‘Chelsea: Dear India’ shows Indians are rich and steeped in Bollywood, spirituality
Oops, they did it again. Made yet another show on India with a foreign host.
Few things guarantee as much fun as watching an American or British TV host visit India and host a show or an episode on India. The gems that emerge are truly spectacular. Whether it’s Oprah Winfrey behaving like she’s discovered the missing link when she sees people eating with their hands in India. Or Keith Floyd cooking the most bizarre versions of pao bhaji and tandoori chicken, while standing on the side of the street, sweating buckets into the pan.
To more recently, Kiran Jethwa claiming that something called Vimto is the local drink of choice in Kolkata—there is much to love about India through the eyes of the foreigner.
This time around, Chelsea Handler, who hosts the weekly show Chelsea, has an India episode. And it doesn’t disappoint. Called Dear India, the episode hit all the right spots.
The show starts with a dinner party at which Handler is being introduced to India. The only two Indians who have been consistently living in India and may know about current-day India are Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat.
The others at the table are America-returned Shaana Levy, her husband Uraaz and actress Frieda Pinto. All of whom tell Handler that they don’t eat street food and raw foods and as Shaana says, “If you can’t peel it, then don’t eat it.” Khamba and Bhat thankfully save Indian face and roll their eyes at the fact that the other brown people at the table are behaving like they’re foreigners.
We soon move from the dinner table to Handler sitting across none other than the chef who shall be king, Vikas Khanna. Who declares that “60 to 70% of India is vegetarian”. Sadly, this is incorrect information. A nationwide survey conducted by the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner disproves this. “According to the sample registration system (SRS) baseline survey 2014 released by the registrar general of India, 71% of Indians over the age of 15 are non-vegetarian. The percentage of non-vegetarians across the country however has dropped from 75 percent in 2004”. If only our non-resident Indian food expert would have read up a little bit before sharing his insights. More amusingly, the smell of chillis in what looks like Crawford Market makes Khanna start coughing. What a delicate darling. How does he survive in a hot kitchen?
We are then informed by him that paan is “one of the most important part of Indian cultures”. Forget the murder of the English language, I would strongly advise Khanna to step out of Maharashtra and New Delhi and visit other regions of India—where they wouldn’t know a paan or a betel leaf if it hit them on the head.
If Khanna’s misinformation wasn’t bad enough, Chelsea then meets a saffron-robed and golden locked baba or shaman as he calls himself. Who is one of our foreign imports. He’s a Jewish man from Beverly Hills and his name is Baba Rampuri. Really. He’s been living in India since 1971 and said he’d been “elevated and become a seated member of the council of elders”, which is why he is sitting on a “cushion” or what we call an “asana” in the normal world. We then get a Beverly Hills-version of Hinduism and are told that for thousands of centuries all people have wanted is a “charm or a blessing”. And that’s what Baba Rampuri gives them.
And then just when you think you’ve escaped the dinner party from hell, we are back in that Mumbai apartment where we—and Chelsea’s audiences—are still learning about India. But something bizarre, yet positive, happens. It’s as if the production assistant has handed them a fact sheet. Because Uraaz, whose house it is, starts reeling off statistics about how many teenaged girls there are in India, how they deal with menstruation, how there are no toilets and women defecate in the open, women’s safety statistics. Even Tanmay and Khamba, while spooning pulao into their mouths, seem stunned into silence. It’s the way you react when you see the apes speak for the first time in Planet Of The Apes. Awe-inspiring, but scary.
And then after being informed that India is one of the most dangerous places for women, “actress and activist” Mallika Sherawat makes an appearance. I’m telling you, this is the stuff dreams are made of. For some reason, Sherawat looks gleeful while telling Handler that every 20 minutes a woman is raped in India. Even Handler looks confused by Sherawat’s smile. As was I. Maybe she was just happy she remembered the statistics. Who knows?
The episode was obviously shot during the time when the sets of Padmavati were vandalised, because Tanmay mentions it as taking place a couple of days before the dinner. And then, wait for it, we have Shilpa Shetty in her magnificent home. It’s as if the producers found every Indian who has made a name for themselves abroad and contacted them to be part of the episode. Shetty tells us that she “really believes that to be famous, it has to be predestined”. More memorably, Shetty can’t believe there’s a fly in her house. She can’t even identify the insect, till Handler tells her it’s a fly! These things can’t be scripted. Handler looks stunned by all that Shetty says, as any right-thinking person should.
There’s one guest on the show who’s hilarious and genuinely so. Jyoti Vadehra is a Delhi-ite, whose family wedding Handler attends. Vadehra is bitchy, sarcastic, self-deprecating, laughs and talks about her own marriage and mocks Handler’s opinion of puritanical India by saying with a straight face that “no one in India has sex. We don’t”. It’s a good moment. She’s the closest to modern and real India that Handler gets.
If India isn’t already bizarre, Chelsea’s show will definitely make you wonder what we are smoking. For people who hate poverty tourism, I think this episode is just up your alley. According to this episode, we are rich, and steeped in Bollywood and spirituality—and thankfully some of us seem to have a sense of humour. The poor people are only there in the distance, to make for a colourful frame. I don’t blame Chelsea for the strange motley crew of “Indians” on her show. That’s the fault of her local talent manager. But I do thank her for not disappointing me. Gurus, arranged marriage, Bollywood, spicy food, strange experts, no poverty and tons of misinformation. This episode had it all in shovelfuls.
You can watch Chelsea: Dear India on Netflix.