NEW DELHI – Oprah Winfrey is in the spotlight in India… again. After her well-publicized debut visit to the country in January when the talk show host came down to film an India special for Oprah’s Next Chapter. The series saw a simulcast premiere on Discovery Channel and its affiliate TLC (The Lifestyle Channel) over the weekend, but the response to Winfrey’s take on India has largely been negative.
During her travels, Winfrey visited a Mumbai slum, the Jaipur Literary Festival (where she taped an interaction with noted author Deepak Chopra), a widows home in North India rounded off with a must-see trip to the Taj Mahal. The episode also filmed Winfrey spending time with families, from the slum-dwelling poor to upper crust millionaires, including being escorted by Indian film icon Amitabh Bachchan and his family to a glamorous Bollywood party hosted in her honor by leading Mumbai socialite Parmeshwar Godrej.
One of the major criticisms against Winfrey is when she asks her dinner hosts, an upscale Mumbai family who lay down a lavish meal for her, “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” Leading news channel CNN-IBN (a joint venture between CNN and leading broadcasting group Network18) posted an “open letter to Oprah Winfrey from an Indian who eats with her hand” on its website penned by Rituparna Chatterjee, “Oprah, your comment about eating with the hand is really not that big a deal to us; we are used to gross Western ignorance regarding our ancient country. But as a responsible public figure about to air a show that will be beamed across the world, you should have done your homework. Using our hands to eat is a well established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of. Our economic distinction has nothing to do with it. A millionaire here eats the same way a pauper does. You have been to Asian nations. You should know that. ”
Questioning Winfrey’s motives, Chatterjee adds, “Poverty is an inseparable part of India, you say, and seek out the human stories that make the grind bearable. But which India have you come looking for? The one that shops at state-of-the-art supermarkets and vacations abroad or the one whining about their misery in tiny holes of homes with LCD televisions on the walls? The India that scrapes by with $200 a month but sends its children to subsidized government schools to pick up fluent English? The India of your press information – fascinating, with its many-headed goddesses and grimy, naked children playing by roadside hovels – or the India of the future – an economic superpower that looms large outside the range of an average American’s myopic vision? ”
A critique of the show by online news site Firstpost.com writer Rajyasree Sen described the two-episode series as “myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst.”
Winfrey’s tour of a Mumbai slum, where she meets a family of five living in a cramped room, was also criticized by Sen, “And the slum is where Oprah’s ‘oh-my-god-how wonderfully-pathetically-quaint-to-be-so-poor’ avatar stepped out in full glory. .. 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 U.S… She did look for a shower head in the toilet and seem amazed to hear they bathed with a bucket. And she marveled at how all their clothes fit onto a small shelf. She pointedly avoided any mention of the massive LCD TV which 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”.”
Another review of the show by leading newspaper group Dainik Bhaskar posted the headline “Snobbish Oprah Mocks India.” “In a typical American snooty style, the talk show queen tried to portray a superficial ‘sob story’. Oprah was anything but a good guest when she went around the small room interrogating the family members about their ‘poor’ living style and ‘miserly’ living.”
In its coverage of how the show got a “thumbs down”, India Real Time (the Wall Street Journal’s India-specific blog) said, “The smell of incense (tick), the sari fitting (tick), the aspirations of slum dwellers (tick), and the glitz of Bollywood (tick). Let’s not forget arranged marriages and the fact that Indians, even rich ones, “still” eat with their hands (tick, tick). India as Westerners imagine it, one stereotype at a time.”
But a few of the many online comments to the India Real Time story supported Winfrey’s coverage of India’s reality. “The views Oprah presented are cliched BUT TRUE! I am an Indian who lives in the U.S… To many middle and upper class families, the India Oprah presents simply does not exist. I was shocked to speak to members of my family and they denied that people are dying of malnutrition and starvation below their very ivory towers”, said a post by RJ. “Oprah showed what she saw in India. What’s wrong with that? If we can’t clean up our act, then we have no business feeling offended,” said another post by Esh.