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Entertainment Review: James May: Our Man In India

After Italy and Japan, James May’s travelogue comes to India to “embrace the modern, the historic, the artistic, the creative, the cultural, the culinary and the natural.”

In spite of trying not to live out a “Raj fantasy” the British May cannot help wandering towards things that remind him of home, when he is not doing the typical tourist-in-India bits. The three-part show, James May: Our Man in India (the other two countries were allotted six), on Amazon Prime Video, opens with a long-haired May in crumpled clothes walking in front of the Gateway of India and noting that India is “different.”

Since India is huge, May and the crew go from West to East—from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal leaving out the South completely, but also large swathes in the west, centre and north of India. Which is fine, he has the right to decide where he wants to go and what he wants to do.  However, one can’t help but notice that he keeps visiting places that hark back to the past, or show the parts of India that are noisy, crowded, chaotic or plain peculiar.

In Mumbai, accompanied by his constantly guffawing guide Aditi Mittal (the stand-up comic, over made up for some reason), he takes a scary rickshaw ride, goes to Dharavi, visits Alfred Theatre where a man hand-paints movie posters and has his fortune told. Hardly any of this represents Mumbai as it is today!  Maybe for a nostalgia-soaked, middle-aged white traveller, not for a regular tourist. It could also be said that he avoids the stereotypes of guidebook Mumbai (Bollywood, Kolis, Elephanta, Leopold, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dandiya, etc), which perhaps is not such a bad thing.

While May has fun flying kites and playing Holi in Udaipur, the tone is always slightly condescending. A Thakur in Jaipur is subtly mocked. In Delhi, he is taken to Chandni Chowk to eat local delicacies; of course, Agra and the Taj Mahal cannot be left out, nor can exotic Varanasi and its definitely awe-inspiring Ganga aarti. He takes a ride in a luxury train full of Britishers getting drunk at nine in the morning, plays cricket, has a head massage, tries a bit of yoga, plays the sitar badly, has a tea-off in Darjeeling, a cook-off in Kolkata, and surprisingly visits, a studio and does a part in an ongoing series!

In Darjeeling, still holding on to vestiges of the colonial past, he discovers a heavy metal group, a British era train and manages to eat a full English breakfast. After tiger-watching in the Sunderbans, and seeing the kid whose birth officially tipped India into becoming the world’s most-populous country, he reaches the Bay of Bengal and the end of the journey. The conclusion is that India is an “absolute riot” and that the traveller must be prepared to get the country “beat them up,” and not attempt to fight back, because “India always wins.” That could also have something to do with the 2012 Top Gear show he hosted, which was accused of cultural insensitivity.

Our Man in India is mostly entertaining, James May makes fun of himself as much as the oddities he encounters. Indian viewers may get a bit annoyed at some parts—auto rickshaw drivers have apparently protested at being called “lunatics.”  But that is something most Indians would agree with!

James May: Our Man In India
Director: Tim Whitter
Host: James May
On Amazon Prime Video

Deepa Gahlot
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best-known entertainment journalists. A National Award-winning fim critic and author of several books on film and theatre. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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