Oprah Winfrey’s visit to a Mumbai slum and a contrasting visit to a rich family’s house, has received much criticism. Another firang who has come to coo about our slums, some may ask. Or talk about the unabashed luxury that exists on the other side.
We must first however understand that Oprah’s Next Chapter is a show that is primarily meant for the western audiences. It is a show that airs in the United States of America on Oprah’s television network OWN. And therefore, the India episode must be viewed from the perspective of an American watching it. It wasn’t meant to be made for us Indians.
That said, okay, so she came and decided to take a tour of one of the country’s largest slums. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that simply because she chose a topic of her choice and went ahead with that. Now, why take Gregory David Roberts to show you around, is the next obvious question. Again, may I say that if the show was primarily meant for an Indian audience, I would have though Shabana Azmi would have been the ideal person to take Oprah around. But how many people in America would be able to connect with Shabana as much as they would with Gregory? And he anyways did not have too much of a role to play in the episode that appeared on TV. he didn’t act like a mediator between Oprah and the families she met there. He was merely present there and was quite negligible. He did, however, make a very important and honest point to Oprah after she met with the case study family. He spoke tolerance. And it is so true that we as a country are so tolerant and therefore don’t mind the stench from the storm water drain, or the unscheduled power cuts, or the water that does not come out of the tap. We may complain a couple of times but we have lived with these problems for almost always. And it is most certainly because we have tolerated all of this. We have put up with all of this. Gregory David Roberts was bang on.
Now coming to the criticism about the meeting with the family in the Dharavi slum and some of Oprah’s questions. At the outset, I would like to say, that we couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador than the little girl Aanchal. She was simply amazing. She was so real and true and it came through beautifully through the television screens. Aanchal explained to Oprah about how they live in their little home, her father’s dreams and her own of course.
Oprah was very direct with her questions. As she always is. You would know if you have followed her previous show on TV that ran 25 seasons.
How could she make Aanchal’s father cry on TV, some may ask. I don’t think she did. What is wrong if a man cries? She didn’t probe him. She didn’t coax him. She didn’t question him till he had a meltdown. She asked him one question and it was an emotional one. Him crying, showed the reality of his life. His daughters were happy. He wasn’t. He wanted better for them. And he said it. Oprah was simply there, asking questions.
And it isn’t like there aren’t any poor people in America. So before we shout from our rooftops telling Oprah to get over the fact that we have slums in our country, that we have people who are utterly poor, we must also understand that she is well aware of that and has covered it extensively in her previous show.
I remember a show where she showcased a lady living in a really tiny house with some ten children from her extended family, as she was the only one left to take care of them. It was a touching and moving story. And at the end of it, Oprah surprised the family by gifting them a house of their choice.
So for all those criticising her for showcasing how small Aanchal’s house is, please stop and breathe. It’s her show and it isn’t like she did or said something incorrect.
Oprah Winfrey then travelled to meet a more upmarket family in Mumbai. A family that has a priest over to do their daily pujas. A family that writes their kitchen menu on a white board with a marker. And a family that eats on silver plates. That entire portion seemed quite ridiculous to me, not for its programming, but for how that family seemed to me! But it was also the point Oprah was trying to make in her show though she did not say it. The brazen contrast between these families. One, content in their hole of a home. The other, living a luxurious life but claim and that being together is what matters.
And why is Oprah surprised about eating with your hands? Especially when burgers and pizzas are eaten with your hands as well? It is a question that she seemed to genuinely have and the gentleman very rightly responded saying that a large part of India still eats using their hands.
The part that surprised me the most from Oprah’s questions throughout the show were about arranged marriage and love. She asked Aanchal’s parents and also the rich family. And later A R Rahman.
This is what I think Oprah tried to keep as a common thread through her meetings with people. It’s probably a subject that she is trying to understand and even when she was interviewed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she spoke about this. I doubt, coming from the west, she can still comprehend the concept of an arranged marriage. Again, catering to her audience back home.
Of clichés and stereotypes
So, could her show have been any different? Should it have? Probably not. Because it wasn’t meant for us anyway. It happened to be aired in our country. I assumed that they would air the entire series but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When people like Oprah visit India, I always wonder why they end up going to a city like Mumbai or Delhi, and not to cities like say Bangalore or Madurai or Darjeeling or Korba. Well, it would have been nice if she did not go to Mumbai and went somewhere else and spoke about something else. But it’s her show. In her next episode, which I haven’t had a chance to watch, I think she visited Brindavan to talk to single women and widows, and later Rajasthan. So yes, she did showcase a different India.
One only hopes she comes back, visits more cities, and talks to more different people. Hey, who else can make A R Rahman as uncomfortable as we have ever seen him and make him speak an amount to last him a while!