Jul 27, 2012

Oprah and the Art of putting your Foot in the Mouth!

I used to almost like Oprah. I've never watched her show, but I was among the crowd that attended her session at the Jaipur Literary fest. Although I really couldn't understand the adulation even then, she did come across as someone sensible to me. Then last weekend I saw her show “Oprah’s New Chapter: India” On Discovery.

I was prepared to see poverty, the slums, the cows and the half-naked kids. That’s how we are usually portrayed in the west. What I was not prepared for was Oprah’s totally crass and insensitive attitude.

The show begins with Oprah paying a visit to where else but the slums.! Perhaps we should promote Dharavi as one of our tourist destinations! She visits a young family (A couple and their 3 daughters) living in a 10X10 room and after kissing and cuddling the kids and saying how honored she felt to visit them, she got down to business. While sitting with the family in their small room she kept emphasizing how this family of 5 was living in such a cramped space. And to make sure that the viewers don’t miss her point, she slid across the entire room to indicate just how tiny it was. Then she had the insensitivity to ask the young daughter if she was unhappy or if she ever felt cramped living here. More shocked exclamations and “Oh my Gods “followed when the girl promptly replied “No”. 

After spending about five minutes pontificating about the size of the room and repeatedly wondering aloud about how they manage to sleep and live here, she turns to the father and asks him if he was happy and satisfied with what he was doing for his family. After getting the poor man all teary eyed and riddled with guilt she then turned to the kids and remarked how difficult it must be to see ones father cry ! I am sure the kids who till that point were just excited to have a celebrity visit their home were left feeling ashamed of how they lived. How sensitive of you Oprah, to make a young impressionable child suddenly realize how much she is lacking in life! I hated the uncouth way she treated those decent people who so gracefully welcomed her in their home - For god’s sake this was a family and not some exhibits in a freak show! 

And in her myopic way she doggedly refused to see how all the girls went to school, spoke in perfect English to her and looked so very confident of themselves. That the house, however small was neat and clean,that there was a LCD TV on the wall and the parents deserved appreciation for what they were giving their girls and not pity or guilt trips.

I suppose she wanted to highlight the economic disparity in India because next she visited the Somanis, a rich family living in the posh part of Mumbai. The family welcomed her grandly and literally served her food in silver thalis. So what does our lady do? She sits down at the table and in that very condescending manner of hers remarks “I hear some people in India still eat with their hands”. Dear God! I expected a lot more cultural sensitivity here. Who sits down with a meal with their host and then nonchalantly pass comments on how they eat? Just stop playing the dumb, ignorant foreigner! This is just like sitting down to dinner with a Japanese family and remarking “So I hear people in japan still eat with two small pieces of wood?”

The least I expected from her was to do her homework. She should know everybody in this country – irrespective of their economic or social status eat with their hands. Or perhaps she was naïve enough to think that we of the land of snake charmers and elephants have never heard of cutlery?

During the meal she continued to enlighten the viewers about how every Indian family is a joint family and how the Mother in Law still rules and the daughter in Law still does her bidding.

Next, she took herself off to a Bollywood party where she cornered poor A R Rahman and instead of talking about his music proceeded to be amazed by the fact that he had an arranged marriage and still lived with his mother. Insufferable!

My problem is not so much that Oprah showed the side of India many of us don’t want the world to see. Yes, we do have our poverty, we do have horrible infrastructure and we do have our widows of Vrindavan. It would be ridiculous to bury our head in the sand like ostriches and cry foul every time someone criticizes us. What I do take umbrage to however, is her insensitivity, her gross ignorance and her insistence of portraying India in a skewed manner.

I agree that India is a land of dichotomy and in the caricatured image that the western media usually portrays of us, everybody is either wretchedly poor or unbelievably rich. But beyond the glaring poverty and the opulence, there is another India – An India of the rising urban middle class, An India of technological progress, An India of women Power – where despite the enormous gender issues that we still face our women are so much more empowered than their counterparts of even a generation back; an India that is fast on the track to becoming an economic superpower. I wonder why all this is never mentioned! 

But then as the undisputed queen of melodrama Oprah knows what gets the show’s ratings up and what doesn't!

Oprah is an extremely popular chat show host, and with popularity comes immense responsibility. She knew this show would be watched by millions across the world, and I expected a more balanced, sensible and unprejudiced approach from her. Instead her show was riddled with stereotypes and clichés, her manner patronizing and her research shoddy.

Sorry Oprah, but for the millions of Indians who actually liked you, you just fell off their pedestal with a loud thump !


