‘James May: Our Man in India’: Better roads and familiar comedic sensibilities welcome TV show host to India

The new season of the travel documentary series will see the legendary television presenter and journalist take on his greatest adventure yet: a 3,000 mile coast-to-coast epic journey across India

December 27, 2023 02:11 pm | Updated 02:58 pm IST

James May visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra

James May visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra

Wearing a 15-year-old Fabindia shirt he purchased while vacationing in India, James May was grooving to the tunes of Pasoori on the waterfront as holi colours flew across Lake Pichola on a pleasant morning in Udaipur. The television presenter who shot to fame after his stint on Top Gear alongside Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond was in India to shoot for the third season of the Prime Video travel show James May: Our Man in…

Fashioned like a travel documentary, the show involves James travelling across a country and exploring its culture with the help of locals. In the first season, he graced the land of cherry blossoms and sushi, and the second one took him to the peaks of the Dolomites and shores of Palermo. 

James May: Our Man in India arrives, following his successful trips to Japan and Italy. Produced by Plum Pictures, the series reunites the team behind the previous series, including BAFTA-nominated series director Tom Whitter (James May’s Toy Stories, Cars of the People) and executive producer Will Daws (James May’s Toy Stories, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces).

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

The television presenter is not unfamiliar with Indian roads. In fact, in Top Gear: India Special that aired during the Christmas of 2011, fans saw a composed James compete against the dabbawalas of Mumbai and taking a wrong turn to end up in the countryside and eventually miss his train to Jaipur. This time around, an apprehensive Amazon Prime team asked him to keep his distance from the wheel. But that does not keep the veteran motorhead from spilling his two cents on Indian roads.

“I think the roads have improved since my last visit and the driving in general seems less strenuous,” he says. “I have always been a big fan of Indian driving mainly because it is freestyle. In Britain, we have a lot of traffic lights, road markings and rules but in India, people decide for themselves and it seems to work well.” If given a chance, he says he would like to drive something “very exotic” like a Ferrari or a simple car like Maruti Suzuki Alto. “I quite like small, simple cars. I like an autorickshaw as well and would love to drive it in London but they are not allowed,” he sighs. 

James’ rendezvous with travel journalism predates his tryst with Top Gear. “Years ago when I was engaged with print journalism, I used to write for a travel magazine called Condé Nast and even a few travel stories for car magazines. So getting back to this beat was not an entirely new idea when Amazon approached me for a solo project.”

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

One can understand why Amazon went in pursuit of him; his signature candour and humour do not need a translator even in alien lands. When asked what the comedic sensibilities around the world are like, he explains, “The Japanese have a good sense of humour and they like to joke, but because the culture is quite formal, one has to be careful to not come across as rude. However, I think India and Britain are closer in terms of their comedic sensibilities. When I landed in Mumbai, I spent many days with Aditi Mittal, the stand-up comic, and she is very punchy — she started cracking jokes about the British Empire and I could do the same to her and it is absolutely fine. This helped me gauge the atmosphere in India and I think it is quite easy to get on.”

But he notes that in some places people have to be careful while indulging in humour as he can be misunderstood easily. “The hardest [for me] was probably China — there was very little in common and a massive language barrier did not help.” 

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While James admits to casually researching and reading up about a place he is visiting, he highlights, “India is a very complicated country and no British person really understands it. I have learnt a bit about Mumbai and Udaipur and read a biography of [Mahatma] Gandhi a few years back. But to be honest, I think you need to study at least a couple of years to get an idea about a country as big and diverse as India.” He continues, “Since the basic premise of the show is to discover, I can play the role of a casual Western tourist… I am on holiday,” he chuckles. 

But he soon gets to dissecting the show and admits that the misunderstandings between him and the local people he meets and their reactions is what makes the show work. He adds, “It feels nice to go around the world, meet people and exchange a couple of words in their language,” he remarks, revealing that he has learnt a few Hindi words. 

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

A still from ‘James May: Our Man in India’

As the volume of the music starts to go up and all the Holi colours fuse to form a familiar yet dull shade of grey, I express my concern about the surge in aged Caucasian men bagging travel shows from streaming giants — be itEugene Levy’s collaboration with Apple TV+, The Reluctant Traveller, or Jack and Michael Whitehall’s collaboration with Netflix, Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father. James is quick to dismiss the claim. “I do not think it is a deliberate policy,” he says.

James, along with the production crew, intends on making their way to Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Darjeeling and Kolkata for the show, in an attempt to familiarise the Western audience with India. “I have never been to Varanasi and I am looking forward to visiting it, understanding the holy, special site,” he shares.

Before he bids goodbye, he encourages Indians to tune in to the show. “They will get an idea as to how overwhelming India is to a foreigner.” And to foreigners keen on visiting the subcontinent, he suggests they start with Udaipur to mitigate the sense of feeling overwhelmed and get used to the tunes of Indian roads.

(The writer was in Udaipur to meet James May on the invitation of Amazon Prime Video)

All three episodes of James May: Our Man in India will launch globally on 5 January, 2024 on Prime Video 

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