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Why Oprah Did India Good

Why Oprah Did India Good

July 30, 2012

So some Indians still eat with their hands. Glad we got that out of the way. Now, what else we can do?

I wanted to hate Oprah’s two hour-long specials on India. I wanted to watch them and giggle mercilessly at her endless faux pas, tweeting acerbic criticism throughout. Instead, I wound up loving them. I would even go as far as to say that I, a foreigner who spent three years living in India, even identified with Oprah. How did that happen?

It’s becoming a pretty familiar story. Famous foreigner visits India, examines a few of the country’s negative aspects, perhaps makes a few mistakes, and gets pilloried by Indians. Oprah’s visit was early this year and the specials aired last week: one hour on the different socioeconomic levels of society (Oprah visits slum-dwellers and Bollywood stars), one hour on the challenges facing women in India (with a little Taj Mahal and Jaipur sightseeing/tamasha thrown in).

A hailstorm of negative opinion followed on Indian blogs, Twitter and Facebook, mostly centred around a particularly dismissive piece in the online news magazine Firstpost. “Myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst” wrote Rajyasree Sen, going on to characterise Oprah as a patronising drama queen. Sen took particular issue with Oprah’s statement at an upper-middle-class family’s dinner table: “So, I hear some people in India still eat with their hands.” A large portion of the Twittersphere picked at this, too, shaming Oprah for her ignorance. How could she not already know this? She obviously doesn’t care about India, or Indians, at all!

More accusations followed. “OPRAH: CAME, SAW, DIDN’T CONQUER”, read a rotating banner on an NDTV panel discussion of the show. With such a tide of negativity, I had to see Oprah’s specials for myself. To my surprise, I recognised my own experience in hers, and I think she did a better job of presenting a snapshot of India to the world than any other foreigner I can recall.

It seems to me that Oprah had two goals for the shows:

1) to understand the differences between her life and and the lives of the people she briefly moves through, learning what she can from experiences alien to her;

2) to use her stature to do something positive.

I believe she accomplished both, and I’m still shaking my head at how well she pulled it off.

Nobody can portray India's complexity, but they can portray their response to its complexity.

It would be unfair to expect Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, the legendary CBS News presenter/producer duo, to produce two hour-long specials that adequately portray the overwhelming complexity of India. Oprah, with her patented This Lite American Life/What You Don’t Know About [X] Might Shock You schtick, never stood a chance. Countless historians have learned, over hundreds of years, that you cannot fit all of India into any number of pages in a book or hours on a screen. There is simply too much.

The best India can hope for from an outsider is genuine curiosity, and in my view, Oprah brought that. There are moments in which she is condescending, sure, as befits one of the most powerful and influential media personalities of the last twenty-five years. The basic formula of the special, though, is honest and humble: Oprah sees/experiences something, says how she responds to it, then tries to understand it better by asking questions. This is a realistic and sensible approach to India and it mirrors my own experience.

An American woman goes to India, and Oprah is that American woman.

In evaluating an Oprah special on India, one should be aware of the target audience and the standard format of her television output. Oprah’s revolutionary product - and I do not use the word ‘revolutionary’ lightly - is the television of shared subjective experience. She is your personal guide to modern life, always speaking to the individual and not to the collective. You are important, says Oprah. I care about you, says Oprah. I will help you understand and survive, says Oprah. I will even help you prosper. Just stick with me.

Understandably, then, these India specials are a mix of point-of-view style shots and to-camera whispers. I can see what Oprah sees, I can feel what Oprah feels. I am Oprah, and Oprah is me. As strange as it feels to say that I identified with her throughout much of the show, I really did. I can’t profess to belong to her usual target audience, which is American women who are home during the day, but I felt included in her experience without feeling condescended to. Incredibly, I didn’t feel like she condescended to the people she visited either.

How to be a foreigner in an Indian home.

Oprah admittedly wasn’t a perfect guest. There were a few moments where she seemed quite bewildered by what was going on, which would have been partly down to jetlag, sleep deprivation and possible dysentery, and responded a little awkwardly. She also pronounced a number of names and words incorrectly. We all do this sometimes.

Here’s what she got right, though, whether she was in the hutment or the wealthy suburbs: She immediately thanked everyone who allowed her into their home. She showed genuine interest in each member of the family. She let them speak in their own voice, rather than trying to speak for them or force words out of them.

