What’s in a kiss? Apparently, a lot

Whether PDA (public display of affection) is a reaffirmation of love or a veneer for insecurity or simply a spectacle lovers put up to impress others and perhaps each other…clearly there are limits to which it can go

What’s in a kiss? Apparently, a lot

Organisers of the Kiss of Love campaign against moral policing being rounded up in Delhi recently


Nonika Singh 

Kiss and make up... yes, in another land, another culture. In India, kiss — a normal expression of love between two consenting partners — not only raises hackles, but also invariably creates a stir. And we are not just talking about the fracas that followed the kissfest titled Kiss of Love that threatened to become an epidemic across urban India, yet ended as sporadic slugfests.

Triggered by an incident in Kochi, a group called the ‘Free Thinkers’ organised the ‘Kiss of Love’ as a protest against increasing moral policing. The back story goes like this: Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha volunteers vandalised a cafe in Kozhikode claiming that “immoral activities” were going on in the cafe. By immoral, of course, they meant kissing, the footage of which was allegedly shown on a local TV channel. Surprisingly, while the judiciary did not intervene and did not stop the fest, the police did and rounded up 50 odd protestors when lovers took to streets and began kissing as a token of protest.

Criminalising affection

The ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign was a call given by group of “Free Thinkers” led by short film maker Rahul Pasupalan. On the one hand they wanted to impress upon how kiss is a symbol of love but the more important point they wanted to make was that no one has the right to criminalise love and affection. Point taken…. but not by all and certainly not by the custodians of Bharatiya sabhayata. Expectedly, the unusual, rather explicit way of protest against moral policing had both takers and baiters. Anyway, the kiss virus spread to the nation’s capital and to some other cities as well. And wherever it went, the law and order enforcing machinery acted as it has been habituated to reacting to young lovers in public spaces. 

Violent reaction

Lovebirds across India are not new to their arm-twisting tactics and the not-so-discreet ones often face the wrath of real police as well as the moral one with or without suitable provocation.  More recently, a video shows Shiv Sena worker Naresh Pakhle taking matters into his hand and bashing up kiss-struck couples at a shopping mall in Mumbai. While incidents such as these are not uncommon, a few years ago even a much-married man and woman were booked for kissing in public. Indeed, the Delhi High Court judge acted in a refreshingly progressive fashion and dismissed obscenity charges against them. Justice S. Muralidhar observed, “It is inconceivable how, even if one were to take what is stated in the FIR to be true, the expression of love by a young married couple, in the manner indicated in the FIR, would attract the offence of obscenity and trigger the coercive process of the law.”

Overstepping the boundary

Yet, men like Pakhle — and they are not few in numbers — think otherwise. Labelling such acts as ashleel, he remains unrepentant and morally indignant about the manner in which he intimidated hapless lovers. While he certainly overstepped the line, for a large majority of Indians kiss may not be an obscene act but if indulged in full public glare it most certainly qualifies as outrageous behaviour. Like most things a little out of the ordinary, PDA evokes strong, often bizarre, reactions. Arguments for and against vary from aping the West to “if men can relieve themselves on the streets, what’s wrong with a little display of  pyaar shyaar?” Those for the PDA also argue that if we can abuse openly, why take the high ground for a little loving feeling. 

Bogey of threat to culture

Yet, delve deep and our stock responses on either side boil down to the same rhetoric and, like always, are on the predictable lines. While the right-wingers raise the bogey of threat to Indian culture and tradition each time, such an issue erupts in the public domain, the liberal club on the other side bring in the beaten-to-death plea and harp on “we-are-the-land-of Kamasutra” logic. To this, Dr Alka Pande, eminent author and curator, rebuts, “Modern India is not as enlightened as India of yore. So, to bring in the Kamasutra argument, which most people don’t even know is a compendium and not a book with a whole chapter on courtesans who in today’s parlance are known as prostitutes is rather fallacious.” Modern India, she adds, is rather private about the expression of emotions and then there is this whole thing about patriarchy too. Is PDA about women’s rights? Yes and no. Yes, for if accosted by moral police its women who are more vulnerable and susceptible to harassment. But otherwise, insists Dr Pande, it concerns humanity and is a reflection of how far it has developed. 

Not a land of prudes

No doubt, India was never nor would ever be a land of prudes. A country that has traditionally eulogised shingaar ras in all its sublime art forms knows too well the beauty of love and erotica. Yet family-oriented Indians in contemporary world have never been comfortable with open displays of affection either. Unlike the West, where a sacred relationship is sealed with a kiss, kissing is not something Indians have grown up seeing. Some argue within the close doors too few Indian couples actually kiss. Any wonder it has taken decades for lips to actually meet on the silver screen. 

