This appeared in Asian Age on Saturday....
Sorry Oprah…. but we just didn’t ‘Get It!”
Let me borrow Oprah Winfrey’s favourite phrase on her India show - “ I get it”! I totally do. Get India, that is. It’s Oprah, who clearly didn’t ‘get it’ at all, and mistook India – India, not areas of Mumbai - for a New York ghetto. Someone forgot to show her a map. And poor Oprah was confused. Let’s put it down to jet lag. Or to tunnel vision. After all, the iconic Oprah has spent the longest time looking through a lens in an American studio, talking to a semi-hysterical mid-Western audience of the converted, and getting Tom Cruise to jump up and down on a couch, while she got all teary ( she gets teary even if a kitten crosses a street).That’s Oprah. And that is also the remarkable part about her undeniable success. Let’s hand it to her - Oprah, at one time the richest and most powerful woman on earth, got to that enviable position by touching a chord in the hearts of millions. Nobody else in the history of television has ever managed to reach that height. Oprah was a one-woman conglomerate, who shrewdly leveraged her unique status into a multi-million dollar business that grew and grew and grew – not unlike her own size, which she also used to her advantage when it suited her. It is only now, in more recent times, that the Big ‘O’ has lost her edge… lost her groove… and nowhere was that more in evidence than when she climbed into gaudy desi designer gear and filmed her Next Chapter in India.
Have we over reacted to her show? Well… that depends. Most of the Indians who live in America, have been pretty sensible about their responses. They have dismissed the show saying it had zero impact, considering the profile of Oprah’s viewers, who in all probability switched off after a few minutes and went back to grill their burgers in the backyard. Oprah is no Amanpour. Her shallow take on world affairs is not taken seriously by anybody, least of all, policy makers. Ever since Oprah started to lose her star value ( ask around in Chicago and they’ll tell you exactly what’s up for sale from Oprah’s stable), her credibility has taken a serious beating. The Oprah era is officially over in America. Desperately in need of re-inventing herself, Oprah perhaps decided it was time to venture out of the cosy, controlled confines of her studio and into the big, bad world outside. The third world. She’s only one decade too late getting here. Huge mistake? It would appear so, judging by the sloppiness of the India show. Here was a terrific opportunity to anchor a really well researched and balanced programme that would do justice to her own image – forget for now, India’s image. Instead, Oprah blew it. There is really no justification for not doing ones homework. Here’s one of modern day television’s most-acknowledged mega stars with all the resources at her command. And what does she do with them? She shows up with her motley crew, hires a few local jokers, gets invited to homes – from a humble kholi in a Mumbai slum, to a palace in Jaipur, and then goes ahead with a narrative that is hopelessly riddled with clichés and stereotypes . Oprahji… we expected better.
It’s important to state here that India does not need an Oprah to sell itself to the world. So, we needn’t froth at the mouth and tear her to pieces for ‘demeaning’ Indian and Indians (sorry, Honey. But you ain’t that important).As for that much quoted Oprah-ism (“Do Indians still eat with their hands?”),why take offence?Of course, we eat with our hands. Do others use their feet? The annoyance ought to be directed at ourselves for our own ridiculous behavior. Sure, Oprah enjoys a formidable reputation and is an international personality. But, she was not treated like another tv professional, looking to can a commercial, entertaining show out of India ( poor Tim Sebastian – is nobody organizing a palace party for him?), but a visiting head of state. I doubt even a Michelle Obama would have generated such an OTT reaction. Oprah’s every step was breathlessly covered by our fawning mediawallas – from those hideous sarees and tunics she wore, to her every ‘Naam-aastey’. Was that Oprah’s fault? Of course, she played up her celebrity status to the hilt – which person wouldn’t? And just for the record, she didn’t exactly barge into people’s homes – no, not even the Kholiwalla’s. But there is no denying her crass and insensitive conduct as a guest, particularly with the Hegde family in the slum. Then again, it was left to Aanchal, the 12-year-old daughter of the Hegde family to show up Oprah’s abominable manners, as the little girl clarified her family’s position with disarming grace and dignity. It was Oprah who should have been red-faced at the end of this segment, and not the Hegdes.
Who can resist the temptation to exoticise India? Certainly not our Oprah. She went all out – camels, bullocks, cows, elephants, snakes and of course, the Taj Mahal. Which other country can boast of as many amazing photo-ops? Such contradictions? Such stunning contrasts? Why shouldn’t Oprah go the whole hog? The widows at Vrindavan… the silver thalis at a wealthy home, Bollywood stars and billionaires, Rolls Royces and horse carriages with a shower of petals?And to cap it all, an instant lesson in spirituality from Pop Guru Deepak Chopra, who assures Oprah that India’s Muslims are indeed ‘one of us’. No kidding, Sir! And that life is all about ‘living in the moment’ (Hello, Osho!). And so it went, with Oprah closing her eyes ( fake lashes in place), breathing deeply and declaring, “I get it!”
Pity, Indians didn’t.