One of the biggest accusations many observers have made is that Oprah somehow cajoled and prodded Rajesh, the father of the poorer family, into crying about the poor life he is giving his daughters. This commentary suggested a manipulative guest concerned only with the ultimate television product, but the way I saw it, Rajesh just seemed overwhelmed. He had just watched his daughter speak confidently and articulately about becoming a teacher, then praise her parents for all they give her in life. His pride at her words, coupled with his guilt at wanting to provide more, brought him to tears.

I found the moment quite touching, and I was impressed that Oprah didn’t linger too long on it, instead cutting quickly to an ad break. Her editing of the scene fit with the respect she offered each of her hosts, and she accommodated them in her TV show as properly as they accommodated her in their homes.

A woman doing good for other women.

The most striking scenes of the specials, for me, came towards the end of the second part. Oprah had just spent time with Dr Mohini Giri at her sanctuary for cast-aside widows in Vrindavanand, seeking to understand the life of an Indian woman better, gathered five middle-class women for an informal living-room discussion. The talk touched delicately on wife-beating, honour killing, skin colour prejudice and the generally pervasive patriarchy that still exists in India.

I was amazed. This was Oprah at her best: one of the most successful women in the world, and certainly one of the most socially influential, using her stature to do something good. The manner in which she brought these issues out in the discussion, creating an environment in which everyone felt validated (both by Oprah and by their peers), was remarkably positive.

After airing these issues, Oprah asked host Padmini what she would like to borrow from an American woman. I think it’s worth quoting Padmini’s whole speech verbatim:

"I think that I feel very privileged to be born a woman in India, but if I have to ask myself what I could borrow from an American woman, I think I need to borrow the eloquence with which women should learn to communicate their mind. It's something that we in India are not encouraged to do, and few of us are fortunate to have learnt, but that is one thing that we would need a lot more of: to be able to speak our mind in a way in which we can bring people together to hear what we have to say."

Padmini’s words summed up the entire show. Oprah came to India, saw that Indian women generally do not have the same opportunities afforded to American women, and sought to understand their lives better and give them a chance to speak. I think she did that extremely well, and to devote two hours of American TV to this pursuit is simply remarkable.


This is the first time I've watched one of Oprah's shows all the way through. She can now count me among her fans. It seems to me that she cares about India as much as I do, is as curious about it as I am, and responded to it in quite a similar way to how I did -- and as a representative of visitors to India, I am proud of her work. If you can't see that she cares and tried to respond honestly, as well as do some good, I fear you'll see me -- and most visitors to India -- in much the same way.

Photo credit: Times of India 


  • anna
    05.08.12 01:01 AM
    Omg! Opera said indians eat with omy gawd. What a faux pas,how could she......since the opera series are intended for an american audience who normally consider cutlery as necessary to eat as japenese and chinese consider their chop sticks, it does make sense to high light the fact that its a cultural thing to eqat with their hands and not lack of ability to buy cutlery. Its interesting that the mughals brought persian influence but never did seem to hit on with the cutlery idea which also roots in persia. Well maybe just i find that interesting.
    As for poverty, quoting straight from (omg) wikipedia, india has one third of the worlds population of poor people, 8 indian states have more poor people then the 26 poorest african countries and omg opera featured poor people on her show,her show on india indeed. Omg how could she, when its just so blatant there in your face feature it on a tv show. Omg. I think instead of becoming enraged of showing poor people on tv using that energy to get rid of that poverty. Then you neednt worry about any one featuring it on omg a tv show and showing your omg dirty laundry. And its maybe just i that think so but i think brazil has its poverty exposed and featured more blatanly then india does. But indians wouldnt complain about that.
  • Rajpriya
    01.08.12 11:48 AM

    It’s nice to hear from you after a long absence. Oh! No long before Oprah I like most Indians loved Joe Frazier and then Muhammad Ali. However, I hated all the guys who beat Muhammad Ali whether they were Black or White.

    They were Americans weren't they?

    Is there any truth in the rumor that Abraham Lincoln was shot because his parents were black?

    Many Indians are not sensitive to broad generalizations but feel kicked on their backsides.
  • Keri
    01.08.12 10:50 AM
    My only comment is, now that Oprah has come to India, maybe Indians** will stop thinking that all Americans are White. If she can accomplish that, I think her purpose has been served.

    ** Let me say 'MANY MORE Indians will stop'. I don't want to be accused of making broad generalizations too.
  • Rajpriya
    01.08.12 08:12 AM
    If Oprah visits India next she should be fed with Big Burghers, KFC, Chappathi, Dosa + Chutney and everything else that cannot be eaten with fork and spoon.

