Last night, I watched the India Special episode of Top Gear, which was supposedly so vile and offensive that the Indian High Commission to the UK had to complain to the BBC.
It’s a very harsh article, suggesting that Clarkson and the others do indeed need to be crucified, and that was the only thing I had to go by until the night of January 31st, when the Christmas Special episode finally aired on BBC Entertainment. So, I thought, the two-hour episode is going to be full of Top Gear racially and automotively insulting India. There’s a lot to insult in the transport sector, after all, and they do have a habit of enjoying themselves by mocking everything. That’s their signature style.Â So frankly, I was willing to believe they’d done/said/implied a whole lot of objectionable stuff in what turned out to be a two-hour special episode. I repeat, it’s Top Gear. It’s ridiculous to expect anything else of them, because that’s their brand of humour; biting satire. Rarely justified, often crass, almost always stupid -Â but utterly hilarious. Well, to me, at least.
Either way, the point is I was willing to believe that they’d done something ridiculously, even unforgiveably stupid.
But they didn’t.
They weren’t respectful, of course not. (Please.) But they drove through Mumbai without airconditioning and didn’t make a fuss. They travelled by train from Mumbai to Jaipur and hardly said a word about the terrifying crowds and unutterable mess. They stood in queue and only commented on the time taken – not the discipline (or lack thereof) of the queuers!
They were incredibly impressed by the dabbawallas. They remembered to mention, not at all resentfully or bitterly, that Jaguar is owned by an Indian company and that the Nano is the cheapest production car in the world. They noted the exuberance, in an entirely positive way, of the auto-drivers – Tuk-Tuks, as they insisted on calling them. (That was wrong; they’re called Tuk-Tuks in Thailand, I think it is – not India.) They drove through Himachal, and the way they spoke of the mountains was nothing short of reverent.
The image shown in the article of The Mail where one of the three presenters (Jeremy Clarkson, notÂ Richard HammondÂ orÂ James May) strips off his pants is not some kind of Bart Simpsonian yearning to moon the Indian elite. It’s a bit of extremely low-brow humour that makes the audience laugh at Clarkson himself. Honestly, I didn’t even think of that being objectionable when I watched the show, even though I was watching out for things that might have been cause for complaint.
In another example of where the presenters make space for humour by mocking themselves, one of their tasks or games or whatever they call them involves them acting as dabbawallas themselves. They lose/spill almost all the lunches.
Look, if you’ve watched a single episode of Top Gear you’ll know the kind of antics they come up with. Clarkson drove a car through a mall as part of a road test. Their test driver is called the Stig and his face is always hidden under his helmet. When their “reasonably priced car” needed changing, they gave it a “Viking funeral” by exploding a factory chimney onto it. So let’s just say they were the pack of idiots they usually are, with the usual idiotic pranks, and leave it at that. Only difference is that they were in India, that’s all.
Honestly, I have no idea what people objected to about that episode! The fact that Clarkson said that everyone who comes to India “gets the trots” and so needs an easily accessible loo (e.g. in the boot of his Jaguar) is crass and not exactly true, but a) it’s close enough for some foreign stomachs; b) it’s a commonly held belief, and complaining about Clarkson is pointless when there are thousands who would believe it whether or not he’d said it; and most importantly c) it’s nowhere NEAR grounds to complain against a show! Another thing which I thought was possibly objectionable to our fusspot diplomats is that all three hosts were horrified by the state of the traffic, and said that India has the world’s most dangerous roads. Whatever they’ve officially stated, I really do think this must be the core reason.
Now, I don’t know what you think, but it seems clear to me that this also is not grounds to lodge an official complaint. This is a fact. If we actually had really safe roads, that would be a different matter.
But, I mean. Come on. DO we have safe roads?! Driving in the night, on a two-way highway without a median, would you feel safe? And they’re a set of men used to English roads and conditions! I’m amazed they didn’t die!
We literally have the most dangerous roads in the world, and I’m actually rather glad that Top Gear stated it. This way, a few fewer foreigners will try driving trips in India. Their lives and blood pressures are thus saved.
The Top Gear episode opens with a claim that the team will come to India on a “trade mission” to build ties between England and India. David Cameron appears at the beginning to unequivocally distance himself from the venture – whether on purpose or by pure accident, I have no idea. Obviously Top Gear wouldn’t do that, when it’s a show that – well, it pretends to review cars, but whatever it is it sure as hell isn’t a diplomatic mission. If you ask me (not that you did, of course) the episode did exactly what it set out to do. It was a “light hearted road trip focusing on the journey and the inevitable idiosyncrasies of the cars they will drive, as well as the country and scenery we see along the way.”
Regardless of the sense or lack of it of complaining, regardless of the fact that this shows further disturbing signs that the Indian establishment is prickly about everything that could be a threat to itself, from Salman Rushdie to anti-Sonia/Rahul Facebooking – regardless of all that, one fact emerges. We all stayed up till 1am to watch that whole show, to judge it for ourselves. I’m sure plenty of other Indians did that, too. So – just as with every banned book and burnt painting ever in the history of mankind, Top Gear’s won! I’m sure that official complaint boosted viewership.
But it does worry me how much censorship, actual attempted anticipated or incidental, is in the news recently. Who knows how much takes place that is itself censored?