The story of Sunny Leone, a former pornstar born to a deeply traditional migrant Sikh family in Canada who has since gone on to become a successful mainstream Bollywood actress, must be a fascinating one. Unsurprisingly, given that she is trying to craft a mainstream career, she has rarely spoken about her life, perhaps to exercise control over the way the story is told.
Recently, a senior news anchor from one of India’s top news channels tried to clumsily wiggle one part of that story. He grilled and badgered her, hemmed and hawed, and cloyingly nudged her to acknowledge the ‘sinful’ aspect of her past career choices. Perhaps he was expecting her to burst into tears and confess all on TV. But Leone neither broke down nor regretted any past choice. She was a sum total of all her choices, she seemed to suggest, decent or perceivably indecent.
Pornography is a subject that is much debated between liberals and conservatives. Let alone the moral dilemmas that it supposedly arouses, there is little consensus about the space it occupies in modern society. Because of the internet, the whole world now is pornographised. Our brains—evolved over centuries to react strongly to sexual stimuli, just like to sugar, in environments when they’re scarce —can hardly resist the temptations offered by millions of videos and images of well-endowed naked people. Yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone even admit to watching it. And here you have Leone, a former adult entertainer, a truly emancipated woman by all indications with few puerile concerns about what is moral and immoral.
Leone, as she has often stated, never dreamt of working in the Hindi film industry. Born Karenjit Kaur Vohra to a Sikh family that had migrated to Canada and later moved to the US, she watched the somewhat alien yet familiar Hindi movies like several other children of Indian origin. She was 18 years old, studying to become a paediatrician nurse while working part-time with a tax accountancy firm, when she became acquainted with an agent who had her pose nude for a Penthouse centerfold. Since ‘Karenjit’ wouldn’t quite have worked as the name of an adult entertainment star, she came up with the name Sunny Leone. Sunny was the nickname of her younger brother (according to the filmmaker Dilip Mehta, who is making a documentary on Leone, in an interview to Newslaundry), and the name Leone was suggested by others after Sergio Leone, the name of the spaghetti Western filmmaker.
By the time Leone had quit the adult entertainment industry and come to India to participate in a reality TV show, she was already popular. Her official Twitter and Facebook accounts, for instance, currently have 1.3 million and 16.5 million followers. She has been the ‘most searched’ individual on Google in India for the past three years.
The truth about Bollywood films and their appeal is that there are really only a handful of male celebrities who enjoy massive fan appeal. A film starring Salman, Shah Rukh or Aamir will invariably be a hit no matter how ordinary the content might be. With the others, including the top female actresses, however talented or celebrated they are, their films’ success is often a more collaborative effort. A Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif or Priyanka Chopra will work with the best reputed directors and the top co-stars. But in the case of Leone, it is just her. Her films are ordinary, her co-stars and directors are unknown, and even her abilities as an actress and dancer are somewhat limited. Yet her movies are usually hits. As she said in a recent interview, the porn industry is all about fantasy. So is Bollywood. Which perhaps explains why she fits in so well.