan’s films have taken a clear political tone. Rang de Basanti was about apathetic college students turning into corruption-fighting revolutionaries, and Taare Zameen Par, Khan’s directorial debut, was about a kid with dyslexia.
“He’s got ambition, he wants cinema to have meaning,” says Rachel Dwyer, a professor of Indian cinema at the University of London.
Hailed as “India’s Oprah,” Khan doesn’t quite agree. He says he’s seen her show a few times, and she’s a “wonderful host,” but Satyamev Jayate is different. The show considers the legal and sociological sides of an issue—and there’s the whole Bollywood theme.
In the first episode, he sits on a couch across from a woman who says her husband chewed off her face after she repeatedly failed to have a son. Khan, who rarely interrupts, puts his hand on his chin and leans forward. He wipes a single tear from his eye as graphic photographs flash onscreen.
He turns to the camera and says, as he always does, “Dosto [friends],” and, in a long-winded, melodramatic monologue, explains that sperm is what determines a baby’s sex. Pointing to a map of the growing rate of female feticide, Khan says in Hindi that “The whole of Mother India has bathed in the blood of her daughters.”
The 13-episode season was meticulously researched and shot over two years, and is broadcast on India’s largest network, Star India, as well as the national channel, Doordarshan, and is dubbed in eight languages. And though his ratings are falling, Sanjay Gupta, COO of the network, tells me Sataymev Jayate was never about numbers.
“We are not making money,” he says. The show airs on Sunday mornings instead of prime time, so families can watch together. It’s not a popular advertising slot, but the show’s logo is bathed in advertisements: “Airtel presents” above and “Powered by Aquaguard” below. Khan is rumored to make a whopping three crores ($600,000) per episode. A second season hasn’t been announced yet.
And while millions in the middle class are tuning in and tearing up, critics question the power of a celebrity crusader. Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and president of Women Power Connect, says that Khan is effective, but for people like her who have been working on social issues for 30 years, this is a “touch-and-feel revolution.”
“The reality is moving and you feel bad,” she says. “What after that? Crying makes you feel as though you’ve done your part.”
Khan, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care.
“Each one should do as they please,” he says. “And if somebody doesn’t want to see me, he just has to use the remote and switch the TV off.”
Khan is arguably the most powerful man in the multi-billion-dollar Indian film industry. Yet, in mainstream America, notions of Bollywood don’t go much deeper than Slumdog Millionaire (a British film) and wild dance numbers. But Khan, who brushes off comparisons to Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and George Clooney—because, he says, he hasn’t seen enough of their work—isn’t concerned about attention from abroad. “India is thirsty,” he says. “India is ready for change. India wants change.”
The typical progression for celebrity activists in India is to champion a cause and then run for office. Khan, however, says he’s not cut out for politics. Storytelling is where he’s happy. “An entertainer is not someone who just makes you laugh or just entertains you,” he says. “The responsibility of an entertainer is to bring grace to society. It is to build the social fabric of society. It is to bring inspiration and hope in people’s lives.”
Khan’s next move, formulaic or not, is likely to entertain. Like the plot of a fantasy Bollywood film, he’s come a long way from frolicking in the rain to captivating the world’s largest democracy and its far-flung sons and daughters.