Bollywood is known for its dramatic musical singalongs but no kissing scenes, at least for the most part.
Salman Khan, the Tom Cruise of Bollywood with a net worth of $300 million, had Bollywood’s attention when he revealed why he preferred keeping it PG-13 on screen while promoting his latest release “Antim,” or “The Final Truth” in English.
The Bollywood vet said in a video last month: “if you see the characters I have played there has never been bad language or exposing or lovemaking scenes or kissing scenes. I don’t do any of that stuff. That is the way I think cinema should be. But today there is a different trend. ... I can’t even watch that content,” he said. “My mother my father, my seniors, my family, children they see these films of mine. So I like to keep them very clean,” according to Bollywood Hungama.
But to Khan’s dismay, the rise of streaming service like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and others are changing the rules of censorship.
Indian cinema has evolved over the last century in the way it draws its audience. With all the different cultures, languages and religions, kissing on screen has remained a subject of controversy and debate, in one form or another.
Art and culture always go hand in hand, and the clues to understand the censorship laws that govern this $2.5 billion industry lie in the culture it originates from.
Most people often think of Bollywood as an imitative version of Hollywood. Though the term “Bollywood” started circulating in the 1970s, it became its own industry in the earlier part of the century.
“The first Hollywood film was made in 1910. The first Bollywood film was made in 1913. So, cinema came to India around the same time as it came to the rest of the Western world,” said Swapnil Rai, assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television and Media at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Though Bollywood movies are often called musicals, they aren’t musicals in the Hollywood way. The roots of song and dance as a part of storytelling originate from Sanskrit dramaturgy in the mythology genre, explained Rai.
Hollywood is known for its three-act structure, she says, but Bollywood movies have an intermission, right before a minor climax, adding that some scholars even call it “the cinema of interruptions.” The two-part structure can be observed in all the movies from the ’90s like “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and “Dil Toh Pagal Hai.”
A censored Bollywood
Censorship has also been another source of interruption in Bollywood. Rules were different when India was governed by British laws, which weren’t stringent.
Kissing on screen still did stir controversy. “Zarina,” directed by Ezra Mir in 1932, featured 86 kisses and was later removed from the circuits, according to Times of India, a national daily. The 1993 film “Karma,” starring Devika Rani, who was supposed to have the longest kiss on screen, also stirred controversy in India and was largely ignored, like “Zarina.”
But post-independence, in 1947, “the censorship became different and more draconian,” said Rai.
“Nehru and Gandhi didn’t think of films as a very positive influence on society. For that reason, Bollywood was largely ignored as an industry,” said Rai.
There was no legal prohibition but kissing rarely made an appearance on the big screen. Creative ways, instead, suggested the intimate moments, such as two flowers touching, the camera simply moved away as the couple moved closer or a song and dance sequence would play.
“So, the birds and the bees sort of symbolically and metaphorically represented these two characters and intimacy between them,” and the rest was up to the audience to make that connection, explained Rai.
But Sangita Gopal, associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, does not think this should be viewed as a cultural prohibition around displays of intimacy but, instead, it is the means by which “the well designed, intensely lyrical, romantic song sequence” exists in Bollywood.
“Even if the song sequences don’t show kisses, there’s a traditional cutaway where when they would have kissed, a flower, or two birds or, butterflies are shown ... and the intensity of romance is projected through the song sequence.”
Landscapes like open fields with big blue skies, or clothes that are flying away because of the wind, or paired with a love song did the trick. Dialogue and music lyrics created the perfect declaration of love.
“Especially in case of the kind of song sequence that we call romantic duets. We don’t see them that much anymore now,” she added.
These songs became a much bigger part of the culture — “In my generation, you had courtship rituals through making mixtapes of these famous romantic duets, right? My parents got married in the ’60s and they would always say, ‘Oh, we quoted each other through using Hindi film songs.’ Or they expressed emotional states through songs,” said Gopal. “That’s how people use popular music anyway, right?”
During this time, India didn’t have a popular music industry and these film songs played a huge role in filling that gap, giving people a “romantic vocabulary,” said Gopal. And this music fit right into India’s conservative culture.
The next time that kissing appeared was in the film “Love Sublime,” or “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” in Hindi, in 1978, according to The New York Times archive. It marked the beginning of a realistic and logical portrayal of love, but the country was outraged.
Chief Minister of the Southern State Tamil Nadu declared it an insult, threatening a mass protest if the movie was screened. “This Government will launch a campaign to cut kissing from films,” he said, per the report.
The film “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak,” a 1988 adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” also had a passionate kiss. “It also had a number of songs,” said Gopal, pointing to the fact that the rules of old Bollywood still dominated the industry.
Culture and censorship
Bollywood reflects Indian culture’s need to approach intimacy in private, rather than public. And as a form of adaptation, the cinema evolved to showcase love and romance this way, per Times of India.
Many Bollywood celebrities, like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn and Sunny Deol, still stay away from kissing scenes.
When Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s heartthrob, kissed a co-star for the first time on screen in “Jab Tak Hai Jaan,” in 2012, it made a real impact in the industry.
“That kiss was an incredibly important moment,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, per The New York Times. “Shah Rukh Khan defines what is mainstream. If he does it, it becomes acceptable.”
Younger actors aren’t as shy and accept it as a part of their job. Alia Bhatt, known as India’s sweetheart, calls it a simple and romantic gesture that feels mechanical to an actor.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime previously got away without being censored but now the government is pushing for regulation. Now, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which regulates newspapers, television, film and theater, will also have jurisdiction over digital news and entertainment platforms.
In India, there was a divide between what popular cinema, which is Bollywood, represented, and what state-sponsored cinema represented. A censor board approved what was appropriate to be screened to a theater audience.
“Lipstick Under My Burkha,” in 2016, a comedy, faced heavy censorship, delaying the release for two years because it was “lady-oriented” according to the censorship board, said Rai.
She argued that depicting sexuality is a gendered power dynamic — when the woman is objectified and is the object of male desire, it’s accepted by the censorship board, but when women express themselves without being the object of male desire, it becomes problematic.
“Since independence, the unit depicted in movies is often the family unit,” she said. “And that is sort of a problematic dynamic because it’s projected through women’s bodies, women’s honor in the space of the movie.”
“So the point is that films are a reflection of national cultural anxieties and preoccupations in that way, like, more so in the case of Bollywood.”
Most sexually charged female characters were cast as the vamp back in the day, bundling together their lack of morality with sexuality. “We like the heroine because she’s so sexually inexperienced, and because she is so innocent in the way that you know, she doesn’t understand love and that is also kind of part of a cultural thing,” said Rai.
Korean dramas also use the “innocent female” trope — which helps in “building the sexual tension but in a very innocent way,” said Rai.
Often saturated with romance, Korean dramas and films avoid showing intimacy for cultural reasons.
In terms of structure, delaying the kiss or stretching out the budding romance keeps the excitement alive for viewers. Many American shows like “Castle” or “Melissa and Joey” use the same strategy to get viewers hooked.
What Gopal pointed out is that the romance genre thrives on prohibition unlike the romance-comedy genre, where incompatibility between two people can simply do the trick. “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the most celebrated movies in the genre, is a great example.
In the context of India, there is a huge Hindu-Muslim divide which often trickles into film storylines. The Netflix television series “A Suitable Boy,” in 2020, faced backlash when the Hindu girl and Muslim boy kissed in front of a Hindu temple on screen.
In today’s time, when socially prohibited or uncommon relationships are shown on screen, said Gopal, they can still generate controversy, but the prohibition on kissing seems to have lifted.