Indian actress Shilpa Shetty has finally been cleared of obscenity charges 15 years after Hollywood actor Richard Gere literally swept her off her feet and planted kisses on her cheek at an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi.
In a Jan. 18 Mumbai court judgement released on Monday, magistrate Ketaki Chavan ruled that the complaints against Shetty were “groundless.” He wrote in his ruling, “It seems that Shilpa Shetty is the victim of alleged act of accused no 1 [Richard Gere].” Shetty is known outside of India for winning the British reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2007.
Video footage of the March 2007 kiss shows Gere and Shetty onstage facing an audience. Gere begins to kiss Shetty on the hand. He then embraces her, sweeps her into a dramatic dip and plants a series of kisses on her cheeks, to cheers from the audience. Once he stops, a surprised Shetty can be heard laughing and saying in Hindi, “That was a bit much.”
At the time, the incident sparked outrage among some conservative groups for its perceived insult to Indian values. In April 2007, radical Hindu groups burnt effigies of the actors in public demonstrations. Shortly after, a judge from the state of Rajasthan issued arrest warrants against Gere and Shetty for allegedly violating India’s laws against counts of obscenity and indecent representation of women.
After the warrants were issued, Gere apologised publicly, saying: “What is most important to me is that my intentions as an HIV/AIDS advocate be made clear and that my friends in India understand that it has never been and nor could it ever be my intention to offend you.” He also said that he had copied the move as a “clumsy attempt” to imitate a dance step from his movie Shall We Dance.
In a 2007 press statement, Shetty said: “Shall We Dance is one of Richard’s films and he had struck this pose in the movie. He only tried to entertain the people with that and I was unaware that he was going to do it. I was taken aback.”
VICE World News reached out to Shetty’s agent for her reaction to the case’s dismissal. They have yet to respond to our query.
Although the charges against Gere were eventually dropped, the case against Shetty remained pending for more than a decade. In a plea to dismiss the charges, Shetty’s lawyer wrote that the case against his client was “only that she did not protest when she was kissed by the co-accused Richard Gere, which by no stretch of imagination made her a conspirator or perpetrator to the crime.”
India’s obscenity laws criminalise acts or words perceived as obscene and exhibited in a public place that cause “annoyance to others.” Individuals convicted under the laws can face up to three months of imprisonment. Legal experts have criticised the laws for their unclear definition of obscenity and their vulnerability to misuse over subjective interpretations of what constitutes obscenity.
In the absence of a clear definition, courts often resort to using a “community standards test” to determine whether an act may be considered obscene.
“This means that each act has to be looked at on a case-to-case basis and in the context of the community standards that were prevalent at the time. What would be considered obscene 10 years ago may not be obscene by today’s community standards,” lawyer Rutuja Shinde told VICE World News.
“This can lead to an act being seen as ‘obscene’ depending on the context and how it is interpreted. There is no straightjacket formula, and the ambiguity in the law can lead to confusion and misuse.”
According to Shinde, the law can also be abused against persons even if they didn’t consent to the act in the first place, as in Shetty’s case.
“Even if a woman is not consenting to an act that may be considered obscene under the law, she can still be implicated for the same, leading to years of litigation,” said Shinde.