Mr. Gere Goes to India

Don’t think that I’m going all People magazine on you if I write about Richard Gere and the uproar he has caused in India. It deserves some comment, maybe even mine.

I’m on shaky ground here, because I haven’t been paying much attention to the North American media coverage of The Kiss and The Dip and their aftermath. That this story has penetrated my fortress of celebrity solitude tells me that it’s getting huge play. And why not? India is an enormous country. We know why the story is big there: an alleged disrespect for the moral conventions of Indian public life, and for the lovely young actress in question. (Her name is Shilpa Shetty, and she apparently became a big British reality TV sensation due to a race-based controversy she was involved in. She is certainly getting attention far beyond her Bollywood stardom.) In matters of sexual morality, India operates under a rather different code than does public life in North America and Europe. But why is this such a big deal here?

That it’s Richard Gere doesn’t hurt, but as far as celebrity amperage goes, there are many brighter bulbs. (Maybe Mr. and Ms. Pitt have slowed down their adoption rate.) After all, Pretty Woman was a long time ago, centuries ago in the pop culture universe. So let me wander out on a limb: the foundation of this story is cultural mockery. This story has legs, other than Ms. Shetty’s demurely covered ones, because it’s a chance for “sophisticated”, culturally “advanced” Western peoples to laugh at the ridiculous prudery of a “backward” nation and its sexually repressed peoples.

Except that population figures would suggest, and the romanticism of the gigantic Bollywood film industry confirms, that the people of India have a very healthy interest in sex and coupling. However, perhaps they are more inclined to view sexuality in the context of family — in other words, a more private context. It is one of the myriad ironies of life in the West that we are culturally obsessed by privacy – the ideal of the private home surrounded by green and gates, the one man/one car transportation preference, and the general suspicion of anyone outside our tight little circles – and yet we are ever more inclined to go public with the most personal and intimate of human actions. (We’ll leave prayer out of this discussion.) Is sex over-emphasized in our society? This is a long debate that I could argue either side of, but I’m inclined to say rather that we undervalue it, that we cheapen it by making it casual and common.

On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that the Indian judge who has called for charges to be laid has leaped from the opposite extreme. I doubt judges there are elected, as they can be in the States, but he seems to be courting public favour of a certain kind. (Pun intended.) I’m not sure the average pious Hindu would regard the kiss on the cheek as “highly sexually erotic”, as the judge termed it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was regarded as vulgar. Crass. Undignified. Richard Gere is doing, if my read is correct, some really fine and self-sacrificing work in helping India (and the world) to address the growing threat of AIDS in the sub-continent. We must avoid another pandemic on the scale of the African one. It’s pitiful, though, that this media tempest makes only the barest mention of the HIV/AIDS issue while it smirks over cultural differences. We don’t have so much to feel superior about.

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