Of course, the first kiss in cinema was seen as far back as in 1929 in the film A Throw of Dice. Four years later in Karma, actress Devika Rani locked lips with actor Himanshu Rai, who incidentally was her husband in real life. Post 1950s, however, the kiss all but vanished from cinema. Though there were no hard-and-fast rules against it but makers fearing cuts preferred giving the kiss a miss. It was only in the 1990s that the kiss resurfaced rather diffidently. The Censor Board till today has not given it a complete green signal.  Only a few months ago it even decided to bring kissing scenes in Hollywood at par with Indian cinema meaning Hollywood films too would be certified accordingly. And it’s not only Censor authorities who are fidgety. Superstar Salman Khan has gone on record to call it a private moment that doesn’t look good on screen. And when lips actually come together in movies, the discomfort level of the viewers too invariably manifests in hooting and catcalls, the standard knee-jerk response to kissing scenes. Expectedly, in real life it can’t be taken lying down. And it rarely is.

Even a peck offends

What to talk of a proper kiss even a peck on the cheek is seen as an affront to sensibilities. Remember the hullabaloo that followed when Richard Gere planted an innocent kiss on Shilpa Shetty’s cheek. Of course, those offended were once again the Hindu nationalists of the BJP who were as usual outraged by what was by all means a simple sweet gesture. In a classic case of overreach, a judge in Jaipur issued an arrest warrant for the two stars for violating obscenity laws. 

While over the years innocuous gestures such as holding hands have become passé, few of us are ok with overt expressions of love. While many fret and fume a few find the dare to vent out their annoyance. Interestingly, the operative word legally too is annoyance.

The legal position is rather ambiguous and governed under obscenity laws. The Sections 292-294 of the IPC primarily prohibit and punish the sale of obscene books and other published material. Section 292, which was amended in 1969, stipulates that “a book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure or any other object shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect, ….is…to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely… to read, see or bear the matter contained or embodied in it. But the ticklish part of the law is “whoever, to the annoyance of other… does any obscene act in any public place” shall be punished with imprisonment extending up to three years or with a fine or both.

What about the West?

While laws in India leave the PDA wide open to interpretation even in western societies where a kiss does not even raise so much as an eyebrow there are limits to which one can go. In the Indian context those championing the PDA rights need to look into whether it really is a freedom to be protected at all costs and in all forms? And what exactly are the benefits of this open display of affection? According to the 2010 findings of the University of Virginia National Marriage Project, people who define marriage mostly as romance are more likely to put their own needs over the needs of the partnership and 1-1/2 times more like to divorce. On the other extreme many experts feel that PDA is a reaffirmation of “all is well” and not indicative of a rupture within the relationship as some believe. Researchers in the West opine that it can produce health benefits similar to those arising from intimacy behind closed doors. But even they agree that cultural context and who is looking does matter.

Nods Reicha Tanwar director, Women's Studies, Research Centre Kurukshetra University “There is a time and place for everything; while it’s perfectly natural for lovers to show some affection say in a club or at a beach or party but putting up the act for an audience and just for the heck of it is a big no no.” In fact, she dismisses the kissfest too as much ado about nothing that ultimately didn’t prove a thing.

Indeed, in the Indian milieu those who go breathless in their defence of PDA must realise that they can’t compare oranges with apples. The logic in their arguments that we look the other way to horrendous incidents of domestic violence and heinous crimes as rape yet cry foul when PDA happens is inherently flawed. No one is suggesting that crimes against women often do not go unchecked. But is that reason enough to allow necking and petting in an overcrowded country as ours where as it is people are breathing down each other’s necks. If the self-styled vigilantes like the Shiv Sena saniks or Ram Sene activists have no business to tell others to behave, if love is a private and personal affair shouldn’t its expression be for personal consumption too? Clearly, if fringe elements do not have the prerogative to lock out love from our lives, can we claim the privilege of unlocking all our desires for public viewing? 

The answer even at the risk of sounding regressive is a “no”. And yes the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour exists and is in most cases not fuzzy. Both lovers and the so-called custodians of Indian values need to see it in the right perspective. The keyword in PDA is affection, as long as it remains just that and does not turn into a demonstration of anything else, no remonstration will or rather should follow. 

Restrictions even abroad

The western world might be comfortable with overt expressions of love in public spaces, it’s not a free-for-all and there are boundaries which can’t be transgressed. Italy banned making out in public with fines of 500 Euros to protect public decency and decorum. PDA for those under 16 is banned in South Africa. Austria implemented a fine of 50 Euros for PDA on public transit, though small kisses are overlooked. Surprisingly, a railway station in north England too put up “no-kissing zone” signs. Of course, their reasons were different and did not stem out of prudery. Since departing passengers were holding up traffic with their long and passionate kisses at a crowded drop-off point, the authorities deemed it fit to put up these signs which later read “kiss me quick.” The rationale was to protect the civil liberties of others who were being inconvenienced by the passionate kissers. 

Schools across the US do not look too kindly at students hugging or even holding hands. The student handbook of an Illinois school declares: “Displays of affection should not occur on the school campus at any time. It is in poor taste, reflects poor judgment, and brings discredit to the school and to the persons involved.” Islamic nations have stiff penalties and in Dubai there have been instances where even foreigners have been sent packing home for violating the rules.

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