Oprah in Mumbai
Why the US talk show host's recent India special, in which she visited a city slum and a party hosted by Parmeshwar Godrej, was shockingly ignorant and gauche.
This past Saturday, I had the dubious pleasure of watching Oprah’s Next Chapter: India on TLC. The name of the programme is pretty self-explanatory. And I’d already heard of her series, Oprah’s Next Chapter in the US where she “steps outside of the studio for enlightening conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families”. I’ve never been a great fan of Oprah’s—and the fact that she truly follows and believes everything that Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil say has nothing to do with it. I do think though, that she’s a good interviewer, she’s well-informed, an easy conversationalist and is well-travelled. But all that has changed after watching Oprah’s Next Chapter: India.
Myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst.
Two episodes make up the India episodes. The first being the one I saw and which I think was shot during her visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. This was Oprah’s first visit to India. Now whenever an American or a British TV show host visits India, he or she is always accompanied on his travels through our very exotic land by someone living in India, a sort of cultural friend, philosopher and guide.
So was Oprah. She was taken on a guided tour through a slum in Bombay by the prince of poverty tourism—Gregory David Roberts. He of Shantaram and deplorable sentence construction fame. Who has anointed him tour guide to the slums of India? Oprah seemed quite happy to have one of her ilk show her around through the by-lanes of the slum. And the slum is where Oprah’s “oh-my-god-how wonderfully-pathetically-quaint-to-be-so-poor”avatar stepped out in full glory.
So Oprah trooped into one of our vintage slums to meet a family—parents and three children—who live in a 10 square foot room. Now I’m not surprised that Oprah was surprised to see an entire family living in such tiny quarters. Although I’m sure she could find cramped ghettos in the States. What surprised me was the amazing lack of sensitivity to the children’s feelings or the feelings of the parents who’d opened up their home to her. All the children go to school, and were extremely well-mannered and seemed happy and quite carefree like children their age are meant to be. They didn’t seem to realise that their home was smaller than the homes of others. Or that their father didn’t earn as much as he could.
But not for long. Once Oprah got through with them, they must have committed seppuku.
She asked the children how they could live in such a “tiny” room and actually wanted to know, “Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?” She also asked the six-year-olds whether they were happy. Which must have made them wonder why they shouldn’t be. She then interrogated the father about whether he was happy and satisfied. He got teary-eyed and said that he wished he could earn more and provide for a more comfortable life for his children. After making him weep in front of his family, Oprah said that she knows how awful it is for children to see their father weep.
She did look for a shower head in the toilet and seem amazed to hear they bathed with a bucket. And she marvelled at how all their clothes fit into a small shelf. She pointedly avoided any mention of the massive LCD TV that adorned their wall. That would have killed the sob story. When their older daughter told Oprah that she’d like to go to London to study further, Oprah also played her role as American ambassador to the hilt and said, “No. Come to America, it’s a lovely country. It’s the best.”
After visiting the strange exotic “slum people” who seemed to live on top of some magic faraway tree, she immediately proceeded to the home of one of Bombay’s richie-rich families. And then displayed her ignorance there as well.
The joint family which was dressed in full Indian regalia served her a meal on silver thalisand katoris. She looked at the food and then made her best statement of the entire episode—“So I hear some people in India STILL eat with their hands.” I don’t know what people in America are eating their hot dogs, pizzas and tacos with but perhaps Oprah’s home has evolved cutlery for all that. Then she told her viewers that ALL women in India live with their mothers-in-law and extended family.
Then to totally wash away all that grime of the slum, she got togged out in a Tarun Tahiliani sari to go and visit the home of the “Brad and Angelina of Bollywood”. Which if you didn’t realise, are Abhishek and Ash or as O puts it, Aaaarsh and Abheeeshuk whose child she said was “lit from within” whatever that means. I think it’s a condition that happens to children in Deepak Chopra’s homeland. Then she went to a party thrown in her honour by billionaire socialite Parmeshwar Godrej, which was the first accurate description of a person in the entire episode. She did marvel at the paparazzi outside the Bachchan home, which is quite impressive on any given day. And then we got to see her say hello to Piggy Chops, Shiamak Dawar, Anil Kapoor and all the Bollywood glitterati. She interrogated A. R. Raman—as she calls him—and spoke to him about how even he lives with his mother and whether he loves his wife who he had an arranged marriage with. And after I barfed a little in my mouth, it was the end of her journey to Bombay.
This story by Rajyasree Sen was originally published on Firstpost.com.