The new, resurgent India is confident enough not to care about those who take pot-shots at her
You may not have noticed but apparently Jeremy Clarkson was in India a few months ago to shoot a special episode of Top Gear. The show aired recently and in keeping with the general tone of fatuous school-boy humour, laced with generous lashings of the casual racism our Jeremy is so brilliant at, it took a few pot-shots at India, its slum-dwellers, the general lack of sanitation, etc. etc.
So, you had Jeremy driving around in a Jaguar fitted out with a toilet in the boot because as he described so elegantly on the show, “Everyone who comes to India gets the trots.” (That’s posh speak for what we call “getting the runs”.) In one memorable bit, Jeremy stripped down to his underpants to explain to his bemused Indian guests how to use a trouser press – because, of course, savages that we are, we couldn’t possibly know how to iron the creases out of our clothes. So far, so very predictable.
But what wasn’t so predictable was what followed. Nothing. Yes, I mean just that: nothing.
Nobody in India got their knickers in a twist (as Jeremy would no doubt have put it), none of the political parties held press conferences to vent about how India’s honour had been outraged, there were no processions by people upset at having their lack of indoor sanitation mocked at, and there were certainly no calls for BBC to be banned in India.
Sure, there was the odd article in the newspapers and the obligatory outraging on Twitter for a day. And then, everybody forgot about Top Gear and that naughty Jeremy Clarkson and got on with their lives (with or without perfectly-pressed trousers). If anything, the episode got much more play in the British press – where the knives are always out for Jeremy – than it did in India.
So, why did India not explode into rage at this insult to our great nation (the oldest civilisation in the world, now that you ask)? Why did nobody call for Jeremy’s head on a silver thali? Why were there no demands for the BBC to apologise? Or even calls to shut down the channel as punishment for Jeremy’s sins?
Was it just that Top Gear has no real traction in India? That nobody knew or cared very much who Jeremy Clarkson was – and thus couldn’t be bothered that his luxury car was fitted out a toilet in the boot?
Or was there something more to this? Could it be possibly be that we in India have finally grown up? That we now have the confidence in ourselves to not care about what other people say about us – even if it is on international TV?
Though there is probably some merit in the first position, I’m inclining towards the latter. Yes, Jeremy Clarkson is hardly a household name in India, but that can’t be the entire story. In the past, we have displayed an incredible gift for getting annoyed/insulted/mortally offended for things that didn’t have the slightest bearing on our lives.
In 1968, French filmmaker Louis Malle visited India to make a seven-part documentary series, L’Inde, Fantome and a documentary film, Calcutta. Malle thought his was a sensitive, moving portrait of India; the government of India thought he was needlessly focussing on poverty and portraying the country in a negative manner. Malle’s documentaries were duly banned and it was several years before the BBC got permission to shoot in India again.
Around the same time, a Hollywood film called The Party – in which Peter Sellers plays a bumbling young Indian actor called Hrundi (yes, seriously!) V Bakshi, who mistakenly gets invited to a posh party and proceeds to trash it – was released. Instead of recognising it for the comedic cult film it would turn out to be the Shiv Sena picketed the cinemas in which it was released and succeeded in getting it banned.
Contrast this with our much more relaxed attitude to the comedic turn that was Anil Kapoor’s minuscule role in Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol. Here too was an Indian character in a Hollywood movie being played for laughs (among Kapoor’s many cringe-worthy lines, this one is a classic: “Indian mens are hots”). And no, we were not laughing along with him as much as laughing at him.
Did anybody in India mind? Not particularly. There were a few jokey comments about Kapoor in the newspaper and TV reviews, social media duly piped in with its two-bits, and that, pretty much, was that. Kapoor may have played the Indian millionaire as a fool, working the teeny-tiny part for a few laughs, but we didn’t see any reason to treat it an indictment of every Indian. We were mature enough, and rational enough, to see it for what it was: a comedy cameo in an international movie.
It is this relaxed attitude that has made films like Slumdog Millionaire possible now. There was a time when one scene alone – where the boy hero wades through excrement to reach his idol – would have been enough for various ‘nationalist’ groups in India to get their dhotis in a twist (no, dear Jeremy hasn’t said that yet, but give him time). But in the new, resurgent India, nobody complained about the title, about the portrayal of grinding poverty, or about the besmirching of the image of India.
We may not be like that only. But thankfully, we no longer care very much if you think so.