Satyamev Jayate is a show that I have been preparing for my entire life- Satyajit Bhatkal
Few people would know that the director of the popular show Satyamev Jayate, Satyajit Bhatkal, quit his law career to assist friend Aamir Khan’s film Lagaan, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. While Lagaan was being filmed, Satyajit veered towards shooting its making and made a documentary on the film called Chale Chalo. He also wrote a fantastic book on its making titled – ‘The Spirit of Lagaan’ before he went on to direct the now famous Satyamev Jayate.
Tell us about your journey post Chale Chalo.
After Chale Chalo I wrote and directed a show called Bombay Lawyers. It was produced in-house under my family’s publishing arm ‘Popular Prakashan’. It ran on NDTV India, which is very unusual because it’s a news channel and we ran a fiction show on a news channel. It was a 13 part series and dealt with some of the kind of issues that you now see in Satyamev Jayate. However back then it was done in the format of fiction, so essentially it was courtroom drama. Bombay Lawyers had a group of five lawyers working in an office called Roy and Raghavan. They dealt with different cases which are related to social issues.
I worked with some of the finest actors like Meeta Vashist, Murli Sharma, Jyoti, Kadambari among other 150 actors. The stories emerged from cases I observed closely during my law career. After the show got over, I wrote three films. One of them, Zokkomon, was made and released by Disney and had Anupam Kher and Darsheel Safary playing central characters. That’s the only fiction story I have made. It was released in 2011 and did very badly at the box office.
When did work on Satyamev Jayate start? How did the journey to make the show begin?
I had already been working on Satyamev Jayate for six months at least when Zokkomon released. It is a show that I have been preparing for my entire life. I have consistently read, discussed and written about these issues and concerns over a period of time. In that sense I have been engaged with social issues for a long time. Also, I have already worked with Aamir in the past. Sometime in 2010, when we met, he told me that many channels had approached him to do some or the other show, mainly game shows on their platform. While he was open to the idea of working on television, he also mentioned that since television is a powerful medium, he wanted to do something through which he could give back to the society and not use the medium just to do something entertaining. He asked me what I thought about it and if I can think of some show in the social space which can talk about social issues. A couple of things came up in that conversation – that the show should be an inclusive show, it should deal with issues in an entertaining way but with a language of love. It should not speak the language of aggression, arrogance or have the ‘I know better than you’ tone.
In that way, we were on the same page. I strongly believe that to become a better country we have to get everyone involved. Nobody should have the attitude that x person, who is doing the wrong thing, is a bad person. The challenge was how do you reach out to the perpetrators as well.
Would you give an example of one of the episodes to make your point? Did you have this clarity from the time you started work on the show?
In the episode where we talk to the Khap panchayat and couples or families affected by the decision of the Khap, we didn’t treat the members of Khap badly. They were dealt with a lot of respect and we took pains to make sure they weren’t heckled by the studio audience. The studio audience had members who had suffered because of some Khap or the other.
The moment we get into the space of talking at people instead of talking to people – then the communication ends. It becomes a slanging match, specially the kind you see in the news television debates. They are frightening because we have forgotten how to speak in a civilised manner. We have reduced political conversations to scoring points. No communication happens in such a scenario. Communication is a two-way process. You have to listen also. And I don’t think anyone has the right to sit in judgment and say I am perfect and you need to get your act together – by pointing fingers. The good thing is that from day one we had this clarity that we were going to make a show which would deal with social issues, hard facts but not engage in finger pointing, expose and sensationalism and cornering individuals.
When the conversation first happened, were you skeptical if Aamir could take so much time out and commit to the show?
Over a period of a few months after the initial conversation, I realised it wasn’t a passing conversation and that Aamir was dead serious about it. And I was wondering how he was going to do it as it would require a lot of time as he was and is at the peak of his career. Clearly television was a weird thing for him to do by any conventional standard but he was dead serious about it and was willing to do what it took.
Essentially it got to a point where Aamir said, “Satya, let’s not devise what kind of show we want to make on paper. Let’s not have any preconceived notions about what the show should be. You set up your team and go and research on three issues. Let’s see the kind of material it throws up.” That was a fantastic opportunity. So I set up a very small team which consists of Svati (Satyajit’s wife) and Lancy. We went out and travelled all over India and came back with a lot of material with which we made six documentary films – health care, female foeticide and one was on inspiring stories of four different individuals about whom we researched.
