India: Did BBC Top Gear's India Special Really Offend Indian Sensibilities?

On 28th December, the BBC aired a 90minute, Top Gear India Special episode . It featured the irrepressible Jeremy Clarkson, who, along with his 2 colleagues, undertook a 1300mile drive across India in what was apparently intended to be a “light-hearted road trip” whose “key ingredients will be [India's] beautiful scenery, busy city scenes, local charm and colour within these locations, areas to illustrate the local car culture that exists in India.”

The programme showed Jeremy on “a trade mission” to India – in an attempt to promote British Industry and British products which would be relevant to the Indian market.  So you saw him driving around in a Jaguar XJS with a toilet fitted to the boot of his car, because, as he declared “everyone who comes to India gets the trots.” Another part of the episode showed him stripping down to his underpants to demonstrate the use of a British trouser press (which, according to him could double up as a naan or flatbread maker). Then there was the bit about advertising British products on Indian trains.

Screenshot from Youtube video by Gamerguyali

Initially, all seemed well. However, after a while, it appeared that Clarkson's brand of humor had not gone down well with the Indian administration. The Indian High Commission formally complained to the BBC, saying that the programme “was replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity that we expect from the BBC.” Soon the incident got escalated to the extent that the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who appears briefly in the beginning of the program asking the team to ‘stay away from India’, had to distance himself from the controversy.

However, in this instance, the netizens have not sided with the government's outrage on this issue. Discussions in the social media have largely felt that all this official hullabaloo over the program's content was  over-the-top and uncalled for. Many of the comments on Twitter reflected this sentiment.

@vinnie_three: Just watched the top gear india special and it is funny as hell. #topgear

@sanidhya: I actually quite enjoyed the Top Gear India Special. Don't get what all the controversy is about. When did we become so touchy as a country?

@sanjay_ankur : me is watching the Top Gear India special episode. It's freakin awesome!

@Annapakshi: Top Gear made a complete ass of itself in the India special program. Dont know what the fuss is all about! #BBC #Topgear

@Subrat_Goswami: Just watched the much criticized BBC Top Gear India Special – Its best of British lunacy on our stupid systems.… @BBC

@gkjohn: Why do we Indians have such a low tolerance for humour? Was funny when they made fun of the Mexicans but when it's us..

@HoeZaay: What !? BBC's Top Gear came to India and depicted us in “bad light” ?! Make them apologise ! Only Indians are allowed to do that.

Some of the Tweeple also stated that there was no harm in showing some of the realities of India, for example the ‘heart-in-your-mouth’ driving displayed on the highways, the difficulty of driving on a dual carriageway etc., which have been captured in the episode. Others felt that the Indian administration, in seeking an apology from BBC and Britain was being unduly over-sensitive over a non-issue when they had other serious issues to deal with both in the UK and in India.

@kabeermahajan:anybody who is questioning Top Gear india special should try and drive fast on a dual carriageway in India… (BOM – POONA expway excluded)

@amreekandesi: India asks Top Gear host to apologise for mocking our culture. The same India where rats chewed up a man in a hospital.

Reflecting the sentiment that there were more serious issues that the administration should spend their time on, Yogesh Sarkar, in the India Travel Forum – BCMT touring, wrote:

The real irony I guess is the fact that an Indian student had been murdered in UK in a racial crime, while another was found dead in mysterious circumstances and Indian High Commission is busy paying attention to the work of Jeremy Clarkson!… I had seen the episode and didn't really found it to be insulting. I mean, when we laugh on the episode related to Albanian Mafia, what right do we have to stand up in arms over an episode filmed in India? If any thing, I believe the last section about the drive in Himalayas would just be an advertisement for Incredible India and more and more foreigners would love to come and see it.

Top Gear India – humorous credit line. Screenshot from Youtube video by jack390

On the same discussion thread, referring to other controversies that has plagued Top Gear over the years,  forum member Hacket commented on the India episode:

I didn't find the episode offensive. Mockery was more towards the boys themselves,Britain than India. Secondly, TG,Orangutan and co. always mock and been in several controversy. BBC keeps replying back to take it in a light humorous way.

Another member, Anup Mathur, felt that Indians were gradually becoming intolerant and incapable of taking things lightly. He said:

We Indians are fast becoming the most intolerant people in the world! A sense of humour has always been absent as has the ability to handle criticism. So full of ourselves and so self-righteous! Is it any wonder people are itching to do some Indo bashing?!

Finally, the verdict seems to be that this was a storm in a teacup and it was time to get over it. What should be India's response then? Perhaps, it has been best encapsulated in this tweet:

@madversity: Don't seek apologies from those who you should be mocking back. But then, your humour has to be in Top Gear


  • npk

    I don’t see what is offensive-I’m Indian. Whatever they’ve showed is accurate. How are they to be more culturally sensitive? Make things look better than they are, so Indians world over can save face? India in a unique country it’s not perfect but nor is any other country in the world, some may display better driving etiquette but who knows what heinous happenings lurk in the dark anywhere and everywhere. The world in not perfect that doesn’t mean one ought to cower and hide one’s flaws. “Don’t take criticism personally, take it seriously” -Bill Clinton.

  • Ian

    We are all so politically correct that you can’t say anything without insulting someone. It is time to go back to basics and realise a joke is a joke and not an insult. before long we won’t be able to tell any jokes as we might offend someone, and then what a miserable serious world we would have made.
    It is time to lighten up, or is that defaming someone????

  • VSanity

    I don’t understand what the big deal is. Top Gear makes fun of literally EVERYONE, including those in their own country.

  • Shiva Srinivasan

    Its not that the Top Gear India Special was offensive, it’s just that it was a completely wasted opportunity. There was emphasis on plots that were inherently silly and pointless. The dabbawallas, the high society Delhi party. The idea was to have 1300 km road trip in India and they should have done just that. Considering how crazy a country India is, the episode would have been incredible fun without trying too hard and ending up contrived. They should have chosen hilly forest locations in Karnataka running cutting across to the eastern coasts. Switch then to North East India towards the Himalayas.
    Insane things happen on India’s roads everyday without fail. I love Top Gear, but the India special disappointed me.

  • devaraj

    I had a plane to catch at Chennai. so took a taxi and rushed to Chennai – from Trichy. It looked like a highway alright. But then if it is not used as a high way how could you call it a high way? (1) slow moving trucks were all using the (right) high speed lane. So my driver who I had asked to hurry had to literally zig zag most of the time slowing down and speeding again. (2) there were people and vehicles crossing the highway / parked on the side taking the left lane. (3) There were vehicles driving (towards us) in the opposite direction using the left lane to avoid going to the next underpass/ round about. Even saw a couple of bullock carts on the highway. My point is -In the interest of and safety of road users (1) all road users to be taught to use the highway properly. (2) implement / enforce road rules and regulations.

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