Oprah Winfrey Faces Backlash From Indian Viewers

Winfrey responds to backlash from "Oprah's Next Chapter: India Episode."

July 24, 2012, 2:37 PM

July 25, 2012— -- Oprah Winfrey is facing a barrage of criticism from disappointed Indian viewers who say she resorted to "sterotypes and cliches" in the episode of her show "Oprah's Next Chapter" dealing with her visit to the subcontinent.

"Watching the Oprah in India thing on TLC and getting more and more irritated by the minute," one viewer in India tweeted.

The two-part episode, which aired in India this weekend, depicts Winfrey's first visit to the country, featuring lavish parties with Bollywood stars and Indian royalty, a visit to a Mumbai slum and a sari fitting with a top designer. The episode opens with shots of crowded roads filled with painted elephants, snake charmers and cows roaming the streets.

"It's all the stereotypes and all the clichés the West has, between the elephants and the palaces and the snake charmers and cows," Aseem Chhabra, a freelance journalist and columnist for the Mumbai Mirror, told ABC News. "That exists in India, but it's this imagery of India that some people seem to have, and I think I expected a lot more from somebody like Oprah Winfrey."

A spokeswoman for Harpo, the company that produces "Oprah's Next Chapter," said in a statement, "The intention of the program was to explore the beautiful culture and spirit of the country. We enjoyed the time we spent there and were touched by the people who so generously shared their stories for the show."

Chhabra was not alone in his skepticism, however.

"Myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst," a review of the show on Firstpost.com, an online news site based in Mumbai, said.

Indian viewers were perhaps most outraged by a scene in which Winfrey tells an Indian family during dinner, "I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still."

After being advised to eat with only her right hand, she uses both.

"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," according to "An open letter to Oprah Winfrey from an Indian who eats with her hand" on the CNN-IBN website.

"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."

Another polarizing scene is when Winfrey visits the Hedges, a family of five living in a 10-by-10-foot room in a slum in Mumbai.

"When I stepped in the door I was thinking, 'OK, where is the house? Where's the rest of the house?' And then I realized I was already in it," Winfrey says in the episode.

Before meeting the Hedges, Winfrey asks how she should greet them.

"It's not like they're aliens who have landed from another planet," columnist Chhabra said. "She's sitting in there and she's like, 'Oh, hello family.' How ridiculous. They're human beings."

The former queen of daytime talk then goes on to ask the Hedges' three daughters, 6-year-old twins Aneesha and Taneesha, and 12-year-old Anchal, whether it ever feels crowded, to which Anchal replies, "No."

Her response seemed to shock the talk-show host.

"They don't know anything else," Chhabra said. "There's no need to rub it in or make it seem like you're missing out on something in their life. There was no need for any of that."

Later in their conversation, Winfrey asks the girls' father whether he is happy and satisfied, to which he grew teary-eyed and admitted he wished he could provide more for his family.

Additionally, the talk-show host failed to acknowledge a large LCD television on the wall of the Hedges' home, which spurred negative criticism from reviewers.

"She pointedly avoided any mention of the massive LCD TV which adorned their wall," the Firstpoint.com review said. "That would have killed the sob story."

Many Americans had a different reaction to the episode when it aired on U.S. televisions in April.

"Love Oprah's experiences of traveling to different cultures and the respect that she shows as she learns," one viewer commented on Oprah's website. "Thanks, Oprah, for allowing us to sit on the sideline to watch."

Another viewer posted, "This had to be the BEST show that I have seen in a LONG time."

But with the backlash from Indian viewers, the talk-show host might not be welcomed back to India with open arms anytime soon.

"She said, 'I always wanted to experience India.' That to me itself is like saying it's another planet," Chhabra said. "Nobody says I want to experience Paris. Nobody says I want to experience London. They say I want to visit India and see India and meet the people.

"There's a lot more to India, but she was only showing the cliché perspective of what some people may think India is about and that's what made me quite angry," he said.

The backlash from Winfrey's India episode is the latest rough patch she has encountered while trying to build OWN into a must-see network. She fired 30 of OWN's 150 staffers earlier this year, as well as Rosie O'Donnell, her pal and the host of what was supposed to be one of OWN's marquee evening talk shows. She was also reprimanded by Nielsen for asking viewers with Nielsen boxes to tune into OWN via Twitter.

Winfrey discussed OWN's ups and downs in a two-part documentary that aired earlier this month, "Oprah Builds a Network."

"I certainly did not expect the velocity of schadenfreude, meaning people sort of lying in wait for you to fail, or make a mistake," she said. "There's no way you can accomplish anything of any value without having a challenge. Nobody rides into anything. Nobody."

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