Back in April, Oprah’s network OWN aired a special two-part episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter.” During the show, cameras followed as the media mogul traveled to India for the first time.
The show covered massive ground — from India’s famed tourist sites to a local Mumbai slum where a family of five shared a tiny 10 x 10 room and seemed to be happy in spite of living in cramped quarters. Oprah then switched gears, visiting some of India’s wealthier residents. During the show, she attempted to do the impossible: squeeze in the vastness of India into two short one-hour programs.
As I watched “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” it was difficult to ignore the stark contrasts she presented. The hard-working family from the Mumbai slum pushed up against the upper-middle class family with kitchen staff and a beautifully furnished high-rise home seemed hard to comprehend. Although we have income inequality in this country, what was shown felt so much worse. And when we saw the majesty and all of the pomp and circumstance (and utter wealth) of the Bollywood-style event thrown in Oprah’s honor, it was also hard for me fathom.
At the end of the special I didn’t feel bad for Indians or think their country was some sort of backward nation; I wanted to see more. I knew that whatever Oprah showed was just the highly stylized tip of the iceberg, and only a visit to the country could really teach me about India’s diverse culture.
While I was memorized by the special, when it aired over the weekend in India, many felt Oprah’s portrayal of their nation was unfair and ignorant.
One particularly harsh criticism came from The Daily Bhaskar, which found Oprah’s special to be “snobbish” and a mockery of India.
In a typical American snooty style the talk show queen tried to portray superficial ‘sob story’. Oprah was anything but a good guest when she went around the small 10 by 10 feet house interrogating the family members about their ‘poor’ living style and ‘miserly’ living.
The small family of five, stunned by the arrival of an unexpected guest were the most gracious host. On the contrary, the American guest left no stone unturned in mocking the family.
She asked the otherwise happy children how they could live in such a “tiny” room and actually wanted to know, “Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?” She also asked the six-year-olds whether they were happy.
She then interrogated the father about whether he was happy and satisfied. He got teary-eyed and said that he wished he could earn more and provide for a more comfortable life for his children. After making him weep in front of his family, Oprah said that she knows how awful it is for children to see their father weep.
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.
Another critic took Oprah to task for asking one upper middle-class family, “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” writing:
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.
While the critics seem to feel Oprah’s special was a piece of well-crafted propaganda to show how backward India is, I saw it differently.
As an American who loves to travel, I know I have a lot to learn about other countries and their cultures. And while Oprah is certainly more traveled, I felt as though her questions were similar to what many of us might ask (or want to) in order to gain a better understanding of the culture.
Does this make Oprah wrong for asking the questions or highlighting the vast differences in India given her platform? I’m not sure. But I didn’t find her portrayal especially “snobbish” or snooty.
But maybe that’s just my Americaness showing.
What do you think? Do Oprah’s critics have a point?
*Image via Oprah.com