The year was 2001 and Aamir Khan was on a high with the success of Lagaan across the world. At the Locarno Film Festival, where the Oscar-nominated film bagged the popular Prix Du Public, the superstar confided in his co-star Amin Hajee about a disturbing call he had received.
"He told me that he had been getting calls from goons asking for money. And, that he had politely but forcefully refused to bow down to the demands. He explained to me that 'if I give in now, I will have to always. If you give in to something that is wrong, you are only encouraging it'," recalls Amin, actor-writer and a longtime friend of Aamir's.
For Amin, this was a telling moment in their relationship of over 15 years. "I realised that Aamir is someone who walks the talk. And he does what he thinks is right."
An extension of Aamir doing what he thinks is "right" and without fear is his TV show Satyamev Jayate (SMJ).
"There were channels and production houses that wanted me to do game shows or judge reality shows. With no disrespect to either of the two, I always thought that television is a very popular medium and if I was to do TV, it should be something that makes an impact," says Aamir.
Almost two years after the actor approached series director Satyajit Bhatkal with the basic idea for the show, SMJ debuted in May 2012.
It ran for 13 episodes across nine channels and was dubbed in five different languages.
According to the data provided by TAM Media Research the show reached out to over 8.96 million people and garnered an overall rating of 4.27 TVR in the metros.
Aamir is back on the tube with the second season of the show and kick-started the season with a searing look at rape in India. Aamir's brief to Satyajit was simple.
"He wanted to make a show on social issues. It was his way of giving back. He told me to put together a small team and research subjects. And that we'd figure out the format once we know what kind of format we could go with," remembers Satyajit.
The director and his team set out to research three issues and ended up making six documentaries. In the process of filming the documentaries, the team decided to go with a talk show interspersed with related stories and short films.
"Even today, we don't have a very set format," says Satyajit. "Last season we did a show on water and it was such a visual subject it didn't make sense to only talk about it. We shot 14 documentaries for that one episode. SMJ talks about life and life can't be pigeon-holed into a format," he added.
The actor, who has always maintained that he focuses on one project at a time, has made an exception for SMJ. Even while shooting for Dhoom 3 and PK last year, he kept track of all the research the SMJ team was doing for Season 2.
"I am involved with everything. There are initial discussions about the various issues we want to tackle.
Very often these discussions turn into arguments because we are a very passionate lot," he says with a laugh. Once the subjects are decided on, Bhatkal's team gets on the research and Aamir is kept up-to-date with short films, and articles.
Says Satyajit: "Even when he was shooting his films, he kept track of what we were working on SMJ."
Except for a few days of shooting for Raj Kumar Hirani's PK, Aamir has dedicated all his time this year to SMJ.
"I am not shooting any film this year. We have split up this season into three segments. The first one started this month and we'll have a show every Sunday of March. We will then come back in the middle of the year and then again towards the end of the year. So, there is no time for me to do anything else," says the 48-year-old.
It was the appreciation that SMJ garnered in his first season that pushed Aamir and his team to the current season. And he is happy with the impact that the show has made.
"At the core of it, SMJ is an attempt on our part to understand a subject and then share our understanding and findings with everyone. We want the audience to understand the subject not just intellectually but also emotional," he says.
"Every issue has different facets - personal, social and legal. We want to look at every issue from as many angles as possible. So, when we did an episode on domestic violence, the audience meets victims but also understands the law and gets statistics so we know how widespread the problem is socially."
Aamir's biggest lesson learnt from the show's first season was the power of the collective.
"Wherever people have worked in a collective manner and have not thought individually and selfishly, there we have seen prosperity. One of the best ways for us to do well socially and economically is to work as a collective. Also, many of our problems finally boil down to our patriarchal thinking as a society. Whether it is domestic violence, dowry or honour killings, it goes back to our patriarchal thought."
Being a part of the show has taught the actor the power of forgiveness.
"When a mother talks about her son who is killed, she talks about it with so much love and dignity and she has no anger for the person who killed her son. So I find that a very amazing quality," he says, with tears rolling down his face. As he uses his T-shirt sleeves to wipe his tears, he apologises and jokes: "Sorry, see, this is how easily I cry."
