Pramod Navalkar initially gives few hints of the characteristics that earned him the title of Mumbai’s foremost moral policeman.
That is, until the former minister with Shiv Sena, the rightwing party that runs Maharashtra, gets started on the peck on the cheek that Richard Gere gave Shilpa Shetty.
“If I had been on the dais, I would have slapped him,” says Mr Navalkar, who as culture minister in the 1990s cracked down on everything he deemed offensive to traditional Indian values.
India’s rapid economic growth and the rise of the entertainment industry – its cable television network reaches 1m homes – is leading to a gradual erosion of traditional values.
This is particularly noticeable in Mumbai, the city at the vanguard of cultural change through its role as the home of Bollywood, India’s flamboyant film industry whose dance-and-song routines are becoming increasingly risqué.
But the uproar this month from people such as Mr Navalkar about the behaviour of Mr Gere and Ms Shetty, as well as a series of similar incidents, is a reminder that beneath the facade is a society struggling to reconcile its old and new identities.
During an Aids awareness event last week in New Delhi, Mr Gere clasped Ms Shetty, an actress who made her name internationally by winning the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother, in an embrace typical of Bollywood.
The incident prompted angry crowds in several Indian cities to burn the pair in effigy, with a group of lawyers filing a court complaint against them for “kissing in public”. In another incident, a Hindu fundamentalist mob ransacked the offices of Star News, a television channel owned partly by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, for its coverage of the elopement of a Hindu girl with her Muslim boyfriend.
This month, police rounded up more than 100 couples in a trendy area of Mumbai and fined them up to Rs1,200 ($36, €21, £14) for “obscene behaviour”.
Attacks on liberal or so-called western values are not new. Shiv Sena has for years held protests on St Valentine’s day, attacking parties and destroying shops selling cards. But with change quickening, such incidents are becoming more common.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, says: “Indian society is going through a massive change in its norms and values. On the one hand, values are becoming more open; on the other, there’s a backlash, particularly when it comes to women.” She says issues such as the elopement case were open to exploitation by politicians, who often resorted to religious fundamentalism to win support during elections.
Underlying the trend was growing unease among conservatives about the rising independence of women. The emergence of call centre, IT, finance and other industries is creating a generation of women who are economically independent, well educated and no longer prepared to fit meekly into traditional roles.
There is a sense the moralists often do not have full public support, it is just that they are the noisiest. “In a situation where the law is vague and the general public apathetic, the moral brigade seems to be usurping the space,” the Times of India wrote of the Gere-Shetty incident.
Mr Navalkar says public displays of affection remain offensive to the older generation and should be restricted to the home, or public places that are out of the way. Asked whether police action against couples holding hands in public is warranted, he says he created nana nani parks – space for “grandpas and grandmas” to enjoy, free from noisy or amorous young people.
Perhaps, he suggests, someone could create similar places for Mumbai’s youngsters – guarded by a couple of watchmen to make sure things do not go too far.
Get alerts on Global Economy when a new story is published