    Then get some Serviettes printed "Do not use Hardware" on them and secretly film her reactions. It may become Viral?
  • Sanjiv Kapoor
    Sanjiv Kapoor
    31.07.12 09:04 PM
    Classic comment from one of readers: "Eating with hand is a great exercise. A British research shows Indians do not have Alzheimer because they eat with the hands."

    So typical. No facts, no sources, just a triumphant assertion of our moral and intellectual superiority, which of course becomes even more legit if "blessed" by the West. The fact is Alzheimers is very much present in India, it is just brushed off as "old age".
  • Rajpriya
    31.07.12 06:14 PM
    Yes why should we let outsiders entertatain us when we have enough of our own fun starting from Bollywood. Watch the foreigners who open their gab too wide and torture them Ghaddafi style, well and truly brain wash them with Indian values so they spread them in their own countries
    And then we could be happy they are equals.

    The poor lady was given away by her mother when she really young but her rags to riches story
    is something worth admiring.

    To err is human what follows any one?
  • Sonia
    31.07.12 04:48 PM
    I dun understand that Why Oprah visit is so much hyped?? her comments and visit really doesnt matters...n watever she thinks and comments shows her lack of knowledge...

    Yeah she was not able to see all the family value Indians carrying since last so many years where USA really lacks... or she was not able to see the kindness of us as a Host even though she talked all non-sense about India and our lifestyle...

    I agree @stuti - des people should not be just entertained...
  • Stuti
    31.07.12 04:30 PM
    “An American woman goes to India, and Oprah is that American woman.”

    This was a very typical American Aspect. She washed away all her name and respect for her. India is not only about Bollywood and Poverty. Oprah has really shown her unawareness and lack of homework. She could not make the episode that reach to the 'Oprah Level'. If one can not have thorough view, one has no right to make statements about any culture or country. And common, let any one come to US for a week and show them a partial picture, then see, how THE USA can be pictured too.

    As such it is the fault of Indians that they entertain everyone.
  • Rajpriya
    31.07.12 03:54 PM
    @ Barn,

    Sorry about that stupid mistake. I should have spelt your name correctly: Barnaby Haszard Morris who lives in NZ.
  • Rajpriya
    31.07.12 03:19 PM
    Really Dunno really but most indians are upset she's revealing India's State Secrets in Public. You can read about her in NRI or ask Baranby Haszard Morris who lives in NZ.
  • Ginu George
    Ginu George
    31.07.12 03:12 PM
    Oprah who?
  • Rajpriya
    31.07.12 12:15 PM
    I had a bad dream. I was standing almost at the end of a long queue in front of the ‘Arbeitsamt” to collect my monthly dole. I was trying to hide my self from other known people who I thought would also be standing there. It's real shame to be in a Dole queue.

    Someone tapped on my shoulder and even before I could say “Hopla” the guy asked if I was from India. Well! I admit I could not have said I am a German. The best way to get off another Indian from your throat is to say you are a Pakistani.

    However this Indian was adamant I am not speaking the truth because my Indian accent gave me away. I tried to change the conversation and asked why he was in the queue? With an iPhone in his hand he was busy clicking into it. He was telling me that it was very wrong for the Indian Govt. to have given Winfrey Oprah an Indian Visa.

    I asked him what could be wrong with that. He started describing Oprah in all kinds of expletives and a bit too loud. Believe me I had a real time calming down the guy because the other people thought we were two Indians arguing and a fight was about to start.

    Any way after convincing that though I was a Pakistani I wished India our big neighbor always well and wished they liked us too. I soon knew my trick was not working. I changed the conversation to admiring his iPhone, if he was Tweeting and that seemed to work.

    He described at length what a great job Steve Jobs had done to brighten up this dark world and Steve was able to do all that because he had that Indian connection in addition to his drug connection. He wished that Oprah only knew that. He was tweeting his protest to Oprah.

    Now it was my turn to face the official. On cruel grounds I was refused dole. In anger I ran out not knowing how to feed my family. I ran and ran until I saw a moving train and jumped in front of it.

    Next thing I knew I woke up in Heaven. I was hauled up before God. I was allowed to introduce myself to God and ask any questions if I had.

    So I said I am Rajpriya born in Southern India now living in Germany and because of sudden unemployment and dole being refused thought there was no useful purpose I could serve on earth and here I am in front of you God I said.

    God said its nice meet you Rajpriya and now do you have any questions. I said yes my Lord I can understand why Steve Jobs is seated on your right side but why is Winfrey Oprah seated on you left with a bucket and a mop.

    Oh! That? I could explain that. She went to India recently and found most Indians were using their hand to put food in to their mouths. She finds this a dirty habit and needs to clean up India. However, don’t you earthling know that cleanliness is next to Godliness?

