Richard Gere's

raffish romantic charm excited crowds in India yesterday, but not in the way a leading man usually likes.

Protesters in several Indian cities burned Gere in effigy for embracing and kissing Shilpa Shetty, one of Bollywood's most popular actresses, during an AIDS-awareness event in New Delhi on Sunday.

The kiss was front-page news in a country that frowns upon such public displays of affection.

Right-wing Hindu nationalists in Mumbai beat burning effigies of Gere with sticks and set fire to glamour photos of Shetty. Similar protests broke out in other cities. Gere hasn't been the object of such universal vitriol since American Gigolo.

The actor planted the offending busses on Shetty at a news conference meant to call attention to the spread of HIV/AIDS among India's truck drivers.

Gere kissed, Shetty giggled and the crowd cheered. Then Gere kissed the actress again on both cheeks, before bending her in a full embrace for one more kiss on the cheek.

"This is a bit too much," Shetty protested, but yesterday she downplayed the incident.

"I understand this is his culture, not ours. But this was not such a big thing or so obscene for people to overreact in such manner," she told the Press Trust of India news agency.

"I understand people's sentiments, but I don't want a foreigner to take bad memories from here," the news agency quoted her as saying.

Shetty, already well-known in India, became an international star after her appearance on the British reality show Celebrity Big Brother. That public appearance also became controversial when a fellow contestant made allegedly racist comments. Shetty went on to win the competition.

- Associated Press

A visit home

David Banda

returned to his homeland, Malawi, yesterday, accompanied by

Madonna

, the diva who would be his mom.

The dance dolly took 1-year-old David out of a Malawian orphanage last fall, touching off a controversy over whether the impoverished South African nation had set aside normal procedures by granting Madonna, 48, and her hub, filmmaker Guy Ritchie, 38, an interim court order granting them initial custody of David. That allowed the singer to take David to her London home. The adoption process won't be complete until Malawi child welfare officials report on the couple's suitability as adoptive parents later this year. Madge insists she has followed the law.

Dressed in combat trousers, khaki T-shirt and black boots, Madonna toured U.N.-backed development projects in the small village of Mtanga, where farmers are being helped to grow maize and start fish farming.

Her 9-year-old daughter, Lourdes, came along for the trip.

- Associated Press

Relatively speaking

Walter Isaacson

, author of

Einstein: His Life and Universe

, a new biography of the great physicist, will speak tonight at 8 at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. General admission is $12, student tickets are $6.

Tickets are available at 215-569-9700. For information about the program, call 215-567-4341.

Isaacson, who has been chairman and chief executive officer of CNN and managing editor of Time Magazine, is also author of the best-selling Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

- Associated Press

Too much information

Regis Philbin phoned Live With Regis and Kelly, the syndicated daytime talk show he hosts with Kelly Ripa yesterday to say he will be back on the air April 26, about six weeks after triple heart bypass surgery.

Philbin, 75, reported that he was walking and lifting light weights. The voluble gabber joked that the operation had altered his personality and that he would no longer be "fun-loving Reege."

All well and good, until he tried to clarify a previous call to the show in which he seemed to be complaining about not having had sex for 3 1/2 months.

Philbin explained that he had been yelling out strange things in his sleep, including nonsense about no sex for 3 1/2 months. Thinking this was funny, he told Ripa about it on the phone.

Ripa responded by pressing Reege on how often he does have sex, and Philbin replied: "I'll let it go at five times a week. Let's not talk about it anymore."

Good idea.

- Associated Press

Off the hook

Prosecutors in San Diego will not file charges against

Victor Willis

, the original policeman in the 1970s disco band The Village People. Willis was arrested last month after his girlfriend accused him of choking and threatening her.

The woman claimed the 55-year-old singer had threatened her with a knife and had been abusive, police said.

Willis' rep described the incident as "simply a minor disagreement between Victor and his fiancee. Victor loves her very much and she loves Victor."

Willis co-wrote hits such as "YMCA" and "In the Navy." He left The Village People in 1980.

Hot dog!

The Food Network honored Citizens Bank Park Sunday for having the "Best Ballpark Eats" during the network's first-ever awards show, the Food Network Awards. The Bank beat out finalists that included Camden Yards in Baltimore, AT&T Park in San Francisco and Safeco Field in Seattle.

This report contains information from Inquirer services.