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