    Oh! Me Gawd! Thank God it was all just a dream that I had dreamt.
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    31.07.12 01:04 AM
    First let me clarify, other than the eating with the hands thing, I have nothing against criticism of a society and my reactions are not the knee-jerk 'How dare you criticize my country' variety.

    Lots being said about building bridges and educating society by educating women. That is precisely my point. You do not educate a Society about another by harping on stereotypes. It is only when you go beyond the stereotypes do you actually open the eyes of that Society to the other. Showing Bollywood and poverty is not quite the breaking stereotypes sort of journalism that requires commendation. It is more of the Indian Rope trick and Snake-charmer sort of journalism (Ah! And I forget the Taj Mahal)

    I'd love to hear Ms. Winfrey interview people in Britain and say, "Oh! You still have a Queen?" If the British will not swallow that, why should Indians be accused of over-sensitivity when she asks a question about something equally as easy to know for anyone who ever visits India?
    30.07.12 11:50 PM
    This clearly demonstarte how detached the Americans are from the rest of the world.

    I'm not saying this because what she said about India and Indians. Before this visit I thought she was clever and sensitive individual, but this shows that most rich people are stupid.

    Her gaff regarding eating with hands just takes it to different level compleatly. She might as well have said that, I didn't know that Indians were brown.

    Everytime I have visited USA which is home to the most fastfood joints in the world, where the knifes, spoons and forks are unheard of, and most Americans eat all their food with their hands. Some of you will argue that you can't eat burgers with knife and fork, then you are splitting hairs.
    One thing I will say is, most people who eat anything bread based food knows that you can't eat it with knife and fork.

    I wouldn't have been surprised if she had told the poor Rajesh and his family to eat mithai ( cakes and sweets ) if you can't afford to buy Rotti (bread).

    The other subjects and social issues she brought it to light, which does need resolving but are they any different to what's on Jerry springer. Every society has problems, this doesn't mean that we like what we see and don't want to do anything about it. By seeing and addressing we get one step closer to resolving it and thats what we can do at this stage and nothing more.

    I compleately agree with what C. Suresh said in his post, if you cannot bring something to table that changes life, then don't just bring your opinions.

    If this is her perception of India and Indians, then god help you.

  • Rajpriya
    30.07.12 10:19 PM
    America educated the woman Oprah and she came all the way to educate the world about India.

    Aren't there enough educated women in India? May be they are not sharing what they learnt or no one is listening to them. What happens now to the generations below her? Or is that woman not yet born?
  • Sheeba
    30.07.12 10:09 PM
    I believe that when you educate a woman, you educate a nation - because that one woman will share what she has learnt with other women and pass it on to the generations below hers.
  • Sheeba
    30.07.12 10:01 PM
    She visited Aiswarya Rai, the Bachens and visited the family of Mr.Rajesh , that is enough ,that is India.Indians hate the poor, the untouchables and women and if anyone else points out this human rights violations they start crying foul.
  • Rajpriya
    30.07.12 04:22 PM
    Looks like she came, Saw, and Conquered the wrath of Indians. But does she care?
  • Writerzblock
    30.07.12 02:59 PM
    A different perspective to Oprah's show, but I strongly disagree. All Oprah did was make Slumdog Millionaire Part II. Show the western audience exactly what they WANT to see. I think there's far more to India than the 'disparity'. If Oprah wanted to show the co-existence of abject poverty and wealth, she could have done that in her own country. To do it with India, in my opinion, is just stereotyped and so uncreative (if there is such a word!)

    And seriously, she displayed tremendous cultural insensitivity!!!!
  • Claudette Kulkarni
    Claudette Kulkarni
    30.07.12 02:26 PM
    You make some very good points in your post. Oprah's reactions during her visit to India are not unusual, as illustrated by the "she's just like all the others" responses to her documentary - and in response she gets skewered for being honest. But in fact, showing the reaction an average American, and probably also European, first time visitor has to Indian culture and society serves a very useful purpose: it highlights the areas where bridges can be built through information and explanation. I can certainly understand that some of Oprah's questions could be interpreted as insulting, but only if you assume they were asked from a position of her feeling superior rather than being eager to learn, and that assumption in itself is a bias (much mirroring the bias Oprah herself is accused of).
    Sidelining Oprah's observations as the reactions of just another stupid, bigoted Westerner is counter-productive. To create understanding, an exchange is necessary and for that a point of departure is useful. This documentary might well serve as such a point of departure.
  • Rajpriya
    30.07.12 12:26 PM
    It is now in Black and White. Winfrey Gail Oprah is the best and the most shining star ever to twinkle on the sky of this earth. That’s because she knows what exactly she has to do keep her in business. A Queen of self-publicity would never run for the US of A’s presidency ever because she knows that’s the best way to hit rock bottom ranks at Forbes.

