Aamir Khan is one of the most popular and influential Bollywood actors in India today. He became a star of Hindi cinema in the 1980s, and his greatest commercial successes have been the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time.
In 2012, Khan’s career took an unexpected turn.
Together with a childhood friend, he created a TV series called Satyamev Jayate (Truth only prevails) which became the first prime-time TV show in India to expose the country’s most critical social issues – from rape to female foeticide and dowry killings.
Khan was used to portraying macho men on a quest for vengeance and belongs to an industry accused of denigrating women and encouraging sexual violence.
But now, the 52-year-old actor with Peter Pan charm risks his career by challenging men to re-examine their attitudes and behaviour towards women, confronting the spiralling wave of gender-based violence in India and defying age-old stereotypes.
The Snake Charmer follows Khan on a journey through India’s TV and Bollywood industry, as he attempts to change the way Indians perceive and treat women.
From the set of Satyamev Jayate, the film follows Khan backstage to his new Bollywood blockbuster Dangal.
Khan’s quest ultimately opens a window into a country in crisis and the changes it is undergoing.
By Nina Maria Paschalidou
The way popular culture influences our lives and empowers women has always fascinated me.
While filming my last documentary, Kismet, which explored the impact of Turkish soap operas on women in the Arab world, I was first introduced to Aamir Khan, Bollywood’s greatest film star, through an article in Time magazine. The media called him the “snake charmer”, because of his power and the effect he had on people.
Time ranked Khan as one of the most influential men in the world – a man who was trying to change the situation for women in India through a TV show called Satyamev Jayate.
In December 2012, the tragic incident of the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old student, in a Delhi bus resulted in a public outcry against Bollywood. Many people argued that Indian popular culture is characterised by misogyny and that Bollywood must assume responsibility for the message it sends out.
Of all Bollywood films produced from the 1970s to the 1990s, seven out of 10 included a rape scene.
I wondered if there truly was a connection between Bollywood and its portrayal of women and rape.
Bollywood is India’s largest driver of mainstream popular culture, producing more than a thousand films per year. It is estimated that every week approximately 90 to 100 million Indian viewers go to the cinema to watch films and millions more watch Bollywood films on their TV screens. Over 85 percent of cable television operators routinely screen two films a day through their local channels.
Since the 1960s, rape scenes in Bollywood films became common and part of most films catering to predominantly male audiences. They were introduced as a plot device to give the hero a cause to fight for, or to eliminate a character from the plot (the victim almost always committed suicide).
A survey found that of all Bollywood films produced from the 1970s to the 1990s, seven out of 10 included a rape scene.
Khan became the first Bollywood star in India to openly talk about rape, female foeticide, dowry payments and domestic violence when Satyamev Jayate premiered in May 2012. By attempting to uncover the reasons behind the phenomenon of rape, he challenged men’s attitudes to women and Bollywood’s tradition of glorifying violence.
Like soap operas, Bollywood films are not pure entertainment. They have the power to create or break stereotypes and taboos. And with Khan at the helm of the movement, Bollywood is changing: directors are offering more dynamic roles to women, and male actors are taking on more sensitive roles.
I followed Khan for a period of three years, all the way from the making of the TV show to the filming of his recent film, Dangal, a women’s empowerment film which was released in December 2016 and became the highest grossing Bollywood film ever.
Khan’s life is characterised by the juxtaposition of pleasing the Indian men and women who watch his films and campaigning for those who participate in his show.
In The Snake Charmer, I focused on the personal and deeply touching moments which occur when these two worlds collide and tried to capture Khan’s transition from a Bollywood star into a powerful agent of social change.
I also tried to capture the truth, and often asked myself “is this guy for real?” I will leave this to the audience to decide.