Privileged Display of Affection: Is PDA only for the rich and famous?

For you and me, is PDA public display of affection or an act of public daring? Maithili Chakravarthy analyses the phenomenon

PDA moments have always been a talking point. Most voyeurs are often trying to analyse a relationship through PDA. PDA can be coy, irreverent, and sometimes, may cross the line into desperate attention seeking. Whatever it may be, it’s often fodder for gossip. In real life, someone’s aunt’s best friend’s sister will tell someone in your family about having spotted you holding hands with a guy. The news spreads and before you know it, people start to ask questions.

At the Filmfare Awards this year, we continued to play the guessing game. The camaraderie between exes and their significant others spelled out clearly that getting along would be best and harbouring grudges would only vitiate the atmosphere at the ceremony and divide actors into different camps. Sometimes, PDA between couples is that invisible entity in a room. Palpable and intense and often declaring to people around that it’s official.

For regular couples, PDA is everything from strolling hand-in-hand in a park, to finding nooks and corners away from prying eyes, to stealing kisses at restaurants and coffee shops.

That said, PDA has always been a moot point within the public debate in India. On the one hand, we have groups who have attacked public places where couples have indulged in PDA, claiming it is an assault on Indian culture, with even police officials enforcing bans on it proclaiming the police force’s right to “interfere” with “disorderly behaviour”. Common are sights where police officials crackdown on couples getting cosy on popular Mumbai promenades. On the other hand we have generations of people who have found spaces and urban oases of refuge to indulge in some unabashed PDA.

A ‘Western’ phenomenon?

Important questions surround this debate. In an environment where conservative attitudes prevail, with fringe groups looking for issues to take up, PDA is looked at as part of a depraved, debauched culture diluted by western ideas.

Is it really so? Can emotion and an expression of how one feels really be termed western? One can ask, what is so western about hugging the one you love or walking down the beach to enjoy a setting sun with some spontaneous lip-locking thrown in.

However today, some sections of the Mumbai police have introspected on the subject and ceased to take action against couples publicly expressing affection for one another.

Says Anil Rathod, a sub-inspector at the Malabar Hill police station, “We now only take action in the case of complaints, applying acts like the Bombay Police Act 1951 (Maharashtra) Section 110, and Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code which cover obscenity and what may be perceived as indecent acts. Many times when we have tried to take action against couples that we have believed to be indulging in an immoral act, it has happened that we have acquired a bad name. Thus now we act only in the case of complaints. Since crimes under IPC Section 294 are non-cognizable offences, we can’t conduct an inquiry into the case unless the courts order it. A fine of Rs. 1200 is usually applicable for crimes committed under Section 110.”

Avoiding obscenity

Many are of the opinion that when PDA starts to look like that one step just before sex, it should be avoided, so as not to hurt the sentiments of others. One has to be cautious instead of just letting go, since displays of nudity and the act of heavy petting in a public place are inappropriate.

Says a Mumbai-based dentistry student who did not wish to be named fearing unwelcome backlash from vigilante groups in the city, “Public display of affection in this era is something which is common. One sees it everywhere. Once my girlfriend and I were simply sitting close by in a lane next to our college, and a woman came and told us that we shouldn’t do so. Sometimes touching someone in a particular way may just be a gesture of support and many times, people misunderstand that. Activists from groups like the Bajrang Dal might raise objections and it’s just not fun anymore.  I do however agree that there should be limits to PDA. Couples sometimes don’t realise that they are crossing the line. It’s the couple’s responsibility to set limits for themselves otherwise there is the risk of appearing obscene.”

‘Unnecessary’ behaviour

There are other couples who don’t think demonstrative behaviour is necessary, fearing attracting unwanted attention. Publicly holding or touching each other or making eye contact with someone you are dating often equates to admitting to being in a relationship, and some couples are not ready for that at the initial stages.

Public declarations of love through necking someone or caressing them romantically puts relationships in the public eye, and some people think it might prove detrimental to their continued acquaintance. “PDA is a way of acknowledging your partner’s presence. There is usually a context to a hug or a kiss. The amount of PDA they want to indulge in is usually a couple’s decision. There are many factors at play here right from how comfortable the couple is with each other to whether they want to acknowledge their relationship publicly.

However, if a couple decides not to indulge in it, it is not necessarily a bad sign, because sometimes relationships are fleeting and couples may want to steer clear of acknowledgment.

Also people are quick to judge a relationship if they happen to witness the PDA and some times, relationships can’t sustain that. So couples may want to lay off in public,” says counselling psychologist SnehaJanaki. The psychologist is also someone who thinks coming from privilege frees you up from the taboos and morals that may be prevalent across sections of society that are more old-school in their thought.

“Someone who is educated and earning and enjoys certain economic privileges will have the wherewithal to stand up to anyone objecting to consensual PDA. But this may not be the case with less affluent classes of people who tend to draw boundaries in public.” She continues that PDA in a relationship is the outward expression of people’s inner feelings and tells us that couples often come in to her clinic complaining about how a lack of it has robbed them off that precious feeling of validation from their mates. What that means is perhaps only something a couple can decide.