In India, a public kiss is not just a kiss

A warrant for Richard Gere's arrest is part of the nation's struggle to come to terms with its views of women and sexuality.

Sitting in the shade nibbling on her vanilla ice cream cone, Kirna Mohra isn't the sort of person to burn an effigy of Richard Gere.

She knows that people in India have done just that – furious at the American actor's abrupt kiss on the cheek of a Bollywood starlet at a charity function earlier this month. She also knows that last week an Indian judge issued a warrant for Mr. Gere's arrest.

It is all a bit over the top, Ms. Mohra says. But were Gere's actions appropriate? "No," she says, after a moment of grandmotherly reflection. "From generation to generation, we have not had that in our country – it's not our culture."

India is a nation struggling to come to terms with its own views on women and sexuality – and kissing has become a symbolic line in the sand for India's self-appointed stewards of tradition.

Public kissing brings a $12 fine in Delhi. Yet onscreen, Bollywood heroines sigh and gyrate to rhythms that might make Hugh Hefner blush. Last year, political opponents called on the chief minister of the state of Rajasthan to resign because she offered a ceremonial kiss of welcome to a businesswoman at the World Economic Forum.

"The kiss is the threshold marker," says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. "It represents the more Western notion of sexual behavior."

The judge who issued the warrant for Gere's arrest called the kiss at the AIDS-awareness event "highly sexually erotic." Gere says he was playfully reenacting a scene from his film, "Shall We Dance," by sweeping actress Shilpa Shetty into his arms, dipping her, and then giving her several pecks on the cheek.

He has since apologized, saying in an issued statement Friday that "the dance move was a naive misread of Indian customs."

Gere has blamed the furor on right-wing "moral police" playing politics with any perceived corruption of Indian values. He is right, say analysts here, who add that the warrant is not likely to survive legal scrutiny.

How Indians view Gere's act

Among the shoppers and store-keepers seeking respite from the heat at Delhi's Sarojini market, none is inclined to pick up a pitchfork in response to the Gere kiss. "It's like a wave on the sea," says Pooja Srivastava, a stylish 20-something in a top that sparkles. "In 10 to 15 days it will be gone and no one will remember."

If it didn't bother the actress, Ms. Shetty, she says, what's the problem?

Others are more cynical about the motives of the legal case. "Courts spend 20 years on rape cases, and here they've issued a warrant in weeks," says Hardeep Singh, sitting behind the counter of his father's shoe store.

Not everyone is so dismissive, however. Sitting among the multicolored saris he sells, Rajesh Dhanraj agrees that the warrant is unnecessary, saying that Gere "does that sort of thing in his culture."

But he adds: "That sort of thing is not to be done here."

He is not angry, but rather rueful. India is changing, he says. Only a decade ago, onscreen kisses were unheard of. While rare, they are slowly becoming more common. "If we accept it in film, why should we not accept it in real life?" he asks.

A kiss is a small thing, perhaps, but it is symptomatic of something much larger, sociologists say. This is a place where future spouses often do not meet until the wedding is arranged by their parents. The notion of courtship is still a novelty for many. In this context, the mounting influence of the Western world – and its far more open interaction between men and women – is revolutionary.

"Two very different societies are colliding with each other," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. "Because of the Western influence, the changes here are not a natural evolution."

Men's magazines arrive

Some say it is ushering in India's own Sexual Revolution – a 1960s-like liberation of the Subcontinental libido. As a new generation and a new middle class adopt more Western values, men's magazines such as Maxim have arrived. Playboy took the unprecedented step of agreeing to clothe models for its Indian edition in order to pass censorship laws and enter the market here.

More likely, say others, India is merely doing what it has done from the days of Mughal invaders to the British Raj – finding ways to absorb foreign influences within its own traditions. "It is trying to fuse, but with all the fusion, there is a lot of contradiction," says Dr. Gupta.

After all, this is the land of the "item girl" – that would-be Bollywood star whose dancing includes everything short of a pole and a wardrobe malfunction. Yet for all her overt sexuality, the temptress is acceptably Indian. The public kiss is not.

"The dance numbers … follow certain well-established conventions and therefore do not scandalize," says Tejaswini Niranjana of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore in ane-mail. "The kiss in public could be a form of … sexuality that doesn't have a long public history in our context."

It is no longer unfamiliar to Mr. Dhanraj, sitting among his saris. That, he says, is the problem. "Celebrities are getting big money for this kind of behavior," he says. "It is the public who want this."

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