  1. I have seen a lot of Oprah shows, and I admired her for her sensitivity and the great stories that she showcased. I haven't watched this show that you referred to. But, the way you explain it, she has made an ass of herself. There is something called culture sensitivity. And, what was she thinking by doing and saying all these things. She disappointed me!

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  3. The moment I saw Deepak Chopra on her show, I promptly changed channels. To think, millions of Americans are watching the show and forming their opinion about poor Indians, who prefer staying with their Mom.

    Wondering if Ms Oprah has her cheese-burgers with fork!

  4. If you heard a loud thud, it was Lady O falling off the pedestal, I had created for her. ;)
    It's sad when people go for shock value rather than good content.

  5. Yes, attempts by foreigners to misrepresent truth simply because they don't perceive things as we do needs to debated and talked about... and, if wrong, they might as well fall-off 'their pedestal with a loud thump!' :)

    Arvind Passey

  6. Never liked her, so didn't watch the show. She just uses people to market her show.

  7. @Rachna – I was disappointed too ! She displayed no cultural sensitivity here. She was patronizing and very superior. Asn I saw no genuine sympathy anywhere – she was really fake !
    @ Purba LOL on eating Burgers with a fork! Does she realize how much she is misleading people!

    @Corrine – yes it is sad ! but nthign sells more than tears and poverty and I suppose she knows that !

    @Arvind – welcome here ! Yes if the truth is skewed and one dimensional it needs to be debated !

    @Snowleopard – well you didn’t miss anything !

  8. I actually have liked her for very long.Her episodes on child abuse were very sensible and sensitive both.

    This happens when you prefer shock value over genuine sentiments of a vast culture...Didn't see this episode but your description makes me angry.

  9. I read an article by another good friend of mine and it has left me angry .. why do these people always find to beahve like this in our country and WHY do we even bother to call them


    I would SLAP this woman


  10. Oprah has amply proven, time and again, that she has a lot of airs about her but that's nothing compared to the airs she has between her two ears. You will find countless anecdotes over the Internet. Thanks for yet another gem.

  11. Thank you for the review and saving me the time to watch this show :). I've never been a huge fan of hers....have only watched some online clippings of some of her famous shows...eg. child abuse.

  12. Great essay - thank you for sharing!
    But, I do feel we need to cut Oprah some slack. This is her POV, and one that is shared by plenty of foreigners (Americans, really) who visit India. I have heard them ask very similar questions when they returned from India (I was based in New York for many years).
    Was she insensitive? That's subjective, surely. She would definitely not agree that she was.
    I am not much of a fan of hers though I do agree with the general belief in the US that Oprah was instrumental in bringing Reading and Books back in vogue a decade or so ago when she started the Oprah Book Club. That got millions and millions of people to start to read again. Book stores and Amazon can't thank Oprah enough for that!
    As have good authors and rabid readers. :)

  13. @sangeeta – Even I have hear praises about her Child Abuse series, though I have never seen it. Honestly I was surprised at her attitude !

    @Bikram – Well I wouldn’t go so far as slapping but yes I would give a piece of my mind.

    @umashankar – Thank you ! Well at least this show proves that she does have airs about her !
    @Shachi – Do see it .. I would want to know your perspective too since you have spent so mny yrs in the US.

    @Rickie – Welcome here and thank you for liking the article. I have spent many years in Japan and I agree with you when you say foreigners come up with all sort of questions about India. The problem was not what she asked but what she said and how she said it .. There is something called cultural sensitivity that you need to display whenever you are in a new culture or society …She disappointed me – I expected better from Oprah !

  14. I don't know why people from the west often see only the poor part of India, and generalise all Indians!
    It's so mean of what such a great personality like Oprah can do! My doubt is being a person of such knowledge, I'm sure she'd have done her homework, and has she purposely done this to showcase India that way! She was such a gross b****!!!

  15. I think we expect too much from Oprah. She's an entertainer - her show is not a documentary! She will ultimately focus on those aspects of Indian culture that seem strange to westerners, cause that's her target audience. She'll only go for the juicy bits. She has to. Educated Indians should just ignore her and not watch her show...as most educated Americans do too.

  16. @vaish - she sounded very superior and patronizing - and somehow I always liked her so I started seeing the show with a very open mind - but she made me angry

    @Bhagwad - Perhaps you are right - she doesn't deserve the attention :P

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  18. I like the sound of the closely knit family who spoke to her in her language and not theirs. I can imagine their thrill at speaking to a foreigner. She, on the other hand, sounds determined to exploit the shock value of pointing out, to their faces, their inadequacies rather than their strengths and deflating their excitement. Why am I not surprised? The truth is her target audience isn’t Indians. Even if she sees this post she will put it down to our wanting to hide the negative face of India rather than pointing out her insensitivity towards the family.



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