Bollywood star confronts India’s dark side

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NEW DELHI — A Bollywood megastar is making India confront its dark side.

Shining light on inequities such as the rampant abortion of female fetuses, caste discrimination and the murder of brides in dowry disputes, actor Aamir Khan has reached an estimated one-third of the country with a TV talk show that tackles persistent flaws of modern India that many of its citizens would prefer to ignore.

“Satyamev Jayate”, or “Truth Alone Prevails,” is a clever blend of hard news and raw emotional appeal — part “60 Minutes,” part Oprah Winfrey. Its influence has even prodded the notoriously lethargic government machinery into action, although it is too soon to know what policy changes may be in the works.

After an episode exposed rampant medical malpractice and championed cheap, generic medicine for millions of India’s poor, Mr. Khan was invited to address a hearing in Parliament on health care.

Indians have not seen anything quite like this. Hard-hitting talk shows are rare and certainly none has acquired even a fraction of the popularity and buzz Mr. Khan’s has generated since its debut 11 weeks ago. Bollywood superstars usually venture into television only to host glitzy game or reality shows.

For many middle-class Indians — comfortable in their belief that their country has moved beyond most of these problems — Mr. Khan’s show has been a gut-wrenching and poignant dose of bitter reality.

“Definitely it’s reminding people that there are problems within our society,” said Narendra Kumar, an environmental researcher in New Delhi. “It’s also creating discussions and sometimes helping people find solutions to the problems.”

In the opening episode of Mr. Khan’s program in May, Ameesha Yagnik haltingly recalled how her husband forced her to abort six female fetuses in eight years. She also said he threw her out of the house and refused to let her meet their infant daughter for months until she agreed to divorce him.

Mr. Khan and his audience were in tears.

The show forced Paromita Dey to confront an act she had tried to bury.

Four years ago, Mrs. Dey and her husband Souporno — already parents of a teenage daughter — ended a pregnancy because she was carrying another girl. Like millions of Indian families, they wanted a son.

“Yes, I killed my baby because she was a girl,” a shaken Mrs. Dey said, sitting in her home in a posh neighborhood in the northern city of Lucknow.

Census after census has revealed that fewer and fewer girls are being born, despite strict laws against sex-selective abortions and a slew of failed government incentives and programs.

Yet Mr. Khan’s show created such an outpouring of outrage that the government of the western state of Rajasthan, with one of the most-skewed gender ratios, promised action, and a village head there formed a committee to check against the practice.

“It’s both ironic and amusing that it took an actor from Bollywood to shine a light on the yawning gaps in Indian journalism,” political commentator Tavleen Singh wrote in a recent column.

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