So this was like the skeleton from which you build the scope of the show? What were the take-away’s from the research? Did they become the guiding points/principles of the show?
This research gave everybody a damn good idea of what kind of material we were capable of getting and it gave us pointers about what this show should be.
What we came up with is that the strength of the show would be that the material life throws up is so dramatic that you don’t need any devices. You need a show that is stripped of devices. You don’t need fancy sets or weave in stunts. You should keep it as simple and pure as possible where there is a conversation and that conversation has minimal interjections of Aamir. Essentially he just steers the conversations. And we use it to make a point which we have arrived at, through research – both on paper and on field. So through the process of going on field, we realised what kind of show we wanted to make and how we wanted to make it. The pilot that we made post that, got telecast as our first episode.
So essentially what we did was we didn’t pigeonhole life in a format. We constructed the format out of life. At least that’s been the attempt. That’s how it happened. When we liked what we had shot, then we scaled it up and researched 12 more topics and came up with the first season.
How did you zero down on the topics to be covered in the first season?
The criterion was that the topic should be something that concerns everyone. It should not be easy for the viewer to feel that this doesn’t concern me. The criterion was that this affects us (all). That was the key criteria.
When you interview or talk to people who are on the other side – are not the victims; what is their reaction? Do they talk easily?
Some people are open to talk on camera for good and bad reasons both. For example, for the episode on fighting rape we spoke to certain people who would justify rape. To give them publicity is also wrong. So we didn’t call them on the show. But you get publicity hounds who are willing to say all kinds of things. So you have to exercise your judgment as to whether it’s a wise thing to call such a person.
On field is it safe for your team to go and meet these people?
There is always an element of risk. I think for a journalist in any field there is always an element of risk – sometimes less, sometimes more. Like last season the riskiest episode was the one on alcoholism where some people engaged in illegal liquor in Punjab and at one point chased us with hockey sticks. We have had all kinds of situations. No journalist goes on field with police protection. You can’t have journalism happening under police protection.
The short capsules which are aired during the show are unlike news items. They are very humane. Is it deliberate filmmaking used to drive home a point?
No act on film happens without deliberation. That we know. Basically what we do here is find the most effective way to tell a story. We use these short films when we want to add scale.
When I want to show that on ground things haven’t materially changed for a rape survivor even after the Justice Verma Commission, The Criminal Law Amendment Act, so much hue and cry in the press and political circles, I can do that in two ways: one is that I have one survivor talking to Aamir or I do a film in which I show that 17 survivors are saying the same thing. I can’t bring 17 survivors to the show. It will make the show very slow and it would be difficult to get those emotions come alive so then you may want to create a short film of a few minutes. In case of the episode on rape survivors, it was a five minute short film. It all depends on the specific topic and what you want to say at that point in time.
Does Satyamev Jayate hit a chord more easily because there is a celebrity anchoring it? Do you think that having a star makes people sit up and listen to topics we conveniently push under the carpet?
Television is a very unforgiving medium. You have had occasions where superstars are doing television shows and they get ratings which are one tenth of that of another reality show. I don’t think people will continue watching SMJ because it’s Aamir’s show. If they want to consume Aamir, they can do that in some other form. Would we have got the opportunity of making SMJ without a star? No question. The opportunity to mount Satyamev Jayate in that manner could be done because of Aamir. Without him, this show wouldn’t have happened. Having said that I don’t think people are watching the show or connecting to the show because it’s Aamir. I don’t think Aamir’s star status helps beyond the initial interest.
Do you follow up on the issues you cover in the shows and the people you interview?
I invite everyone to go to our website. We have done 50 web videos where we followed up on different people who appeared on Season 1 episodes. It’s a very rich website. You will get to know what happened on female foeticide, on child sexual abuse, on generic medicine etc. How many lives have been affected? We have done a very rigorous follow up and we continue to do that with this season as well. We have an entire team dealing just with web – and doing follow ups as part of that.
What is the kind of equipment the team carries to shoot on the field?
We use two models approved by Star TV: Cannon 305 which is a compact and light camera and a Sony PMW 300.
How is the music for each episode produced? What’s the process?
Depending on the concept of every show, songs are made. We work in the opposite way from how songs are made in the film industry. Normally a tune is composed and lyrics are written for it. We work the other way round. We work very hard to get the lyrics right first. And only then is it composed.
– By Priyanka Jain