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The Kiss That Nobody Could Miss

What a year it’s been for Shilpa Shetty. The Bollywood actress has gained immense exposure around the world, grabbing headlines in major newspapers and getting every TV host in America, even the national ones, to mangle her name.

Shetty first drew worldwide attention when she appeared on the British reality show “Celebrity Big Brother” and endured offensive comments from other contestants, triggering protests in India and the requisite effigy-burning. (More effigies are burned in India than in any other country in the world, according to Raj Sharma, spokesman for the Indian Effigy Manufacturers Association. George W. Bush has been burned in effigy numerous times, but isn’t quite in the Top Ten. The only way for him to move up would be to join the Indian cricket team.)

Shetty’s activities have been a boon to the effigy industry. Three months after winning “Celebrity Big Brother,” she was embroiled in another controversy, having made the mistake of standing too close to Hollywood star Richard Gere.

The pair were at a televised AIDS awareness event in New Delhi, appearing on stage in front of thousands of people, when Gere kissed Shetty on the hand, embraced her, bent her backwards and kissed her several times on the cheek. To some onlookers, it looked like a demonstration. Gere was showing everyone that you can’t get AIDS, of course, by kissing a Bollywood actress. (You can’t get AIDS by kissing anyone else either, but you can get slapped. Trust me, I know.)

Many men in the audience were naturally upset. It was rude of Gere, even disgraceful, not to invite them to participate. “Demonstration is all well and good,” one man said. “But we wanted to see for ourselves that it’s safe to kiss Shilpa. We were ready to form a neat line.”

Some political activists and others in India were outraged by Gere’s act. They called it “obscene” and “vulgar,” causing millions of youngsters to go online to view it. “We were very disappointed,” a teen-aged boy said. “She kept her sari on the whole time.”

Many others felt that Shetty acted improperly. “She didn’t resist at all,” said a middle-aged Mumbai woman. “She could have pushed him away. She could have pepper-sprayed him or something.”

Several young women from Chennai insisted they would have acted differently. “I’m a Christian,” one of them said. “If Richard Gere kissed me passionately on the cheek, I’d show him the other cheek.”

Most of the anger on the streets was directed at Gere. Protesters, egged on by political activists, didn’t just burn effigies of Gere, they beat them with sticks. That sparked a dozen more protests, most of them organized by PETE (People for the Ethical Treatment of Effigies).

Shetty said people were overreacting and that Gere was just being sweet, prompting an Indian tabloid to print a tongue-twister of a headline: “Shapely Shilpa Shetty shockingly shows no shame!”

Then a lawyer filed a complaint accusing Gere of an “indecent act” and a judge in Rajasthan issued an arrest warrant for Gere. He faced a potential penalty of three months in prison, a fine or both. He’d better watch out or he could find himself sharing a cell with a burly man named Munna.

Gere: “Hello, what are you in here for?”

Munna: “Armed robbery. I robbed a bank and shot three people. What about you?”

Gere: “Kissing.”

Munna: “Oh my God! You kissed someone?”

Gere: “Yes, but it was just an innocent …”

Munna: “Guards! Get me out of here! I don’t want to be with this man.”

Gere: “Come on, relax. I’m harmless.”

Munna: “Stand back, man! Don’t come near me with those lips!”

Gere has apologized for the kiss, saying he was just mimicking a scene from his 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” and evidently misread Indian customs. He plans to continue visiting India, but from now on will wear a hockey mask in public to keep himself from kissing anyone.

His experience might give people the impression that public kissing does not occur in India, that no one ever does it. But that’s not true at all. A few cases of public kissing have been recorded.

In 2001, for example, a Delhi man and his wife won a new Maruti car in a contest. The man was pictured in the Times of India planting a loving kiss on the front bumper. The next day, members of the right-wing group Shiv Sena burned effigies of the man. Some accused the man of “auto-erotic behavior.”

In 2004, a Madurai man was spotted kissing a donkey. The donkey belonged to the man’s boss, a flour merchant. The man was arrested and taken to court. “It’s my wife’s fault,” he told the judge. “She told me that if I want the boss to give me a promotion, I need to kiss his ass.”

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