NEW DELHI: Richard Gere’s repeated kisses on the cheeks of actress Shilpa Shetty in an event to promote AIDS awareness sparked protests on 16 April with demonstrators burning effigies of the actor.
Hollywood star Gere had joined Shetty, the winner of the “Celebrity Big Brother” reality TV show in Britain this year, in a safe sex campaign among truckers in India, the country with the world’s largest number of people living with HIV.
“No condom, no sex,” an ebullient 58-year-old Gere shouted in Hindi to thousands of truck drivers who roared his words back in unison at a dusty fairground in New Delhi late on 15 April.
They whooped with delight and whistled loudly as Gere swooped down on a visibly delighted Shetty to kiss her on her hand and a number of times on one side of her face.
But on 16 April, groups of men shouting “Down with Richard Gere”, burnt the Hollywood star’s effigies and kicked the smoking remains in Kanpur, Meerut, Varanasi and Indore.
The protesters said Gere’s kissing of Shilpa was against Indian culture.
Some burnt Shetty’s posters shouting “Death to Shilpa Shetty” and danced around the smouldering ashes, TV footage showed.
The kissing scenes were repeatedly being run on TV news channels with viewers commenting on the Hollywood star’s actions.
Others said there was too much fuss over a few kisses.
“I think he responded as an actor. He was playing to the gallery,” said Anjali Gopalan, head of Naz Foundation India, an anti-AIDS prevention and care group.
“I don’t see anything bad,” she said on Headlines Today television.
Shetty’s spokesman said TV networks were going overboard.
“The media should concentrate on promotion of the cause of AIDS awareness rather than make ’issues’ out of Richard Gere’s kisses,” Dale Bhagwagar said.
Authorities have been focusing on high-risk groups such as truckers, who have helped spread the virus across the country as many of them have sex with prostitutes during their journeys and infect their wives back home.
“It is the emotional barrenness of the job which is the culprit,” Gere told reporters before the event.
“The trucker community has to help each other out to change their behaviour. That’s where real change will come.”
India has around 5.7 million people living with the virus, according to the United Nations. Thousands of truckers are HIV-positive.
During the event, the men danced wildly to Bollywood numbers and Punjabi pop songs.
The AIDS awareness show, organised by voluntary group Heroes Project and the Transport Corporation of India Foundation, also included Bollywood star Sunny Deol. Deol is known for his role as an honest truck driver in the film Gadar.
“Keep your drivers healthy,” Gere told the heads of trucking companies. “Do not push them. They are also human beings.”