A kiss is still a kiss

Salil Tripathi attacks the lawyers and judges from 'Indian hick towns' who criticise Shilpa Shetty b

The millennium-old Sanskrit treatise about the art of love, Kama Sutra, describes many different ways in which a lover can kiss his beloved, including the bent kiss, the turned kiss, the straight kiss, and the clasping kiss. (The rest are best not named when impressionable children are around).

The Kama Sutra makes no mention of the sweeping tango motion, with which Richard Gere lunged at a surprised but clearly happy Shilpa Shetty, planting several kisses on her cheeks at an HIV-AIDS awareness rally in New Delhi late last month. While the audience cheered and whistled, clearly enjoying the performance, others weren't amused.

One curmudgeonly lawyer in Jaipur stomped off to a local court, arguing he was offended by that obscene act in public. Never mind the 3.5 million cases clogging the Indian court system - including nearly 500,000 pending over a decade - and never mind cases of forced marriage of children which took place in his state that very month; a local judge set a court date. He called the kiss "sexual and erotic"
and blamed Shetty for not doing anything to resist Gere.

Shetty acted like an innocent schoolgirl caught by her headmaster, saying that it was Gere who had kissed, but she hadn't kiss back; Gere too apologized after initially refusing to do so. She added, for good measure, that what Gere did was as per "his culture, not ours," and that they were merely re-enacting a scene from Gere's film, "Shall We Dance?"

Shall we stop this humbug first? Why this hand-wringing? After all, kissing is as much part of Indian culture as are the temples of Konarak and Khajuraho, where sculptures of kissing couples are probably the least erotic images on display. In Rajasthan alone the offended lawyer will find miniature paintings that reveal erotic love far more explicitly.

But why go that far in the past? In almost every Bollywood film, an actress bursting out of her skimpy, body-hugging costume cavorts in rain or shine, thrusting her torso and twisting her hips, leaving nothing to imagination, as she coils herself around around a male heartthrob. Now that kissing is not a taboo in Indian films, these days their lips – and not two roses – meet, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

The spoilsports aren't far behind: another lawyer, this time in Muzaffarpur, has sued stars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan for kissing in a film called "Dhoom – 2". Another judge, seeking his 15 minutes of fame, has set a date later this month for the case to be heard. More cases are planned against Gere and Shetty.

Every ten years India goes through this paroxysm-like ritual, when an Indian actress kisses a foreign celebrity – or is kissed by one, as in Shetty's case – and the nation's honour is presumably besmirched. In 1980, Padmini Kolhapure, then an aspiring Bollywood star, couldn't resist Prince Charles and planted a kiss on his cheek, when he visited a studio where a blockbuster was being filmed. In 1993, Shabana Azmi, an actress and activist in the Vanessa Redgrave mold, kissed Nelson Mandela on his cheek. There was immediate criticism; this time Muslim leaders too joined in.

The clash between a rapidly urbanizing, modern India and the tradition-bound, insecure smaller town resurfaces periodically, and in a nation with a billion people, as the late author Nirad Chaudhuri observed, even exceptions run into millions.

Take a closer look at the curmudgeonly towns, and the picture becomes clearer: Muzaffarpur and Jaipur are relatively small towns in northern India, unable to adjust to rapid change. Satellite television is invading homes there, showing how men and women behave elsewhere in their own country. The towns too are expanding, and in that churning, tradition-minded men want to assert their authority and control their women. They are worried how their daughters would behave when out of sight, and they are horrified seeing Indian women in saris kissing foreign men in public. It must be stopped.

At heart, then, this reflects the deep-rooted misogyny. In 2005, Khushboo, another Indian actress, was criticized after she said that nothing is wrong with pre-marital sex provided it is safe, consensual and between adults, and no educated man should make virginity an issue. Tennis ace Sania Mirza appeared to have supported those remarks, but later backtracked. She didn't have a choice; the 20-year-old was already in hot water because a few Muslim leaders wanted to pass a fatwa against her for she played tennis wearing miniskirts. Mirza and Khushboo, like Azmi, are Muslims; that being Muslim women they are able to lead liberated lives is actually a triumph of Indian secularism.

The denial of sexuality – as something women can flaunt, as a natural act they enjoy – is the core of the complaint of the lawyers and judges from Indian hick towns. They will ignore horrendous abuses like rape, trafficking, dowry deaths, and female foeticide and female infanticide around them. But the moment an adult woman expresses her sexuality, she must be forced to repent. The backlash against Gere and Shetty has far less to do with maintaining Indian traditions and all to do with preserving male dominance.