When an Indian and Pakistani Kiss

Pakistani actress Meera (right)

Pakistani actress Meera (right) visits the Sufi Shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi, March 23, 2005. (Photo: Tekee Tanwar / AFP-Getty Images)

How does one handle (diplomatically, that is) an Indian kissing a Pakistani or vice versa? This is a reminder that much has changed between the two countries in the past year and a half with the peace process very much on course and the two countries on the path of kiss and make up, including playing cricket and easy travel norms. Just a few years back an Indian kissing a Pakistani had created a diplomatic furor; this time round it has been dealt with the way it should, an insignificant issue that does not in any way reflect an assault on a nation’s pride or dignity.

Consider how the earlier kiss was treated, when India-Pakistan relations were at a low and the Kargil incursion of 1999 had been plotted in Pakistan. A furor resulted when popular author Khushwant Singh (then in his late eighties, but known for his liking for the company of women and whiskey) planted a peck on the daughter of former Pakistani high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, at a do addressed here as a “Page 3” party, the number referring to the placement of such news in newspaper supplements. The tenuous India-Pakistan relations took a further tumble. Qazi scurried off to Islamabad to kiss the feet of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who threatened to fire him. There were protest marches that called for Qazi’s head to undo the damage. Qazi apologized saying to the effect that the whole of Pakistan needn’t be outraged, as all that had happened was a fleeting peck on his daughter’s cheek by an avuncular author who meant well. Qazi somehow escaped censure. Well, that was then.

This time it is different. In February, reports emerged that the Pakistani government had imposed a heavy fine on actress Meera after she kissed an Indian actor in top Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt’s new film Nazar. “Meera,’’ a popular actress from Lahore, complained that she received threatening phone calls from people claiming to represent religious groups in Pakistan. “Meera’s actions were against Islamic ethics and moral values,’’ reports quoted a spokesman of the ministry of information as saying. According to the reports, the government was also considering a ban on Pakistani actors from acting in Indian films following the “vulgar’’ scenes featuring Meera. Pakistani actors who go abroad are ambassadors of the country and are not allowed to spread vulgarity the spokesman was quoted as saying.

Well Pakistan has denied that such an action has been contemplated. Pakistan officially dismissed as malicious propaganda reports that it had imposed a fine on actress Meera for the said kissing scene. The government also denied any plans to ban actors from appearing in Indian films.

“No way. There is no action. This is all propaganda tactics,’’ Pakistan information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said. “Nazar’’ was not about Pakistan and no orders have been issued, he said. Meera herself strongly denied that her role in the film was vulgar. “I have not acted in a way that brought bad name to Pakistan,’’ she said from a shooting location in India. She said people were trying to arrive at a conclusion without seeing the movie and she was being wrongly targeted in the name of violating a moral code. Mahesh Bhatt said that the earlier reports about the Pakistan government contemplating action against Meera seemed to have been planted by mischievous elements with no backing of the authorities. Importantly, unlike in the Khushwant instance, the Pakistan establishment has not made an issue of it. They could have, just a couple of years back.

There are cultural Cassandra’s in both the countries, like the ones who seemed to have planted the stories about Meera. In India there exist the right wing radicals who are the self-appointed prudes of the country, preventing young people from celebrating Valentine’s Day, for example, or even holding hands in public. Pakistan remains a conservative society, an indication being Pakistani female athletes who are required to be covered from head to toe in times when aerodynamics of clothing is as much a subject of study to win races.

Meera’s kiss in “Nazar’’ is keeping up with competition, so to say and should be seen in such a context and not India versus Pakistan. Bollywood movies are undergoing a drastic churn in content to keep up with changing times, audiences and competition from Hollywood movies. One big difference, compared to the recent past, has been the kiss, which has come to the fore like never before, with one latest release, “Black” by top director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, featuring a Rani Mukherjee-Amitabh Bachchan kiss, the two actors separated in age by more than three decades.

For the record, the first kiss salvo was fired by actress Mallika Sherwat a couple of years back when she set scorching standards in her debut movie “Khwaish,” which broke any Indian record of maximum 19 kisses, and the second “Murder,” which was an equal encore. The commercial success of “Khwaish” and “Murder” and by extension Mallika sent the rest of Bollywood actresses in a tizzy, with several now shaking off their traditional Indian mores to break free, with directors, producers and even the censor board more agreeable. There are Mallika wannabes such as Neha Dhupia whose movies “Julie” and the latest “Sheesha” have tried to re-define Bollywood bare-dare. Not to be undone, top actress Kareena Kapoor added the needed spice to the powerful Govind Nihalani film “Dev” on the Gujarat riots of 1992 and her later release “Fida.” Even Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai, known to keep co-stars at a safe distance in her movies said recently that she would not mind doing the same if the script demanded.

In keeping with the theme of peace with Pakistan, hit movies such as “Gadar” that portrayed Pakistan as India’s number one enemy a few years back have been replaced by films such as “Veer Zaara” predicated on promoting peace. It must be remembered that India still exists at two levels — the urban pockets of affluence where the traditional stereotype of the Indian woman who raises kids and looks after her husband at the cost of professional achievement is being continually shaken; and the other India where one hears of a Hindu boy being burned for loving a Muslim girl or the dreaded “culture police’’ composed of the fringe elements of Hindu fundamentalists. The same can now be safely said of Pakistan — there is a section of people who want peace with India and think nothing of a Pakistani kissing an Indian or vice versa. But, there is still the other sinister element who may be down, but can never be counted out.