By Salil Tripathi    

11 March 2005

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RECENTLY THERE has been evidence of greater interaction between Indians and Pakistanis, but there are obvious limits to the amount of "appropriate" contact. Just look what happens when a Pakistani actress kisses an Indian actor. 

 A Pakistani actress known as "Meera" has created a sensation in her home country by kissing Ashmit Patel in an Indo-Pakistani film called Nazar (Glance). Risque photographs of the stars together are already available on the Internet. The clergy in Pakistan has criticized Meera and called for a ban on future collaborations. A Pakistani official has said she would be fined, without specifying for which offense. At its most extreme, freelance hotheads have issued a death threat to Meera, unless she apologizes. 
The timing of such controversy may seem odd, given a recent string of events that seem to signal a thaw between the two countries. Last week, India issued 10,000 visas to Pakistanis eager to watch their cricket team take on India, as a new test series started this week. Train services have been resumed, and bus services across the disputed territory of Kashmir have been announced. 
One of the more popular Bollywood films at the box office is called Veer Zara, a love story between an Indian man called Veer and a Pakistani woman called Zara. That contrasts with the kind of films Bollywood made about Pakistan until recently. Back then, the films focused on war (LOC: Kargil), cross-border terrorism (Border), or the Partition (Partition: A Love Story), each emphasizing what has kept the two countries divided. 
On a person-to-person level, there has been reason for hope as well. Cross-border family ties, once frozen, are not only being revived, but new ones are being forged. The Times of India, the country's leading daily, has entered into an agreement with Jang, a leading Pakistani daily, to publish matrimonial advertisements from families seeking brides and grooms for "suitable boys" and "eligible girls" across the border. Ironically, the Times group calls the weekly section LOC, or "love over country," referring to the de facto border in Kashmir, the Line Of Control. 
Despite all this, Meera remains in Bombay, unsure of the reception she will get if she returns to Lahore. The film has yet to be released in India or Pakistan, but images have come out in public, and the controversy is being discussed in the Indian press.  Much of the criticism in the Indian press has been aimed at Pakistan. If the genders were reversed, some Hindu activists have argued, and a Pakistani actor had kissed an Indian actress, there wouldn't have been so much anger. Rather it is the idea of a Muslim woman from Pakistan cavorting with a Hindu Indian man that bothers the fundamentalists. By their logic, such an encounter could only be forced, for no self-respecting Muslim woman from Pakistan would act "obscenely" in front of cameras with a Hindu man from India. 
To be sure, some of this controversy may be simply about South Asian taboos: Kissing on screen is still a big no-no in Pakistan. But before Indians get too many chuckles out of Pakistani "prudishness" they should remember that their own film industry hardly pushes the envelope. On-screen kissing was never formally banned in India, but Bollywood kissing scenes remain relatively rare, usually involving actresses in an urban setting, often wearing revealing western clothes, and portraying a liberated lifestyle. 
Still, it would be almost reassuring if this kissing controversy was really just part of a prudish debate. But there is reason for concern that it is more to do with Pakistani fundamentalists, already troubled by a thaw in relations with India, who fear that that their faith and national identity are in danger. Pakistanis should be banned from acting in Bollywood films, such voices have demanded in the past. When Junoon, an extremely popular Pakistani rock group performed to cheering audiences in both countries, jived with Indian performers, and criticized the nuclear race a few years ago, the fundamentalists ran a vicious campaign against the group, calling for its ban on Pakistani airwaves. 
In this sense, the seemingly "odd" timing of certain Pakistani complaints may not really be so strange. Think about it: Buses are plying across battlefields, governments are talking trade, cricket teams are playing each another, families are looking for spouses for their children across the border, and Ms. Meera has reportedly enjoyed a passionate on-screen kiss with an Indian star. What next?