‘I thought I was in a movie,’ reflects a teary-eyed Oprah Winfrey as she sashays through groups of women at the Radha Vallabh temple in Vrindavan. Decked out in a marigold garland and enough tears for the entire ‘city of widows’, the cinematic surrealism of Oprah’s performance does not elude her (more discerning) viewers either. As part of her show Oprah’s Next Chapter, a two-part India-special was aired on the Discovery Channel on 21 and 22 July. Problematised for its cultural stereotyping, insensitivity, and racism, Part 1 has been extensively critiqued in both national and international media. The show’s second episode, ‘The Women of India’, does nothing to correct these (mis)representations of Indian society and culture.
Oprah’s first stop in her ‘mind opening, heart opening, soul opening experience’ into the lives of Indian women is Vrindavan. Dr V. Mohini Giri – a women’s rights activist, political campaigner, and founder of various projects and shelters for destitute women – is Oprah’s host in the city, and describes to her the plight of abandoned widows. For those familiar with Giri’s work and activism, we may assume that her analysis of the varied and conflicting forms of gender-based oppression and violence within families in India would provide an astute perspective. However, the camera rapidly cuts to a picture of Winfrey sitting in front of a fireplace – presumably in her American mansion – reflecting on her experience of observing the widows: ‘[It felt] unreal. It [didn’t] feel like my life at all. What kind of life is this?’ Not yours, for a start, could be one response. However, an answer came there none, because these rhetorical questions are being posed to Oprah’s viewership – globally crossing 1.1 million– who are given no historical, political, social, economic or cultural analysis with which to critically assess Winfrey’s emotive musings. After her ‘fascinating’ – a word repeated throughout the show so many times it comprises the essence of her analysis – experience at the Radha Vallabh shrine, Oprah is taken around the beautifully maintained grounds of the Ma Dham shelter run by Dr. Giri. With three women sharing an airy room, each woman has a chest of drawers, a bed, and a plate and cup for daily meals. However, the cultural and socio-economic translation of ‘a room of one’s own’ into the value of having a safe refuge was obviously glossed over in any brief provided by Shantaram author Gregory David Roberts, Oprah’s chosen guide for Part 1 of the show . The talk-show host is shocked that one woman’s life can be reduced to a cupboard, a bed, and a plate. The idea that agency, empowerment, and what it means to live with dignity can exist outside of material possessions is apparently not within the scope of Winfrey’s millionaire-rooted perspectives of what freedom may mean for those not hobnobbing with the Kardashians and evangelical scientologist Tom Cruise.
In her continuing bid to try and ‘paint the truest picture’ of India’s women, Oprah meets with a group of women from ‘all walks of life’. While the cultural backgrounds of these women remain unstated, they are clearly North Indian, middle class women, bearing under their names a caption stating whether they have had an arranged marriage or ‘married for love’. We are given little chance to hear more than fragments of their stories as Oprah’s voice-over overrides those narratives that do not fit into her own ideas of romance – such as the woman whose dream it was to have an arranged marriage into a joint family – and are glossed over or harshly interrogated. As one woman talks about her marriage to a young man outside of her caste – which, as Oprah defines in a sentence for her viewers as ‘basically the same as class’ – and that her father may have killed her fiancé, we don’t hear the outcome of the story as Oprah bursts in with a loud of exclamation of ‘Killed? As in K-I-L-L-E-D? Killed?’ She spells out the word again. Yes, killed, just like the 3 women who are murdered each day in the United States as a direct consequence of domestic violence. It’s spelt the same way in America too.
The discussion that follows focuses on the preference for male babies in Indian society. However, this issue becomes monolithically linked to practices of dowry and Hindu funeral rites, rather than wider structural and institutional forms of patriarchal oppression. Throughout the show, in fact, Indian culture is equated directly with Hindu customs and practices, giving a (presumably) unknowing nod to the increasingly Islamaphobic and discriminatory policies and practices of the Indian State. The final segment of Oprah’s journey is hardly worth mentioning: a visit to Maharani Padmini Devi of Jaipur, where the queen herself is permitted not more than a sentence of airtime, and Oprah’s fascination has to do more with the camels of the palace than its ladies.
Oprah says in summation of her tour: ‘I have respect for this culture, but to be born with free will and to make choices for yourself is a great freedom, the greatest freedom, a human being can have. To watch women from other cultures cope without that freedom is fascinating.’ For Winfrey, a black working-class woman born into a classist, racially discriminatory society, the freedoms of her life were not handed to her at birth, gift-wrapped in stars and stripes. Memory can be incredibly selective, and as she negates her own struggles, she negates the conditions of minority or poor women throughout America, who are fighting their own battles for freedom. Despite being born in the land of the free.
Post the success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, there has been an unprecedented interest amongst Western documentary film-makers in the Indian subcontinent. However, the most common thread among these initiatives – apart from the polarisation of the country into its slum dwellers and A-list celebrities – is a complete lack of self-reflection about the ways in which the nations of the film-makers are complicit in the legacies of colonialism, imperialism and globalisation that have directly contributed to the very oppression they seek to depict. As Winfrey renders her interviewees voiceless by disallowing any discourse which rises above the emotive, she negates not only these individual women, but entire cultures; a nation. She asks her viewers to share the experience with her, and re-iterates how the show is ‘for them’, but without a real economic, cultural, class or caste based analysis of her experiences, she perpetuates one of the most common myths of Western media, foreign policy, and consequently, popular opinion: the always already oppressed, voiceless, victimised and Othered Asian women. By leaving out of her grand narrative of victimhood the stories and struggles of lesbian, Muslim, dalit, working-class and various minority women, she condemns us to our chains before she has even seen our struggles. Trundling down the trajectory of documentary film-making where the desired findings are pre-determined, Oprah’s Next Chapter invisibilises the hard-won victories, lived-experiences, and daily battles of women in India.
As Winfrey speaks with Dr.Giri before her (tearful) departure from Vrindavan, Giri explains how despite the work being done, Indian patriarchal structures will take a long time to change. Laughing – and pronouncing her final judgement – Oprah says, ‘Not in my lifetime’. Fascinating.
 National Network to End Domestic Violence (USA). Source: http://www.femisex.com/content/three-women-killed-every-day-us-domestic-violence