    Many of us think she did not know that Indians are fed by their hands. She is more informed of India than most Indians. To look or show utter surprise about something the whole world knows is “Pretence” one of her many hat tricks of her trade - Advertising. She is the best actress I’ve ever known who succeeds in tickling every single sentiment of a human being.

    However, having watched many of her shows (may be hundreds) I have noticed she understands showbiz more than any one else: how to make people cry, laugh, repent for their actions, change their lifestyle and of course the best losers shedding their weight while she is stubborn enough to keep hers.

    She cries herself often on her shows that would melt the Ice Bergs of the Artic. You look straight in to her eyes and you would know what I mean. Bobbi Kristina? That was Whitney’s daughter saying to Oprah and her audience that her mums’ voice telling her “I’m right here baby, I’ve got you”

    Bobbi also said “She passes through me all the time”. I was wiping my flowing tears. Oprah’s shows really move people.

    She sells her business better than the best business- Man on earth. Wait and be surprised she has many more rabbits in her hat. Some of them have won her Oscars. The little controversy about “The Hands That Feed” Indians was deliberate that made her much better known in India than ever before.

    @Barn, You getting closer to be sent back to India as NZ’s Ambassador for your diplomacy that was well and amply displayed in words and it was great reading.
  • Rickie Khosla
    Rickie Khosla
    30.07.12 12:15 PM
    "An American woman goes to India, and Oprah is that American woman."
    Really, that is all there is to it. Her questions and reactions are EXACTLY the kind that I have heard foreigners, Americans, actually, ask when they return from an India trip.
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    30.07.12 10:41 AM
    Not to put too fine a point on it, if all Oprah can do is see India as any American woman would see it, what exactly is she bringing to the table other than her celebrity status? Were I to write a post that merely reflects popular opinion, I'd hardly find a reader. The point in choosing to communicate is also to open eyes to things that are normally not visible to the others. If that cannot be done, then what is the point in taking the viewer's time?
    And, yes, Journalists as a class are expected to point out when other sections of Society fail in carrying out their jobs professionally. What if they do not do that themselves? If Oprah did not know that most Indians ate with their hands (and I cannot see a more hygienic way of eating anyway), she was terribly unprofessional. If she knew and still chose to say what she did, she was being totally insensitive.
  • Archana
    30.07.12 09:39 AM
    Although I have a ton of things going on in my mind from reading your post, I am going to limit my words to one aspect of making a show-choice of subjects. While Oprah seemed to have comfortably gotten the right subjects to represent the richest of the country, she seems to have the other categories completely wrong. Rajesh's family is not "poor". The women she talks to in the living room section aren't the "victims" for the all problems she discussed in the segment. She merely "looks" and feels awed by all those widows in Vrindavan and then walks away from them. Also, in cases like these, the target audience hardly remains restricted to the typical set of Midwestern housewives. With all her might and power, she could have easily afforded to hire a better set of producers/researchers is all I think. Also, the choice of subjects is the absolute difference between Oprah's piece and Aamir's SMJ.
  • Deepa
    30.07.12 08:48 AM
    Its nice to get a different view of the whole situation, a positive spin on her visit as you have given. When an outsider comes in and criticizes India, we have a way of taking umbrage at each and every statement they make. Time had published Dr. Manmohan Singh as 'Underachiever' and Outlook did the same to Obama. But in that fight, putting the other down, did that make us any better? Sometimes constructive criticism is good. But we don't always see it that way. Sometimes we need to pause and take a step back and look at it in a different light. After all, if everything had been rose and picture perfect, we wouldn't be in the list of toppers as far as crime against women were concerned, would we? That being said, I am surprised Oprah didn't do her homework. The statement about using one's hands was really insensitive. So we do? Big deal.
  • Stuart
    30.07.12 08:43 AM
    Well said, Barnaby! I see a lot of parallels between the reaction to Oprah's piece and that toward Aamir's SMJ. It's nice to read a more objective reaction, thanks.
  • Meera Trivedi
    Meera Trivedi
    30.07.12 06:09 AM
    Eating with hand is a great exercise. A British research shows Indians do not have Alzheimer because they eat with the hands.

    I use to eat with the spoon knife and forks but when read that research I changed to hands. And I found I have some weakness in my little finger to eat with the hands.

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