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

Categories: South Asia, India, Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, Humor, International Relations, Media & Journalism, Sport, Travel

On 28th December, the BBC [1] aired a 90minute, Top Gear India Special episode [2]. It featured the irrepressible Jeremy Clarkson [3], 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 [4], 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 [5] 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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10]. Many of the comments on Twitter reflected this sentiment.

@vinnie_three [11]: Just watched the top gear india special and it is funny as hell. #topgear

@sanidhya [12]: 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 [13] : me is watching the Top Gear India special episode. It's freakin awesome!

@Annapakshi [14]: 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 [15]: Just watched the much criticized BBC Top Gear India Special – Its best of British lunacy on our stupid systems. videobb.com/watch_video.ph… [16] @BBC [17]

@gkjohn [18]: 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.. tgr.ph/ApkYP6 [19]

@HoeZaay [20]: 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 [21]:anybody who is questioning Top Gear india special should try and drive fast on a dual carriageway in India… (BOM – POONA expway excluded)

@amreekandesi [22]: 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 [23]:

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 [25] that has plagued Top Gear over the years,  forum member Hacket commented [26]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 [27]:

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 [28]. What should be India's response then? Perhaps, it has been best encapsulated in this tweet:

@madversity [29]: Don't seek apologies from those who you should be mocking back. But then, your humour has to be in Top Gear