On December 28, 2011, Top Gear aired an India Special of its show to five million viewers in the United Kingdom. ABBC television series about motor vehicles – primarily cars – Top Gear has an international viewing audience of over 350 million a week. Acclaimed on one hand for its visual style and presentation, Top Gear has also received much criticism for callous and offensive comments from its presenters. The filming of the India Special was preceded by a letter of intent from the BBC, stating their desire to create a show whose “key ingredients will be [India’s] beautiful scenery, busy city scenes, local charm and colour within these locations.” These sentiments were swiftly undercut by a stream of complaints that ensued after the show’s premiere. For not the first time, the show’s host, Jeremy Clarkson, came under fire from allegations of racism that included mocking, stereotyping, and insulting India and its people. While the issue was keenly reported by both Left and Right newspapers in Britain, it has remained largely neglected, or at best, shoddily reported, by the Indian print media.
Opening the 80-minute episode of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May set up the scene outside No.10 Downing Street, to discuss the premise of their forthcoming expedition – running a trade mission to India on behalf of Britain. Reading aloud a mock letter from the British Treasury, they decry the suggestion of a “fence-mending mission to Mexico” (at which point Hammond looks pointedly away – a reminder to viewers of his recent racist comments about the Mexican people lazily sleeping against fences). Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron appears from inside No.10 with a wave and a mock-serious, “Stay away from India,” before being driven off in his car. Having cheerfully positioned themselves within the framework of exporting British culture and cars to India (without so much as a nod to the irony of “this time around maybe we’ll get it right”), the three head off to the city of Mumbai.
The camera pans through predictable shots of the city’s slums, poverty, and traffic jams. Their first trade venture – to promote the three British cars of their choice as an alternative to the dabba walla system which relies on the (affordable) local trains – results in dabbas (lunch boxes) strewn across the city’s streets, as Clarkson manages an unlikely win in a race against a local train from Andheri to Churchgate station. Gesturing wildly at the nonplussed dabba wallas as he proclaims his win through a series of sounds and hand-actions, the group heads off for their next venture to Jaipur, by train. In a bid to add some “excitement” to the journey, they fall upon the idea of using banners on the outside of the train as promotional material. As the train splits into two on its way to Delhi, “British IT for your company” and “Eat English Muffins” tear down the middle to read “Shit for your company” and “Eat English Muff” (muff is a derogatory British slang term for a woman’s pubic hair). In Jaipur, they attach a toilet to the boot of one of their cars, under the premise that “everyone who comes to India gets the trots” (diarrhoea), and Clarkson’s show on the road carries on through Northern India. As the show comes to a close, viewers are left with the vague sense that the teeming populations of India (polarised into the slum dwellers of Mumbai and Jaipur’s upper-middle class: the only two groups of people shown on camera) did not, perhaps, want a British car covered with statues of Ganesha (or shit for their company). Other viewers (like the large number of British Asians and British journalists who have criticised the show for its racist premise) were perhaps left with a sense of acute discomfort at the cultural insensitivities portrayed throughout by Clarkson and his compatriots. Others, familiar with Clarkson’s work, were perhaps simply just not surprised.
The response by the Indian print media has been lukewarm and largely unresearched. Despite the Indian High Commission’s demand for an apology from the BBC, print media sources have had a tepid engagement with the issue. Articles in The Economic Times and India Today provide what is being used as a stock quotation for the issue, taken from the letter sent by the High Commission to Chris Hale, the producer of Top Gear. The quotation reads, “The programme was replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity. This is not clearly what we expect of the BBC. I write this to convey our deep disappointment over the documentary for its content and the tone of the presentation.” These sentences, quoted in every article the Indian media has to offer (which are themselves few and far between) do not elucidate for their readers examples of the show’s offences. The Economic Times supplements the quotation with a sentence stating that “Clarkson allegedly made comments about India’s trains, toilets, clothing, food, and history.” India Today,DNA, and the Indian Express repeat exactly the same sentence. The Hindu comes closest to touching upon specifics in its mention of the banners affixed to the train; however, the newly formed phrases post-train-split are unhelpfully left to the reader’s imagination. The other related topic the media have been keen to report is that British Prime Minister David Cameron has washed his hands off the issue, refusing to either apologise or engage with the content of Clarkson’s show. The Times of India reports that Cameron “did not like” the show, which runs counter to “his utmost respect” for India and its people. While many in Britain would not fail to point out the close ideological ties between Clarkson and Cameron, the Indian media has been quicker to exonerate Cameron than to seriously report and investigate the allegations made against the show.
