For some Indians, Richard Gere’s awkward embrace with Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was not just offensive, it was
criminal. NYU professor
Tejaswini Ganti says the incident plays into the mixed messages about Indian women perpetuated by Bollywood.
BOB GARFIELD: The kiss that caused a collective cringe, demonstrations and arrest warrants. We're talking, of course, about the awkward embrace that Richard Gere inflicted on Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty a few weeks ago during an HIV/AIDS awareness event in India. [CLIP] [CROWD SOUNDS/CHEERS/APPLAUSE] MAN: Shilpa was thanking Gere for his efforts when he first kissed her hand. Then he bent her sideways for a barrage on her face and neck. [CROWD SOUNDS/CHEERS/LAUGHTER] MAN: Gere then executed an elaborate bow before her. [CROWD SOUNDS/CHEERS/LAUGHTER] MAN: But the audience is applauding no longer. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: It seems strange that the incident would cause such an uproar, given that the actress involved is often scantily clad and dances provocatively in movies viewed by millions of people. In the weeks since that kiss, effigies of Gere and Shetty have been burned in the streets around India, and most recently warrants were issued for the arrest of the two actors.
Tejaswini Ganti is a professor of anthropology at New York University and author of Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, and she joins us now. Teja, welcome to On the Media. TEJASWINI GANTI: Thank you. Great to be here. BOB GARFIELD: This incident has so many swirling ironies and apparent hypocrisies attached to it. I'm just curious how the whole Bollywood aesthetic plays in this environment. TEJASWINI GANTI: What happens, I think, is that the visual aspects of Bollywood films, and especially the women, the heroines, as they're known in local parlance, ooze a lot of sex appeal. The types of clothing that they wear is all indexing their glamour, status. Many of them are former models and beauty queens. And so definitely the look of contemporary Bollywood films can appear very erotic, can appear very risqué.
But the inherent values of the film are still quite in keeping with a lot of conservative values about the family, about chastity, and, of course, women's virginity is extremely important. BOB GARFIELD: Now, Shilpa Shetty has one image on screen, but the person for whom there is an arrest warrant issued is a live human being - TEJASWINI GANTI: Yeah. BOB GARFIELD: - an actress. You know, historically, maybe not in the 20th century but certainly the 19th, actresses have often been viewed as, you know, just one step above prostitutes. In India today, how is someone like Shetty regarded off-screen? TEJASWINI GANTI: Shilpa and other contemporary actresses, they wouldn't be seen as women of bad character. But, having said that, the fact that they are on display publicly when they're in the films, and in terms of the billboards, and you know, you see these images, these women, circulating in magazines and on television, they have a kind of publicness to them that other women in India don't.
And so even though, I mean, they are not being called prostitutes, but there is this kind of shadow of that slight disrepute that is associated with how public an actress has to be. BOB GARFIELD: Bollywood is very influential in India. Just tell me, how much influence does it have on the culture? TEJASWINI GANTI: It is tremendously significant, because it is the dominant form of popular culture. It sets the tone for fashions. It sets the tone for hairstyles. People frequently model weddings after the kinds of weddings that they've seen in films. It is the main form of popular music, because all of the films have songs.
The stars are iconic. They are the main spokespeople for all of the various consumer products that have really exploded in India. So it is a very, very dominant form of popular culture, and its impact on daily life is tremendous. BOB GARFIELD: So in terms of women's place in Indian society and their freedom, do you think Bollywood films are part of the problem? Do you think that they could be part of a solution? TEJASWINI GANTI: I think actually the films work both ways. Well, you know, the dominant moral values about chastity and controlled sexuality, that is problematic in terms of limiting women's choices and perspectives. But at the same time, there's the flip side of these films, which is that all of the women involved in the production of the films are some of the most independent and autonomous and liberated women in India, and they serve as some type of role model for young women in terms of seeing women as career women in one respect. BOB GARFIELD: So getting back to the kiss and the media circus that, you know, has developed around it, in the end, is this potentially going to do some good to just calling attention to the various dichotomies that you've been discussing? TEJASWINI GANTI: I think it can do a few things. One has, of course, been a lot of coverage in the Indian press about how absurd all of these protests have been and that the real message of that event, which was to try to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS in India, which is a huge problem, that that has been sidelined. But that discussion about how often can we allow certain moral policing to get out of hand, I think that's an important discussion.
I think there's also been a discussion about the media, where it's just you're continuously seeing the same thing over and over again and that everything seems to – every little molehill is made into a mountain. I think that's an important discussion to be had because of the kind of explosion of media.
But also, in the end, to me, it's just yet another instance of some set of people somewhere who get upset about something, and it's been happening for many years. It's just that now they have an international platform to express their grievances because of the explosion of the media. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Teja. Thank you very much. TEJASWINI GANTI: You're very welcome. Thank you again for having me on. BOB GARFIELD: Tejaswini Ganti is a professor of anthropology at New York University.