Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty is in the news again -- this time though for some wrong reasons -- as her kissing act with Hollywood star Richard Gere at a function on AIDS awareness has led to widespread protests from several quarters.
In Varanasi, Shiv Sena and Bande Mataram Sangharsh Samiti activists as well as Muslims staged protests in various parts of the city and burnt effigies of Gere and Shetty to protest against their "indecent behaviour" which, the protesters claimed, was "an attack on our cultural ethos".
In Kanpur, protesters, mostly students, burnt effigies and demanded that Gere should go back from the country while demonstrators in Bhopal threatened to boycott Shetty's forthcoming films.
Reacting to the issue, Shetty said, "I understand this is his culture, not ours. But this was not such a big thing or so obscene for people to overreact in such manner. "I understand people's sentiments, but I don't want a foreigner to take bad memories from here."
The BJP here disapproved the act saying it is not part of Indian culture. "Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition," said party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar.
Gere had repeatedly kissed Shetty on stage at the function on Sunday night where Bollywood actor Sunny Deol and more than 4,000 truck drivers also participated in the campaign to create AIDS awareness.
Shetty grabbed the headlines earlier this year when racist comments against her from a fellow contestant of the celebrity show Big Brother was widely condemned by people.
Concentrate on the issue, not kiss: Shilpa
While celebrating the 'Seena Taan Ke' event to highlight the contribution of truckers and the importance of safe sex practices, Gere, overwhelmed by Shilpa's appreciation, held her hand and kissed it. He later hugged her tightly, bent over her and planted several kisses on her cheeks in full public view.
A giggly and embarrassed Shilpa said: "Yeh thoda zyada ho gaya tha (This was a little too much)."
The kissing episode has raised the hackles of several conservative groups. "This is an intolerable and obscene act. It is against the values, culture and traditions of the nation. Gere must apologise," said a protester at Indore.
"This act has hurt the sentiments of people. This should not have happened publicly," said another protester. People came out on the streets in hundreds to protest and burned the effigies of Gere. They are demanding that he apologise to Shilpa and the country.
In the HIV-AIDS programme, organised by the Transport Corporation of India (TCI) Foundation, the social arm of Group Transport Corporation of India and the Hero Project, Shilpa had lavished praise on Gere just before the kissing episode took place.
"I thank Gere that he took out time to visit India. It is appreciable to see how intensely he feels for this issue. And we all must recognise his efforts and give our contribution in the best possible way, for this great cause," she said, addressing the crowds.
Shilpa had made international headlines a few months ago when British TV star Jade Goody hurled racist abuses at her on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother.
Dale Bhagwagar, spokesperson and publicist to Shilpa, said the media should concentrate on the cause of AIDS awareness rather than make an issue out of Richard Gere's kisses.
Gere has been associated with the Heroes project - a three-year national initiative by him and Parmeshwar Godrej - that aims at reducing the stigma about HIV/AIDS by educating people and advocating behavioural change.
According to the TCI foundation, 40 percent of the country's five million truck drivers are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
Around 4,000 truck drivers were also part of the 'Seena Taan Ke' programme.