What the media has completely failed to highlight, however, are the more fundamental issues of racism, neo-colonialism, and cultural (mis)representations at play. Complaints streaming into the BBC from within Britain, speaking of “casual racism” and “racist stereotyping”, have been completely disregarded by Indian print media. Media reporting on the issue has failed to approach it through a critical lens of representation, in order to usefully question why the city of Mumbai has been depicted as a large, unconnected, overflowing slum. As British television once again resorts to its sweeping brush that uncritically paints poverty across the Third World, the show is reminiscent of Channel 4’s “Seema Sharma: The Slumdog Secret Millionaire” and “India with Sanjeev Bhaskar” where the streets of India are transformed into half-an-hour of poverty for Western viewer’s weekly intake of sympathy. This time around though, there are a few car chases. Similarly, the “trade mission” that Clarkson embarks upon is uncritically reminiscent of the “missions” preceding the establishment of the British Raj – characterised by arrogance, insensitivity, and an animalising of the “native population” (refer to Clarkson’s wild gesticulations and random noises to the dabba wallas).
This, however, is not the first time a British TV show has made international waves for its racism towards India and its people. In 2007, Shilpa Shetty entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in the UK, which resulted in her crying on British national television, repeatedly asking, “Why do they hate me?” Sparked by comments from Jade Goody, she was asked to “Go back to the slums”, and endured xenophobic comments regarding the food, ill-health, and malnutrition of the Indian people. What is remarkable about the parallel to Clarkson’s show is the disproportionate news coverage Big Brother received. From numerous articles in almost every English daily in India, including a special feature in the Hindu magazine amongst others, the issue was followed with a passion and fervour reserved only for Bollywood stars. Shetty’s experience in the Big Brother house was indeed on an individual level, scarring, and on a wider plane, indicative of the racism and prejudice that British Asians (and tourists, students, and refugees) face on a daily basis. However, what appears to have fuelled Indian print media’s reportage on the issue was not the wider concerns of prejudice underlying Goody’s comments and Shetty’s experience, but the need to follow the lives and trials of Bollywood’s personas. While Clarkson’s “Top Gear: India Special” sparks similar concerns over cultural misconceptions and prejudice as highlighted in Big Brother (with perhaps a further reaching undercurrent of colonialist frameworks and indicting cultural depictions), the level of coverage by the media of the former speaks volumes about where the priorities of corporate media lie.
Should this disproportionate coverage of similar issues be monolithically linked to the Indian media’s desire to, whatever the impetus, have a Bollywood actress on the front page? Could it also be tied to both India and Britain’s reluctance to acknowledge and expose the structural, political, and racial inequalities in access to representation in the postcolonial era? Or perhaps it is linked to the comparative ease of reporting an isolated experience of racism, as opposed to cultural mockery and stereotyping on the level of Clarkson’s show – invariably raising deeper questions around the Indian middle-classes’ uncritical faith in the BBC? Can it be tied to our acceptance of the West’s slum-dog portraits of India? Or our ability to laugh at the lack of sanitary toilets in the country, because as readers of English dailies, we most likely have access to them? When the Indian media choose to report a Bollywood star’s experience of racism, but largely ignore one of the BBC’s highest paid presenters as he cheaply parodies and mocks the country, it is important to examine what is perhaps our own complicity in this unequal reportage. We are clearly positioned in our outrage over Jade Goody’s comments. Reportage that seriously questions Clarkson’s treatment of the dabba wallas, or the ease with which May was the first to “cave” (presumably from the horrors of the streets) and check himself into a five-star hotel, would appropriately disconcert more than a few of us. The media has done no justice to the prejudice and intolerance that run through Clarkson’s “India Special.” But perhaps, nor have we.
This piece was originally titled ‘Indian media lukewarm to Clarkson insults’ and published on The Hoot on 19 January 2012.