We could smell India before we even opened the doors of the plane,” says Oprah Winfrey early on in Episode One of Oprah’s Next Chapter which aired on Discovery Channel last evening. “All of this kind of smokey, incense, spices,” she goes on, “like something burning on the plane. What’s that burning, I said? It’s India.” The flourish at the end, delivered with an emotive nod of the head, is meant to be a measure of how much Winfrey was moved by what she saw and heard during her much-publicised visit to India early this year. “I am forever changed by the experience,” she says — in case you missed the point.
“Winfrey in India”, as the show is subtitled, rehashes the Western stereotype of India as the land of “magic”, “beauty” and “wonder”, of “ancient traditions”, and, yet, a “paradox” in the way its stature as an emerging “international economic superpower” and the “staggering wealth” of its millionaires are juxtaposed with “modern-day chaos” and “desperate poverty”. Winfrey’s sojourn seems carefully chosen to reaffirm this view of “paradoxical India”. So there’s Mumbai of the slums, with Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame to shepherd her around, and Bollywood glamour in the shape of Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan; the widows of Vrindavan and a long chat with self-help guru Deepak Chopra on the Indian principle of “giving” in his hometown Jaipur.
Indian viewers might groan at the stereotyping, at the camera locking on to roadside cows chomping on garbage and roads choked with traffic; at a goggle-eyed Winfrey marvelling at a family of five living in a 10x10 sq ft chawl in Colaba Backbay, and the quaintness of arranged marriages; and gamely trying to eat with her hands and tie a sari. But this is celebrity TV, and Winfrey’s status as a legendary talk show host is expected to make this dishing out of an unflattering, outmoded, selective and clichéd representation palatable to viewers in India. To be fair, the West, especially mainstream Hollywood, continues to be stuck with spiritual India — Julia Roberts’s Eat, Pray, Love, which was partly set in an Indian ashram, is a recent example — and we Indians seem to revel in the stereotype. Besides, Oprah’s Next Chapter is evidently meant for an American audience.
To give Winfrey her due, she brings to the show the emotional intelligence and honesty that have made her such a long-standing success on American television. “When I stepped in the door,” she says, entering the Hegdes’ single-room chawl, “I was thinking, where is the rest of the house?” She’s candid and doesn’t condescend as she draws out 12-year-old Anchal Hegde to talk about her hopes and fears, and asks her mother about how she manages “private moments” with her husband in that cramped space. It suggests a respect for human sensitivities that television anchors in India, who are wont to sensationalise or shed tears every few minutes, would do well to learn.
Part II of Oprah’s Next Chapter airs today at 8 pm
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