Waiting for the Bollywood Screen Kiss

In a mainstream movie made within the Bombay film industry—affectionately known as Bollywood—you’re likely to find a few things: A dashing hero who loves his mom. A lovestruck heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve. A third party—his rich, powerful dad, her well-coiffed mom, the babe who wants his body, the brute who wants hers—who opposes their union. Into this over-the-top, candy-colored, and unapologetically heartfelt formula, add upbeat songs and a happy ending.

It’s quite possible there will also be shots of the sweet girl wearing seven different skimpy outfits while singing in the Alps (even though the film takes place in Calcutta). Her beloved grinding up against her. Eroticism so thick you could scoop it up like curry and dump it on rice. Loads of plot twists leading up to a throbbing emotional crescendo with the lovers entwined, hearts aflame, lust bursting from every pore as they gaze hungrily into each other’s eye. And then… they don’t kiss. Instead, they hug. Or peck on the cheek. Or cut to a passionate embrace—between two cute little birdies. Even in the recent Miramax-produced, Jane Austen-inspired faux Bollywood “Bride and Prejudice,” Bombay star Aishwarya Rai and her Prince Charming only hug, cheek grazing cheek, on their wedding day.

While in India recently, where I was hanging out on the set of an American indie shooting in the Rajasthan desert, I decided to investigate this odd masala of purity and passion that defines the movies of Bollywood.

“My American friends always laugh,” said Anjali Bhargava, the set still photographer, who lives in New York. “You see the characters rubbing up against each other, and the girl’s in a very tightly-wrapped sari doused in water so the whole thing is molded to her body.”

“They do these moves that completely blow your mind,” added Ninad Nayampalli, the key grip, who wandered over to contribute to our conversation. “It can be worse than watching a porno.”

“But there’s no kissing,” Bhargava said. “You build up to a moment where of course they should kiss, and instead a train shoots through a tunnel. They allude to it in a way that won’t shock people.”

To American audiences, a kiss is not shocking. In India, however, a country in which cinema is steeped in tradition and displaying affection in public is a no-no, a kiss is an intimate act that has no place on screen, especially because movie-going is a family activity. Mainstream Indian movies do not portray real life; rather, the millions who watch them expect to be transported to a perfect world, where good triumphs over evil and the girl gets the guy. Romance is required, but the last thing audiences want is to see the stars they adore rolling around in bed, grunting or swapping spit.

Even so, the past few years have seen a subtle shift toward a racier kind of film. Bhargava saw a B-movie called “Gism,” which she described as “sketchy,” that contained cringe-inducing kissing sequences in which actors unaccustomed to spit-swapping professionally look completely uncomfortable. “I see R-rated movies in New York, but somehow when they kiss in Indian films, it creeps me out,” she said. Nayampalli said on-screen homosexuality has even begun to crop up, citing a lesbian film called “Girlfriend.” “Ten years ago, people would have died,” he said.

Manoj Bajpai, a popular actor who has appeared in over 20 Bollywood films, thinks this evolution is inevitable in an age when Indians have access to the sexual antics of the West via TV and the Internet. “The younger generation have MTV, music videos. They know everything about American stars and fashions,” he said. “There is no censorship in their life. If they want to see a porno film, they go on the Internet. Suddenly this generation is making a hell of a difference.”

The result has been a trickle of films featuring smooching—and even a limited amount of sex. For the moment, however, they remain second-rate, with most major stars still refusing to pucker up for the camera. “Right now, it’s very sensational,” said Bajpai. “They say, ‘There are two kissing sequences. Please come and see our film.’ That has become one of the marketing strategies.”

Bajpai admitted that he had kissed in two movies and said a few well-known, younger actors take a “what’s the big deal?” stance toward the practice. “There are people coming of age in this country who are educated, who have a care-a-damn attitude, who are making a difference in terms of opening a conservative society’s minds,” he said.  He’s convinced that when the first of these smooch flicks scores at the box office, a flood of others will inevitably follow.

In a way, it will be a sad day in Bollywood. There is something refreshing about the devotion to tradition that still drives the industry. The innocence of old-fashioned Bombay films have a fresh-scrubbed, joyful quality reminiscent of the beach-blanket musicals populated by baby-faced American stars like Elvis Presley and Annette Funicello, films that displayed an unabashed sweetness that was long ago pushed aside to make way for “edgy” and “real.”

What’s wrong with a brand of cinema that makes audiences dream of a rosier life and leave the theaters humming a corny tune? “Aishwarya Rai is a huge star,” Bhargava said of the former Miss World’s performance in the recent remake of the Bollywood classic, “Devdas.” “In the beginning, there’s a dance scene and you don’t see her face for a long time. It builds up and there’s a crescendo in the music and finally she turns and you see her face. The men get such a kick out of that. It’s titillating in a different way, in a more romantic way. There’s an appreciation for the first glimpse of a person’s face—or a simple caress.”