Much ado about kissing

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By Satish Nandgaonkar in Mumbai and Swagata Sen in New Delhi report" response.write intro %>
  • Published 19.12.04
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Nelson Mandela smacks Shabana Azmi and Padmini Kolhapure reaches up to give a chaste peck to Prince Charles. Khushwant Singh hugs and plants a firm one on the cheek of a Pakistani high commissioner?s daughter. Bipasha Basu kisses men in her films, and Rohit Bal kisses them all the time.

Everybody, clearly, does it. Everybody, that is, but Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur, who do not kiss.

So when an MMS clip found them doing exactly that, the two actors reacted the way teenagers do when caught red-handed by strict parents ? they shouted loudly in self-defence. Earlier this week, within hours of a Mumbai-based eveninger publishing grabs of a video-clip showing the Kareena-Shahid ?lip-lock? ? as the kiss has been renamed ? the actor denied that they were her pictures and accused the eveninger of doctoring images. She even announced that she would never be found kissing in public for she belonged to the illustrious family of Raj Kapoor. Shahid, as if on cue, insisted they hailed from good families. He even went on to say that the last time he had visited the restaurant where the photos were allegedly taken was with their families, and, true to form, they don?t kiss in front of them either.

Read between the lines is the message that good girls do not kiss. The world is changing all around Kareena and Shahid ? Madonna and Britney Spears have been locking lips, model Diandra Soares kisses women at fashion shows and Mallika Sherawat kissed so many times in her very first film, Khwahish, that audiences complained of breathlessness. Even the late Devika Rani did it on the screen about 70 years ago.

?But I am told Indian actresses do not kiss,? says a despairing Dev Benegal. ?My films show relationships in a natural manner, and I am dreading the day when I have to work with Bollywood actress who don?t kiss,? says the director.

Kareena ? better known for her midriff-baring tank tops ?and Shahid ? better known for his baby-face ? are outraged. Kareena says she was traumatised by the images; Shahid let his lawyers do the talking.

?That?s because kissing was always seen as a mark of a loose person,? explains Ahmedabad-based social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan.

But, strangely, not many people seem to be as incensed. Even that old self-styled guardian of Mumbai?s moral and cultural values, former minister Pramod Navalkar, is not greatly shocked. ?Kissing is a part of human life,? he says philosophically.

In the plethora of denials and counter denials, one fact that seems to be lost on most is that kissing is as Indian as the Kama Sutra. In fact, in Vatsyayana?s classic, its various ways have been discussed in detail. In tantrik sex, kissing is an important step to activating the six chakras that rule the human body. And Hindi cinema, often an effective commentary of social mores, celebrated the kiss long before it became a taboo in middle-class India. The 1933 film Karma had an amorous Devika Rani lying atop Himanshu Rai, locking her lips with his.

The Indian Cinematograph Act of 1952 brought out a set of rules that pushed kissing off the stage for a while. There was a time when Hindi films would rather that the birds and the bees did it than their actors. Eastmancolour would never be complete without two roses rubbing petals or birds pecking on each other?s beaks.

But with satellite, Hindi cinema is not what it used to be. Today, kissing and sexuality are dealt with in a forthright manner. Pooja Bhatt-produced Jism and Paap dealt with sexual themes and tried to change the stereotypes of female lead roles. The success of Jism started a trend of films such as Pritish Nandy?s Mumbai Matinee, Govind Menon?s Khwahish, Mahesh Bhatt?s Murder, Ram Gopal Verma?s Naach and Vishal Bharadwaj?s Maqbool which portrayed sexuality more openly. These films shattered Bollywood?s tradition of prudish sex scenes, by making previously taboo kisses routine and by finally ditching the rustling bushes that used to denote what came next.

The problem crops up when reality imitates art. As long as kissing is confined to the silver screen, not many are offended. It?s when it spills out into restaurants and public parks that eyebrows get raised. So, the Victoria Memorial Gardens, the place that launched thousands of love stories, still has a stick-wielding constable eyeing couples with suspicion. Or, take a MacDonald?s advertisement which has an elderly couple looking aghast at a young pair, seemingly kissing at the next table. A close look reveals that the youngsters are merely eating a wrap from its two ends.

In some quarters, the art of locking lips is still seen as a Western import. ?Our culture is our wealth, and we have a different perspective from the Western culture,? says Navalkar. ?Even a dating couple who are not going to marry each other avoid kissing in public. A peck on the cheek is fine, but our values do not allow Indians to do it in public.?

But, votaries of oscular freedom argue that what constitutes ?public? may be debatable. Kareena symbolises the urban, sexually liberated woman in Indian cinema. Not long ago, she brightened up the screens with her passionate kisses with Fardeen Khan.

But that, sociologists say, is trademark Bollywood for you. According to Vishwanathan, the more an actor projects a public persona of a liberated individual, the more he or she extols middle-class values. ?This is not new. Earlier, the actress Bindoo, who would be seen playing the vamp in many a revealing dress, would insist that she was ?unspoilt? in real life,? he says.

Some of the unexpected critics of the Kareena-Shahid episode are the Mumbai-based poet and editor, Jerry Pinto, and the best-selling author, Shobhaa D?. The debate over the kiss, says Pinto, editor of Man?s World, has also to do with the issue of aesthetics. ?In Kabhie Kabhie for example, the title song shows Amitabh lying on Rakhee?s lap, and she leans over him and her long hair covers his face. This visual is suggestive and liberates the imagination of the viewer.?

The critics of the kiss stress that the problem with the Kareena-Shahid photograph, with tongues sticking out, left not much to the imagination. ?There are kisses and kisses,? says Shobhaa D?. ?A tongue-twister kiss like this is offensive.?

The brouhaha over the kiss also underlines the curious role of self-censorship among Indians. Elsewhere in the world, the media tends to focus on the activities of errant Presidents and straying ministers; in India, they steer clear of it. Some things are talked about; some others are best left alone. The dichotomy is evident in cinema as well. Actors can have their secret lives, and very little is out in the open.

But, as the great embrace indicates, the times are changing. That people kiss ? and sometimes in public ? is no more a closely-guarded secret. ?Values change over time,? says director Subhash Ghai. ?Twenty years ago, a boy and his girlfriend holding hands caused a scandal. Today lips have replaced the hands.?

It?s the fear that their reel lives may spill over to their real ones that has made Kareena and Shahid issue such vehement denials, says Vishwanathan. While in the social circles in most cities, kissing is seen as another form of shaking hands, in Bollywood, the definitions are a little different. The fashion world is comparatively an open one: models kiss each other at fashion weeks and designers kiss everyone around the year. In Bollywood, actors continue to touch the feet of their elders when they receive a cinema award from them, and on birthdays, they dine with the whole family instead of opting for a romantic twosome.

A few weeks ago, Kareena blushed prettily on national television while announcing to the world that Shahid was her special someone. Some years ago, she wouldn?t have done so ? for an actor admitting to a relationship meant box-office disaster. A few years down the line, actors who follow Kareena will not just kiss ? but wouldn?t mind telling either.