I admit it: I adore Top Gear. I’ve always loved cars (I’m convinced that this is genetic, and that I inherited it from my grandfather and my mother), and the combination that is James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond was clearly made in automobile heaven. So I was thrilled when I heard (late last year) that they were in India filming their Christmas special. My only regret was that I could not meet James May (I have a thing for him; he is gentle, eccentric, and extremely nerdy, and manages to push all my buttons in the best possible way. I am endlessly ribbed about this by my friends, but my only defence is that some women dream of Brad Pitt or Colin Firth – and then there’s me. Anyway. Moving ON.) and, you know, say hello. What?
Anyway, I waited (along with thousands of other Indian Top Gear fans) impatiently for BBC Entertainment India to air the special, but long before we had a chance to watch it, the internet exploded in what can only be deemed as self-righteous wrath. There were rants and raving, and accusations about insensitivity, and the R word, and a return to imperialistic attitudes. “Who do they think they are?”, thundered someone on Twitter. “Racism personified”, screamed a blog. Indians all over the world appeared to rise up in arms over the special, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it all. Eventually I decided I’d judge for myself, and the impatience with which I waited for the special to be aired increased. My sister sent me two articles which were puzzling; there was an uproar about a mobile toilet, and another about some banners on the side of a train, and yet another uproar about what seemed to be a partially-naked Jeremy Clarkson. The banners made me laugh, I confess, and the toilet just made me wonder how on earth he’d managed to do THAT, and as for his legs – well. The less said about Clarkson’s legs, the better. Ahem.
Curious to gauge what the reaction of the locals were, I canvassed a few of my fellow fans on the BBC Entertainment India Facebook page. They all seemed to feel the way I did. I did a little more research; it seemed to me that the most vociferous Indians were also the ones who didn’t actually live here. The Indian government appeared to be up in arms as well, with a diplomatic complaint issued, and with the issue going all the way to David Cameron himself. Gracious. The media screamed that Jeremy Clarkson ought to be issuing an apology. This, I felt, was ridiculous. As I told my friend (also an ardent fan) over dinner that week, there was no point in taking Clarkson seriously and making an enormous fuss about it all. I mean, it’s Clarkson, for heaven’s sake. You know. Jezza. I don’t think Jeremy Clarkson is capable of ever being serious, unless he’s talking about the Beetle.
Eventually, after a lot of faffing about, we got to watch the Christmas special. I taped it on my DVR and watched it over the weekend. I have to tell you: I loved it. It was nothing more nor less than a warm, quirky, and honest portrayal of India. Yes, Clarkson did install a toilet in the back of his car. So what? It’s no secret that sensitive Western stomachs can’t really handle our spices. The Indian food that they get served in their own countries is often not authentic. I’m not offended by the term ‘Delhi Belly’; I mean, Aamir Khan made a movie called ‘Delhi Belly’, didn’t he? Nobody’s walking around demanding that he issue an apology for using that phrase as the name for his movie. Yes, there were some irreverent banners hanging on the side of the train, but they just made me giggle. (I also thought that was clever.) And yes, oh my goodness, Jeremy Clarkson did take his pants off in order to demonstrate the benefits of the trouser press he was peddling, but if he didn’t mind showing off his legs on international television, why on earth should we mind?
In short, as ever, I find that the media and a bunch of people who don’t live here (and have no intentions of ever moving back) overreacted hugely, and made a mountain out of – well – nothing at all. The Indian government (determined that India should never be a laughing stock in the eyes of the world) reacted without realising what it was they were reacting to. It seems that we have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves. Besides, if there is really such an enormous issue over India appearing a certain way in foreign films and documentaries, here’s a novel solution: FIX THE ISSUES. Why are the national highways so poorly lit? Why are traffic rules not strictly enforced? Why are so many Indians dying in road accidents in this country every single day? You heard the statistics on Top Gear – do something about it, government!
If the images of India portrayed in the Top Gear special were primarily or exclusively negative ones, I would have had a problem with it. I often get frustrated with foreigners who come to India – and then spend the entire time focusing on the fact that we have slums here, or that our traffic is out of control, or that there is dirt and grime. They never see the positives; they never acknowledge the good things (and there are plenty). I was irritated at the BBC for naming the negative aspects of the CWG debacle as ‘the most memorable thing‘ about the games. I’m not a narrow-minded patriot who doesn’t _see_ the problems; I don’t have rose-coloured spectacles on. But I was born here, and it is part of my identity; I have spent a significant part of my life here, and I have a loyalty to India, and a deep fondness for it. It’s a country that has plodded on, often against incredible odds, and has triumphed. It is home to people who are ambitious, and enterprising, and hospitable. They welcomed the Top Gear team with open arms and hearts, and the team responded with equal affection. This is very evident in the special, if only people will watch it with open minds.
Top Gear’s portrayal of India and its people may not have been overly ‘sensitive’, or ‘politically correct’, but, in Clarkson’s own words, it was ‘superb’. I bet that they haven’t lost a single Indian fan; rather, they have gained them (if the Facebook page is any judge). And, speaking for my country, they’re welcome to come back any time they want.