‘Aamir Khan: The Snake Charmer’ wins the 2019 Gold Medal at NYFF for every right reason

‘Aamir Khan: The Snake Charmer’ wins the 2019 Gold Medal at NYFF for every right reason
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It has raised questions that could easily go amiss, and has tactfully put together pieces to create an unbiased story.

Al Jazeera’s Witness episode ‘Aamir Khan: The Snake Charmer’ has won the 2019 Gold World Medal at the New York Film Festival, and it can be said that the documentary’s audacious look into an actor’s transformation to an activist has served as its winning factor.

Documented back in 2017, almost four years after Khan’s reality show, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ was already on air, the show follows the actor as he works on putting together what he would term as a socially conscious talk show. Called in the documentary as one of India’s most popular and influential movie stars, we get a glimpse into Khan’s unusual journey which was at times praised and most times criticized by viewers, critics, people of law, and fellow actors alike. The subheading to the documentary reads as, “Can Aamir Khan create lasting change in Indian society or is he just another Bollywood star playing the role of a hero?”, and remaining true to the question the documentary seeks an answer to the actor’s true motives; and it is just as disputing as its subject.

The documentary follows Khan’s transformation from an actor to an activist.

When Khan started with the show, the first subject that he delved into was about the impending doom of female foeticide in India. With some painful yet thought-provoking stories of the common civilians, the show’s impact already reached to a state where on the very next day that the episode was aired, Rajasthan Chief Minister, Shri. Ashok Gehlot, reportedly urged the public representatives and other non-governmental organisations to take actions to stop the illegal practice of female foeticide. Over the course of the show, as it began to bring in even more controversial and material content, the actor was immediately subjected to threats, criticism and intimidation. On the other hand, he was criticizing for apparently trying to gain popularity by bringing in innocent victims and acting his way through the show.

This is where director Nina Maria Paschalidou’s documentary has struck the right chord. Instead of siding with either the actor or with those who criticise him, the movie gives us a clean picture of both sides. On one hand, we do see Khan taking every measure to make the show happen; we do hear him mention his own popularity and his own reasons to bring out the social message to people. On the other hand, we also hear those who don’t entirely support Khan’s effort. They point out to some fatal errors about the show, and how those can actually have an even more hazardous impact on the society. However, surpassing all of that Nina picked up an even more significant angle of the story where she asked the question if the industry that Khan belongs to has a role to play in how a nation behaves towards its women.

Nina asked the question about Khan’s influence in Bollywood. (IMDb)

While speaking with Al Jazeera, she said, “I wondered if there truly was a connection between Bollywood and its portrayal of women and rape...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.” She then states her reason behind choosing Khan as the primary subject of her story.

She mentioned how Khan turned out to be an actor who was the host of a talk show that dealt with social issues in India. She mentioned, “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.” As she followed the actor over a span of three years, between which he was hosting the show, making films like ‘Dhoom: 3’, and finally stepped into a more socially conscious story like ‘Dangal’, she found out, “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.”

As Nina herself managed to strike a balance between showcasing the actor’s concern, and his execution of that concern, the documentary takes into consideration several voices who speak from both end of the line.  In its thought-provoking approach we hear criticisms that are sometimes drab statements made by those who are strictly against the idea of talking about crimes as heinous as rape. However, we also hear criticisms that leave us wondering if Khan’s intention behind the show is as pure as the actor claims it to be. This is where, ‘Snake Charmer’ has served its journalistic purpose!

Other than coming up an impactful story, it has managed to take up a more unprejudiced approach towards the subject. It has raised questions that would have easily gone amiss by the common viewer of the screen, and has subtly laid down the contrasting views which Khan had to face in his journey from being an actor to an activist. Hence, ‘Aamir Khan: The Snake Charmer’ truly deserves the award, and in case you have missed it, you can watch it here.