Shah Rukh Khan’s new show is a retweet—and that matters
'TED Talks India Nayi Soch' uses Shah Rukh Khan's celebrity to push discussions that might not have found a wide audience otherwise
The first time I remember using the TED Talks app on my iPad many, many years ago, it tossed up a host of options: the time I had at hand, subjects I was interested in, the mood the talk should have. After I parsed these parameters, the app helpfully presented me with a selection of ideally sized and shaped talks, after which I saved a couple for later and went back to see if the app could handle much odder demands. I don’t remember if I’d hunted for a talk on thermodynamics weighing in under seven minutes, or a discussion on heteronormative stereotypes in television writing, but the fact remains that the app can deal with whatever you throw at it. There is a TED Talk for everything.
This makes TED a remarkable resource, certainly, but it also means it has generated too much content for us to sift. There are fascinating talks we’ll never individually stumble upon, and superlative ones being watched by far too few people. This is why we rely on curators to pick out things and point us in the right direction, and with the new Star Plus show TED Talks India Nayi Soch —Sunday evenings at 7pm on Star Plus, streaming on Hotstar—Shah Rukh Khan walks us through a playlist of talks he finds interesting.
This ought to be a highly effective approach. As many of us on social media would attest, even a stray comment from a relatively minor celebrity gets favourited and liked and shared several hundred times over, not to mention the love it gets from various real (and very unreal) fan clubs. In a world like this, the fact that Khan is introducing a talk advocating better living conditions to those living in underdeveloped urban settlements makes sure the reach for that particular talk is exponentially amplified. This show is basically Shah Rukh sharing articles he thinks we should read and—going by the way even a “good morning" text from the star receives demonstrative adoration from the masses—these retweets are endorsements.
It is great to see Khan, a charming and articulate speaker, step back from the spotlight and give it to thinkers and achievers from other fields. Khan introduces the topic and the speaker, and takes his place in the midst of the audience, letting the TED format crisply do its thing. In the first episode telecast on Sunday, the speakers included Gautam Bhan, an expert on human settlements; Shubhendu Sharma, a former engineer who now makes urban forests; Dr Manu Prakash, a physicist who showed how effective low-cost science experiments can be; Sneha Khanwalkar, a popular music composer; Manju Kapoor, a novelist speaking about the need for Indian men to have better emotional education; and finally Anirudh Sharma, a young scientist who—inspired by Khan’s Swades—came back to India and has found a way to reduce carbon-dioxide and harvest ink from polluted air.
These are all speakers and subjects that—on first glance—we might not have chosen from TED’s unending lineup. Most of them aren’t buzzy enough to immediately go viral and be shared over and over on Facebook, earning their weight in “wow" emojis. This is what makes the selection a good one, a thoughtfully considered one that focusses on making the viewer contemplate and converse about the issues discussed. Bhan, for example, made an immediate impact by appealing to us not to call settlements—the Hindi word for which is the soothing word “basti", which literally means “to settle"—by the pejorative term “slums". With Khan promising the same, I already expect many young Indians to stop using the word.
Khan is in fine touch, relaxed and confident without trying too hard. He does occasionally emphasise his exclamation marks somewhat too hard—the opening “Let’s talk, India" clarion call comes with an over-urgency like he’s saying the words for the first time, and later in the show he dramatically says “After all, I’m an Indian man too" as if this were a revelation—but he does rather well overall, and looks genuinely interested. This is what makes the difference and could make TED Talks India Nayi Soch a success.
This is a clearly well-intentioned show, one that has masterfully avoided the Bollywood circus (while hiring one of its top ringmasters) as well as overt emotionality as we saw in Aamir Khan’s distractingly tear-stained Satyamev Jayate. This show features speakers talking about their passions while Khan and other audience members look on, utterly engrossed by what is being said. Your mileage may vary regarding the speakers and talks themselves—I liked Bhan and Sharma’s presentations best, while Khanwalkar’s was disappointing and Kapoor offered no new insight—but the “interested audience" shots function in this narrative like a laugh track does in a sitcom. Here, then, is to that delightful idea: that of intrigue itself being an infectious thing.
Raja Sen tweets @rajasen