Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Channel 4's Indian Winter is an insult to Asians

It’s all too typical of British television, from panel games to detective dramas

Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00

Can't say we weren't notified. On billboards everywhere, already sending some of us off the road, there was Channel 4 bringing India to town. Wicked! The posters had din and colour, drums and pipes, saris and turbans, dressed-down scions of Viceroys and Nabobs. Sadly, no punkhawallah nor characters from It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. At the head of the parade were the untameable Gordon Ramsay, Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs and other brand names, around them snakes, tigers, elephants and the smiling Indians, human flock wallpaper for the celebs. With two striking exceptions – which I will come back to- we were back in the Raj again. The Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal believes that old story regularly gets calibrated and "updated" for our times: "India on the telly remains something of a British colonial-corporate fantasy; only now the oriental bazaars and palaces of the Raj have been supplemented by appalling slum chic and glitzy Bollywood pap in lieu of substantial engagement with the complexities of the country."

Apparently, Indians or British Asians – cultural insiders – were not invited to advise programme makers. What do they know? Channel 4's hyper-cool clique of commissioners and editors have no need for native wisdom. They can find all they need in the Groucho club. So we got dumbed-down orientalism.

The journalist Aditya Chakrabortty was the first to express his unease, in particular the way "the subcontinent of one billion was boiled down to a giant slum". Danny Boyle's extraordinary film has led to a gold rush to those localities. Those responsible for the Indian Winter jamboree clearly thought they could get easy success by extending and imitating Slumdog Millionaire. Badly. So badly that it diminished the power and shine of the original. Kevin McCloud ruminating on the good life under piles of shit and trash was excruciating. One wonders whether some of the delightful child actors of these wastelands in Boyle's movie would concur. In this milieu, the fluent architect/presenter, out of his depth and disconnected, could only be a poverty tourist. In one programme, Roedean-educated British Asian Seema Sharma went forth to be a secret millionaire in the slums. At least she could speak to them in Hindi but even she said she squirmed when signing her cheques. Genuine humility momentarily redeemed her and in part the programme but not the season.

Sixty years ago on the 26 January, India became a sovereign, democratic republic. There was a splendid celebration in a Mayfair hotel to mark the occasion – with over 500 people. Most of the programmes were insulting rubbish opined the guests I met. Krishnan Guru-Murthy was the only one who tried to convey what India was becoming. I agree. Channel 4 should give him a huge bonus for rescuing a sliver of their reputation. One dancer said it all: "I tried to watch. I don't mind them being critical of 'Incredible India', which does not look after its poor. But these guys were clueless, flying in and taking over our stories and realities. I object to that."

India is the second-fastest growing economy in the world; its industrialists own businesses in Europe; its popular culture has gone global; it is the largest working democracy in the world; its young people are coveted for their intellect and skills; it makes some of the smartest cars in the world; it is among the top nations for biotechnology; it pioneers mobile phone software; it is moving fast on space exploration; it is a bookish nation; it is steeped in religions but keeps the state secular; its artists and writers are conquering the world and even more so its glorious food of infinite variety. Ah food, who shall we send? Why Gordon Ramsay of course. And what does he do? Why what he always does, act like a spoilt, ignorant brat. Yes, he is ignorant, even about food outside his orbit. And foul-mouthed. What were they thinking? That they were being cutting edge and clever I suppose.

Mridula Baljekar, a food writer, was so appalled she sent me an email: "Oh dear! How can I tell everyone that this repulsive behaviour is not at all British and how can I apologise to my fellow Indians to whom this man is being so rude and patronising." Another food writer, Monisha Bharadwaj also got in touch to say she was "horrified to watch how Ramsay disrespected the hospitality, knowledge and culture that was shared with him. Disgraceful. Who do these people think they are?"

Way back in 1982, Salman Rushdie pointed out that imperialist assumptions were still alive and well and playing out in the Motherland: "Those attitudes are in operation right here as well, here in what E P Thompson has described as the last colony of the British Empire. It sometimes seems that the British authorities, no longer capable of exporting governments, have chosen instead to import a new Empire, a new community of subject peoples of whom they think, and with whom they can deal, in very much the same way as their predecessors thought of and dealt with "the fluttered folk and wild"... who made up, for Rudyard Kipling, the White Man's Burden... 400 years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the fuzzy-wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture."

The good news is that since Rushdie's powerful analysis was broadcast, as it happens, on Channel 4, many creative white people no longer carry the colonial gene, approach the non-white world with learned minds and open hearts, respect and intimacy. Danny Boyle is the exemplar; directors Tim Supple and Jude Kelly, Fergal Keane and William Dalrymple also come to mind. But too many others, particularly in the world of television, if anything are getting more imperious as the geopolitical plates shift.

