Even before you could get off the plane, you could smell India, American chat show legend Oprah Winfrey begins, adding: “I asked someone, what’s burning? It was India.”
The tele-series, Oprah’s Next Chapter, looks at Oprah’s recent, and first, tour of India. Oprah follows the textbook foreign-dignitary-visits-India format, i.e., refer to smell of India, get hold of Shantaram’s Gregory David Roberts, find slum family, mention poverty 20 times for each mention of “globalization”, contrast with “billionaire”, touch upon arranged marriage, sit cross-legged on the floor, dine with “typical” Indian joint family and get orgasmic about Bollywood.
While Oprah’s self-narrated documentary is an unabashedly American take on New India, it rises above the clichéd with a trademark warmth and sincerity. She is not patronizing when she asks the head of the household: “A father on my show once told me every good father has a dream for his children. What is your dream for your children?” Oprah’s need to know is disarming. Camera in tow, she enters the four Indian-style toilets in a slum and stands in the one mouldy cubicle that serves as a shower there, because her mission is to experience the poverty she hears so much about.
India chapter: Oprah (left) and Roberts (standing) in a Mumbai slum
Outsider Oprah notices small things—the incense sticks stuck in a corner of the house all day, why all slum dwellers keep fish tanks and how they never lock their doors, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law power structure in a joint family, the value of education, the politeness of children, and whether in a slum or a high rise, how the concept of “family” and prayer remain quaint notions to the Western world.
It’s easy to excuse Oprah’s glossing over the space for abuse prevalent in the living circumstances of the slum, the denudation of the social structures she participates in, in the joint family, and even her naive assumption that the paparazzi is clamouring more for the ‘Brad and Angelina of India’ (Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan)—a comparison she makes with so much self-assured affection it feels rude to scorn—rather than for herself. Her Bollywood encounter is the forgivable icing on the cliché cake.
For the average Indian as viewed by the West, it is as balanced and non-condescending a reading of our clichés as we will get.
Oprah’s Next Chapter airs on Discovery Channel & TLC as a two-part series today and tomorrow at 8pm; both episodes will be aired again on 22 July from 8-10pm.