Sun, 13 Mar 2005


Cross-border kiss stirs up passions

Declan Walsh Guardian News Service/Islamabad

The cold war is thawing between Pakistan and India, but a new cross-border controversy suggests that while all is fair in war, it may not be in love.

A new film, Nazar, directed by an Indian but starring a leading Pakistani actor, Meera, has stirred a hornets' nest of religious passions in her homeland.

The film, in which Meera and her Indian co-star Asmit Patel kiss, has been hailed by some as a sign of strengthening cultural ties. Images of the kiss, which Meera described as "Pakistan kissing India" appeared in newspapers and on television, drawing an outraged response from government officials.

"Meera's actions were against Islamic ethnic and moral values," an unnamed spokesman said, according to the Pakistan Online website. "Pakistani actors who go abroad are ambassadors of the country and are not allowed to spread vulgarity."

Censors forbid kissing in Pakistani films, although lewd dancing and singing routines are a staple of Urdu and Pushto- language productions.

Speaking by phone from Mumbai, Meera said Nazar was "a beautiful film between two countries ... There is no vulgarity in it."

Her family in Pakistan had received death threats, and she had asked President Pervez Musharraf for protection.

"Their lives are at risk, but I don't want to say any more," she said.

Her father has downplayed the danger. "Yes, some people came, but we don't want to make an issue out of it," he told the Daily Times.

Indian and Pakistani papers have stoked the controversy by speculating that Meera could be forced into exile in India, Dubai or London.

But exasperated Pakistani officials have denied intending to fine the actor and ban her from working in India. They flatly deny making inflammatory comments.

"There is no action. This is all propaganda tactics," said the information minister, Sheikh Ahmed Rashid.

Political and sporting relations have been improving between the countries, and a bus service is soon to start running across the Kashmir border.

But the kiss controversy has exposed a reservoir of suspicion between the two countries. Pakistani internet chatrooms have contained abusive comments about the film.

For others, the row is a sign of Pakistan's widening generation gap.

"Older people say it's a disgrace to see a good Muslim girl kissing a Hindu boy," said Shakir Husain, 29, a columnist with the News. "But among the younger lot, we couldn't care less."

There is no chance of the celluloid smooch crossing the border; at least officially. Indian films are banned in Pakistani cinemas, but they are widely watched on pirated DVDs and cable television.

And there are other hopes for cross-border romance. The Sunday Times of India recently launched a classifieds section facilitating cross-border matchmaking.

The paper entitles its initiative LoC, or Love over Country -- a play on Line of Control, the term for the contentious Kashmir border.