On Friday, STAR India CEO Uday Shankar spoke at the prestigious Paley Center for Media in New York. The event, part of the Paley Center Media Council breakfast series and sponsored by 21st Century Fox, gathered some of the top players in the media industry to hear Shankar discuss the role of social responsibility in media, women’s empowerment, and of course, STAR’s hit show Satyamev Jayate (“Truth Alone Prevails”).
21st Century Fox Co-Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, who ran STAR India from 2000-2003, gave the introductory remarks.”For Uday, ‘Inspiring a Billion Imaginations’ isn’t just a tagline; it’s a promise,” Murdoch said. “STAR India has become a shining example of a 21st century leader that combines a desire for profit with a drive for purpose.”
Shankar spoke in conversation with Bobby Ghosh, the editor of TIME Magazine International. Their conversation was wide-ranging, and Shankar spoke at length about STAR’s longtime commitment to developing and airing content that is both entertaining and socially progressive. STAR, for example, was the first television company in India to create shows that focused on strong, independent female characters, first through a series of popular soap operas known as “the K-serials.” Even today, STAR’s most watched drama follows the journey of a young woman who pursues her dream of becoming a police officer, despite opposition from the conservative family into which she was married.
The rights of women and girls has long been one of India’s most pressing social concerns, and it is an issue that Shankar takes seriously. “The driver characters for change [on our shows] are women,” Shankar said. “They are the biggest ambassadors and proselytizers of change in their own context.”
Shankar also spoke more broadly about the social responsibility that he feels should be inherent to media content. “Each business contributes its own share to society, but there’s a certain amount of premium that society places on media businesses,” he said. “I’ve always felt–and my bosses have always encouraged me–to challenge the status quo… Our job is to question, to focus the spotlight on what we feel needs to be observed more closely.”
One of the most notable ways Shankar has delivered on this promise is through the launch of Satyamev Jayate, or “Truth Alone Prevails,” a show featuring Bollywood star Aamir Khan discussing some of the most important and sensitive issues facing India today, from female feticide and alcoholism to child sex abuse and political corruption. The first season launched in May 2012, and the second season just concluded its run in March.
“It is like nothing else on TV that I’m aware of anywhere else in the world,” Ghosh said of the show. “It deals with issues that India has tended to sweep under the carpet. It’s unrelenting and very, very tough. And yet, the success of the show has been astonishing.”
Indeed, from its first episode, the show received enthusiastic feedback and record viewership numbers. SMJ became the first Indian series to reach 2nd place on Twitter’s top 10 global trends, and STAR estimates that the first season alone was seen by approximately 500 million Indians. Beyond its success among audiences, the show has also directly affected Indian law, leading to several new or revised laws on the issues the show addressed, with politicians directly citing SMJ as an influence.
Shankar had grand aspirations for the show from the earliest days of the project. He said the question on his mind during his first meeting with Aamir Khan was, “Should we use the power of television to do something that will change this country?” He went on, “I want to point out the difference between media content with social responsibility and without social responsibility. If it’s irresponsible, we should not do it… All media content should be corporate social responsibility. If it’s not, then we feel we have failed.”