article

11.08.10

Michelle Obama Wows India

She sings, she dances, she wows the subcontinent. Priya Ramani on how Michelle Obama has emerged as the star of the president’s tour to India.

NEW DELHI—If the U.S. presidential trip to India were a Bollywood script, it would not be an exaggeration to say that all the best lines were with First Lady Michelle Obama. She was also the unquestionable star of the two song-and-dance sequences in this Indo-American mega production. And certainly she had the most retro wardrobe of all the lead actors, though why she didn’t pack any bright colors to a country known to nonchalantly drape rani pink (fuchsia times 10) with parrot green is anyone’s guess. After all, she did wear yellow to the inauguration.

Gallery: Michelle Obama Visits India

Purists often moan that present-day Indian culture has been Bollywoodized, and it was not surprising that on the first day of the Obamas’ visit, Michelle was presented with a group of young Mumbai orphans swinging to the title track of the 2006 blockbuster Rang de Basanti.

The traditional Bhangra folk moves she flung herself into flawlessly were, coincidentally, of a harvest dance from Punjab, the north Indian state that’s home to the Golden Temple. Unconfirmed reports have indicated that the Sikh shrine was struck off the itinerary after the U.S. realized that Obama would be required to cover his head—or appear Islamic—when he visited.

On day two, Michelle rocked with supreme ease to yet another traditional song, this time from the fisherfolk Koli community, Mumbai’s original inhabitants. Her husband joined in, too, but his moves were later described on social networking sites as “robotic.” Indian men watching television probably heaved a collective sigh of relief: “If that’s the way the president of the United States dances…”

"On this whirlwind trip to India it seemed apparent that the one thing Obama has made a success of is his marriage."

Michelle’s presence provided that key “touchy-feely” element to the much-publicized bilateral talks between two world leaders who sometimes seem to worry more about policies than people. In India, commentators often criticize Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his lack of empathy and facial expressions. Barack Obama and Singh both have previously been described as more professor, less dynamic leader. Frequently during this visit, both their spouses almost seemed to be the source of energy, holding hands tightly with each other, first at Delhi’s Palam airport, then later at the prime minister’s dinner.

Michelle Obama’s Fashion DiplomacySome of us may have rolled our eyes when Obama cross-referenced his hero and most famous Indian Mahatma Gandhi numerous times in his speeches during the visit, but this spectacle-loving country was gripped when we saw Michelle play hopscotch and dance uninhibitedly. “Dancing Queen Michelle rocks India,” the Times of India newspaper reported on Monday.

Back home, of course, the Dancing Queen is more often referred to as the Style Queen and Indians watched with interest to see what Michelle had packed for her first trip to this part of the world. In an article titled "Mrs. Obama goes vintage," the Hindustan Times quoted designer Suneet Verma as saying that her wardrobe in India was “a mix of old world charm and comfort.” Verma’s theory was that the relaxed silhouettes she had picked possibly made Indians feel more “at ease” with her.

Personally, I believe, a little more VIBGYOR would have been welcome.

Who knows whether Obama will regain lost ground (like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton before him) and still be a success as U.S. president. But on this whirlwind trip it seemed apparent that the one thing he’s made a success of is his marriage. The couple had all the right body language, signing autographs together and holding hands as they gazed at the magnificent, Taj Mahal-shaped 16th-century tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun.

“I urge you to ask him some tough questions. This brightens his day,” Michelle told a group of students at St. Xavier’s College, my trendy alma mater in Mumbai. The young audience guffawed.

Just seconds before, she shared her story. They nodded as she said that though her parents couldn’t give her material things, they had taught her other, more important lessons. “They taught us that our circumstances didn’t define us, and that if we believed in ourselves…we could build our own destinies and accomplish anything we put our minds to.”

It was an inspiring speech in a country where younger generations are finally getting the opportunity to live a better life than their parents and grandparents once did. The story of new India is the story of people such as Academy Award winner Resul Pookutty, whose father was a bus ticket inspector. Michelle hit the spot when she shared her mix of old and new world values, and revealed the ease with which she understood her listeners’ dreams.

No wonder her husband, the next speaker, opened with this line: “I normally don’t like speaking after Michelle because she is such a good speaker.” He’s lucky she’s on his side.

Priya Ramani is the editor of Mint Lounge, the weekend magazine of mint, in India.