Developing an activist streak
Last season, detractors made fun of how much Aamir cried on the show. There were jokes doing the rounds on social media and Aamir's one-line defence is "this is how I am".
"I am an emotional person and I always tear up when I hear a heart-wrenching story. And, I cannot pretend otherwise. The last time there were episodes where I completely broke down. We didn't show that. No one needs to see 15 minutes of me crying. It's in the rushes, in case anyone is interested in watching me cry for academic reasons," he says with a laugh.
It's been only four years since Aamir started working on SMJ but it's been in the making for a very long time. Aamir's cousin sister and actor Imran Khan's mother Nuzhat Khan, traces his interest in social issues to his family.
"As a family we are very socially aware. We never brushed any subject - no matter how disturbing or unpleasant - under the carpet. The whole family would discuss whatever was affecting them social, politically or culturally. So, I guess you can say that he imbibed this habit from his family.
Over the years, Aamir has been associated with various public awareness campaigns like Atithi Devo Bhava for the tourism minister, government of India, supported charities and being a UNICEF ambassador but the first time the actor revealed his activist persona was the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 2006.
On April 14, Aamir participated in a demonstration along with Medha Patkar over the government's decision to raise the height of the Narmada dam. On that day, Aamir told reporters there: "As a concerned Indian citizen, I have come here to lend my support to these poor Adivasis who will lose their land and will be displaced from their homes, if the height of the dam is raised."
Aamir's remarks against the Gujarat government and chief minister Narendra Modi evoked violent protests in the state. This was just days before the release of the Yash Raj film Fanaa. The film wasn't screened in Gujarat and the BJP demanded that the actor apologise for his remarks.
While Aamir refused to back down, the film went on to lose a sizeable amount of collections because Gujarat is a part of the biggest territory for Bollywood. He maintained a stoic face in public but, personally, the fact that his one move had hurt a producer really affected him.
"Aamir is a producer's son. He knows what this business means. I remember him telling the story of his dad looking for his graduation certificate after his film flopped. Even though YRF was the producer of Fanaa and the loss wasn't that much, Aamir was distraught after that incident," remembers Amin.
But the Fanaa incident didn't stop Aamir from staying true to himself and his beliefs.
In 2011, Aamir sent out a letter in support of Anna Hazare when the activist was on a hunger strike in New Delhi. He also wrote to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh requesting him to pay heed to Anna's demands.
When it comes to his movies, films like Sarfarosh, Rang De Basanti and Peepli Live (which he produced but did not star in) clearly show his intent.
With SMJ too there have been protests and rumours of threats to Aamir but the actor brushes them off. "No, there have been no threats. I recently heard that I am driving around in a bulletproof car because of the threats," he laughs, adding, "and there has been no topic that we have not picked up because of any kind of pressure, political or otherwise."
The way forward
The last story of Season 1 was about Dasrath Manjhi aka the Mountain Man from Gaya in Bihar.
"Dasrath took 22 years to break through a mountain and make a road single-handedly. It was a very inspirational story. It was in the episode that was titled The Idea of India. At the end of the story, I said that a lot of us have negative thoughts about what an individual can achieve.
"Anyone who saw Dasrath's story, they can never use that line as an excuse for their inaction. He made a decision and went for it. He didn't let people laughing or taunting him distract him from his goal. He didn't wait for the government to build the road or give up because no one else was helping him. He made the change he wanted to see happen.
"Similarly, we at SMJ are on the same path despite allegations against us or rumours floating around. We are very single-minded in our focus of doing what we think is right."
While he continues to ride bikes and romance his leading ladies and be the perfect husband and father to Kiran Rao and Junaid, Ira and Azad, Aamir has higher dream; a vision for India.
"Well, the ultimate vision is what our forefathers wrote in the preamble of the Constitution. The people who fought for us had a vision for India… Justice, Equality, Liberty and Fraternity. My vision is to fulfil their dream."
And, SMJ is a small step in the right direction
Get a copy of tabla! for more stories.