Smooch: Kissing Scenes in Indian Cinema

The kiss is a risqué subject in the cinematic cultures of India. While nudity, sex and sexual violence might pass as acceptable, it is the kiss, or the ‘smooch’ in Indian English, that is most likely to trigger government agencies to censor films. Particularly Bollywood filmmakers are fully aware of the scandalous implications of kissing scenes and openly compete for pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in visual culture. They produce films that have the longest kissing scene, the most kissing scenes, the first French kissing scene, the first open mouthed kissing scene, the first girl-on-girl kissing scene, and, most recently, the first male gay kissing scene.

First gay kissing scene in Dunno Y, 2010

All the while, producers appear to utilize the ‘scandal’ associated with the kissing scene in order to promote a film well in advance of its release. In other words, the disclosure of the kiss is a key element in the promotional structures of Indian cinema. Here, censorship is not as much prohibiting certain scenes to be screened, but rather, the existence of an ambiguous and idiosyncratic censorship law is the platform that aides the promotion of a movie.

While Bollywood has discovered that kissing scenes are a key constituent in the economic success of a Hindi language movie, other Indian film cultures based in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi or Marathi appear to have a more innocent relationship with the kiss. Above scene from the Tamil language film Naadodigal is an example in which censorship guidelines appear to have been carefully obeyed. Despite not actually depicting the kiss in itself, this short scene from Naadodigal represents precisely the complex power relations that are at stake in the cinematic portrayal of the kiss. The innocent and slightly clueless man is lured by the female subject to give her a peck on the cheek. Here, it is clearly the woman who provokes the man into action which reflects an important gender relation in India: in court cases against films transgressing the kissing censorship guidelines, it is most likely the lead female actress that is being sued. In 2006, the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai was sued for ‘lowering the dignity or women’ by kissing Rai Hrithik in the film Dhoom 2.

Aishwarya Rai kisses Rai Hrithik in Dhoom 2, 2006.

The guilty party is, in most cases, not the male actor kissing, or the filmmaker depicting the kiss, but the actress herself for partaking in an activity deemed obscene. At the very end of the scene in Naadodigal, the man is prevented from kissing the woman by his ‘uncle’ who, in relation to Indian culture, represents the patriarchal and goodnatured state that seeks to protect its citizens from trouble. While the ‘nephew’ represents the everyday citizen, the ‘uncle’ represents the state, and by extension, state institutions such as the Ministry of Information and Broadcastings in charge of censorship.

It would be incorrect however to assume some sort of special case in Indian visual culture for the complicated relationship between cinema and representations of the kiss. Giuseppe Tornatore’s classic film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso for instance depicts the widespread censorship of kissing scenes in Italy during the 1940s. The film tells the story of the projectionist Alfredo who is required to cut kissing scenes from American and Italian movies following the insistence of the local Catholic priest in a small town in Sicily. Having collected these censored kissing scenes for a number of decades, the film ends with a touching scene in which Toto, Alfredo’s quasi-adopted son, watches Alfredo’s vast collection of kissing scenes. The kissing scene collection acts as a powerful allegory for Alfredo’s, Toto’s and the viewer’s shared loved for the moving image. In that sense, apart from sexual innuendo, the kiss is moreover a metaphor for the viewer’s passionate relationship with the cinematic apparatus. The various records broken by Indian filmmakers of the new millennium (longest kiss, most kisses etc.) thus represent stages in the maturing relationship between Indian cinema and its increasingly desensitized spectatorship. Despite representing the world’s largest film economy, the kissing scene still constitutes the metaphorical coming-of-age of Indian cinema.

For more on this topic, please read Theorizing World Cinema edited by Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam and Rajinder Dudrah.

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