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When Hollywood Meets Bollywood: Why Richard Gere is in Legal Trouble in India over a Kiss


Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2007

Three lawyers have filed complaints in Indian courts against Hollywood actor Richard Gere and popular Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty after Gere kissed Shetty several times at a public function last weekend to promote AIDS awareness in India. Gere and Shetty have been accused of committing "an obscene act" in a public place.

Meanwhile, two other lawyers filed another complaint in a town near New Delhi, against Shetty and private television stations for broadcasting videos of the kissing debacle. Courts have reportedly asked to see a copy of the kissing incident on videotape.

Such cases against celebrities, filed by outraged citizens or publicity seekers, are common in India. These nuisance lawsuits only add to a backlog of legal cases in a country where the judicial system is already overcrowded.

In this column, I will explain the basis for the lawsuits.

The Lawsuits: Public Kissing as an Obscene Act?

Kissing has long been banned in Indian films. Moreover, there is still an outdated law on the books in India which prohibits kissing in public, labeling it an obscenity.

This is not the first time that actors have become the target of lawsuits for kissing. In 2004 Kareena Kapoor, another Bollywood actress, sued a Bombay tabloid after it published pictures of her allegedly kissing her boyfriend in a restaurant. And in 2006, when Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai kissed her leading man, Hrithik Roshan, in the Bollywood feature film "Dhoom 2," a lawyer from the state of Madhya Pradesh filed a criminal lawsuit against the actors. The lawyer had been irked by the kissing scene and his suit accused the two of "lowering the dignity of women" and conveying an improper message to Indian youth.

Only a few days before, another public scandal erupted when a photograph was published of Vasundhara Raje, the female Chief Minister of Rajasthan, air-kissing a woman at a World Economic Forum meeting. The photograph was shot at an angle, which reportedly made it appear as if the two women were kissing on the lips. Several Indian media outlets showed the picture despite protests from commentators who called the photo obscene.

Non-celebrities, too, have faced criminal sanctions for their public kissing. In 2005, when an Israeli couple kissed during their marriage ceremony in Rajasthan, they were charged with violating India's obscenity law. The couple was asked to pay the equivalent of USD $11, or spend 10 days in jail. They chose the former.

While the legal actions may seem petty or minor, they reflect an ongoing tension in India between contemporary mores, and more traditional views that hold that public displays of affection are un-Indian and vulgar.

Film Censorship: No Kissing in Bollywood

In most of India, kissing in public is extremely rare. In movies, kissing has been rarer still. Mainstream Bollywood films started to include on-screen kisses only in the late 1990s. Such kisses were quick pecks on the lips.

Yet the Bollywood film industry must still tread a fine line between keeping up with the times and offending its core audience. And whatever they do in front of the camera, female stars remain fiercely protective of their off-screen reputations. Thus, while kissing is not strictly prohibited, it is still rarely found in Indian movies. This is quite surprising, especially given that thanks to Bollywood, India produces more films than any other country in the world.

Kissing censorship has a long history in India. The Indian Cinematographic Act of 1952. was the first major code regulating the film industry after Indian independence from British rule. The Act established a national film censorship board, originally known as the Central Board of Film Censors. In addition to a chairperson and nine officers, the Act also provided for the establishment of regional advisory committees to screen films in various regional centers throughout the country.

In February 1960, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting established more specific guidelines concerning the censorship and certification of motion pictures. These rules were promulgated as the Cinematographic Censorship rules. In 1978, the Ministry produced a revised set of guidelines. Instead of a formulaic list of rules, the new guidelines reflected a contextual approach to censorship. The new code instructed the Board of Censors to ensure that a film be "judged on its entirety" and be "examined in light of the contemporary standards in the country."

With regard to the depiction of sexuality, the code required the Board to guarantee that "human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity and depravity." In 1981, further amendments to the Cinematographic Act established a permanent Appeals Tribunal for censorship review, changed the name of the Board to the Central Board of Film Certification, and expanded its membership. But the 1978 guidelines remain in effect today.

Ironically, while images of rape are often included in movies in India, images of kissing were not permitted until the mid-1970s. To this day, many censors remain reluctant to allow kissing in mainstream Hindi movies.

The basis for such censorship is actually a peculiar cultural view of sexuality that differentiates between kissing in an Indian context, and kissing in films of other cultures. Prior to Indian independence in 1947, when the British government regulated film censorship, kissing was permissible on the screen.

Clever Ways Directors Have Tried to Circumvent the Kissing Ban

The kissing ban is as old as the Cinematographic Act itself: In 1952, after the Act was passed, the Central Board of Film Censors created the ban. The ban is viewed by some as an attempt by the newly independent Indian government to cleanse the country of corrupt Western influences. The notion that public kissing is typically an un-Indian phenomenon, and thus is particularly offensive in Indian films, is reinforced by the separate treatment of foreign films in India.

In various attempts to circumvent the restrictions of the censorship code, and especially the ban on kissing, film directors have developed a variety of techniques that unambiguously suggest the occurrence of a sexual or romantic act on screen. Some of the more common cinematic substitutes for the kiss include embraces of objects in place of the lover, suggestive song-and-dance routines, and kissing other parts of the body (which is permissible).

The strict rules of censorship also have led to what is perhaps the most common romantic image in Indian film--of a hero and heroine running behind a tree, or playing hide and seek--presumably consummating their kiss behind a barrier, hidden from the audience. Another popular strategy to further titillate moviegoers in mainstream Hindi films is the obligatory "wet sari scene." The famous actor and filmmaker Raj Kapoor sparked this trend during the 1970s with his depiction of a woman who had been drenched by a waterfall. Her wet sari hugged her body, suggestively revealing every curve.

While kissing is permitted in Indian films today, it is still is a rarity. Why? Because actors fear that such kissing will have large negative consequences -- as is the case of Shetty and Gere.

While the lawsuits may ultimately be thrown out of court, there can be little question that Gere's kiss will still have repercussions for Shetty for some time to come.

Anita Ramasastry is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, computer data security issues, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns.

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