I think Britain losing its economic and cultural dominance compels these movers and shakers (maybe unconsciously) to cut down the winners, render them, reduce them to caricatures or shapeless, nameless polyps in the inner landscape of the occidental mind. Societal changes here add to the panic perhaps, activating patriotic protectionism. With talented young British Asians, Africans and Caribbeans getting more ambitious and expecting to sit at the mainstream table, broadcasters turn away or work to a hidden quota so the infiltrators are not seen any more than they must. It is a battle they will lose. Eventually. Inevitably.

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

To be fair, this resistant citadel is breached more than it once was, and not even someone as perpetually discontented as me would deny that. You see stuff on the box that I never dared to imagine. The Family last year (Channel 4) with the Grewals was fabulous as television and because it showed Asian family life as ordinary, human, thoroughly British. However, the signs of progress, of what British TV could be, makes you more aware and less forgiving of the glaring failures. We now have black and Asian newsreaders but note that after 30 years Newsnight has had no black interrogator. Multiracial casting in soaps and drama is now common and top roles do now go to black and Asian actors – Adrian Lester in Hustle, Nina Wadia in EastEnders. Yet watch The Bill and Midsomer Murders – two very different worlds – and almost all the actors are white.

The superb Sophie Okonedo playing Winnie Mandela on BBC4 was outstanding so too the beautifully produced Small Island (BBC again) based on Andrea Levy's novel. Once in a while, you fall upon something that blows you away, like the Channel 4 documentary about the Muslim girl Ambreen Sadiq, a top boxer from Bradford. We are truly, deeply humbly grateful for these developments. And I am not being ironic. However, the most self-reverential of TV bosses cannot claim the world they control and beam at us reflects our nation.

Power rests in white hands and they still dole out most space, fame, fabulous chances and cash to their own sort. Too many of them talk the talk of diversity well but deliver little. (Some, I know, think, enough already). Get that Peter Oborne, or Boris Johnson, or Stephen Fry again and again and again. I mean no disrespect to these splendid gents of course. They were born to it. Successful independent TV companies owned by black and Asian wallahs reuse the same names, even those who complain about the whiteness of their profession. Perhaps they feel environmentally virtuous, recycling the same talent endlessly. The more likely explanation is that they lack courage and imagination and instead of breaking out, seek to gain the approval of the top set and its confined, inward-looking culture.

Black and Asian Britons are still not considered good enough when it comes to witty shows. The same old, same old white comedians appear on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Argumental, QI, Mock the Week. Omid Djalili, Shappi Khorsandi and Shazia Mirza do gain entry and maybe a couple of others, but night after night after night, like Alan Davies? Of course not. Go on the comedy circuit and you get the many faces of our laughing nation, from hilarious Sikhs to outrageously un-PC Muslims and Zimbabweans.

Loose Women won a National Television Award last month. The show makes feminism funny and cutting and feminine. But again, I have only seen one black woman on the panel. They can't find any mouthy black women out there obviously and no shrill Asian aunties who could sound off. Almost wholly white too are cookery fests, travel and adventure programmes, shows about homes, arts and history series.

Why are we still having to bang on about the obvious? Laziness, nepotism, a self-limiting circle of contacts and information, lack of curiosity and humility and most of all the hubris that defines and holds back British TV. Meanwhile, other sectors of the arts and culture are marching ahead. This week, I went to the lifting, complex, at times disturbing Chris Ofili exhibition. Ten years ago, he was barely known and now has room after room devoted to him at the Tate. Earlier, Anish Kapoor was given the same pride of place at the Royal Academy.

I also watched the exuberant multiracial RSC production of Twelfth Night set in a wild corner of the Ottoman Empire. Since Michael Boyd took over the company, integrated casting is a given. Publishers are increasingly receptive to minority voices and non-Western writers and the book awards, so many of which go to such writers, proves that the gifted are out there, dying to be brought in from cold indifference. Adverts, once blindingly white, now regularly feature models of colour and naturally speak to a diverse nation and world. With TV, the people are ahead of the gatekeepers. Talent shows, by definition, are open to all. When choices are made by millions of voters you get stars like Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Diversity. Simon Cowell, the great black hope? Yep, 'fraid so. Up to a point – his judges are all pinko-white. The others in the race aren't up to speed – or running round in circles or backwards, unable or unwilling to engage with the emerging world.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments