Bollywood must have been on Sunny Leone’s mind when she entered the fifth season of Bigg Boss in 2011. But could she ever have imagined just how meteoric her rise to stardom would be? It has been 4 years since the former adult star was voted off the reality show, but during its run she amassed a cult online fan following, bagged a debut movie deal from Mahesh Bhatt and became the definition of overnight success. Since then, she has gone on to star in 5 more legit films, and a handful of memorable cameos.
Only a few weeks ago, Leone made headlines for holding her own in a controversial interview with TV journalist Bhupendra Chaubey. The interview started a social media kerfuffle, as has become the norm these days. Many industry veterans came out in support of the star and praised her poise in what was essentially a one-sided media trial and borderline witch hunt. Chaubey obnoxiously insisted on calling her by her birth name Karenjit but also kept bringing up her alter ego, her stage name: Sunny.
Watch the interview here
Not that she hasn’t fended off similar attacks before: It is unlikely that she has ever not been asked about her past since she joined the Hindi film industry. Hindustan Times’ Jyoti Sharma Bawa wrote, “Chaubey’s sexist interview of Leone was a textbook lesson in gender power play and hypocrisy of Indian male. Hypothetical and offensive to the point of being insulting, his questions either wanted to paint Leone as a victim or a scarlet woman out to corrupt the world.”
While we can all safely agree that the interview was mean-spirited, misogynistic and an outstanding example of male entitlement, we must also take a closer look at why, after 6 starring roles in the biggest film industry in the world, a former porn star was still being asked about her past.
Sure, it makes for a saucy story. There is no denying that. Look at what we are doing here. But Sunny Leone isn’t ashamed of her former life. She repeatedly asserts that she would never take any of it back if given the chance. “If I were to turn the clock back,” asked Chaubey, clearly under the impression that he had just come up with an original thought, “would you still do what you did?”
“One hundred percent,” replied Sunny Leone, with great self-confidence and grace.
But she is undoubtedly done with her former career. She wouldn’t have been making inroads into the Bollywood scam had she not wanted to break out of the shadow of her former life.
But then, one quick glance at her films paints a rather different picture. Her first film after her stint in Bigg Boss was Jism 2, where she played a porn star, which is somewhat understandable with it being her first starring role in a mainstream film and all that. Perhaps she wanted to stay within her comfort zone initially. In his review, Rajeev Masand cried, “Although it’s hard to say why she’s meant to be a porn actress given that it’s a teeny weeny detail that doesn’t further the plot in any way whatsoever. Or perhaps director Pooja Bhatt doesn’t recognise the difference between a porn actress and a prostitute because within the first five minutes of the film she has picked up a man at a bar, taken him to a room upstairs and had sex with him.”
That doesn’t really sound like a former adult star trying to go legit does it? But maybe that was the plan all along: To market Jism 2 to her pre-existing fanbase and not make them suspend their disbelief too much. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what Salman and Shah Rukh do?
But then came her second film Ragini MMS 2, another stand-alone sequel to a B-grade franchise. Once again she played an ex-porn star. But this time, she took it a step further: She played a character named Sunny Leone, clearly not the brightest idea she could’ve come up with to distance herself from her past and redefine herself as a leading lady. Fool me once they say…
Watch Laila from Shootout at Wadala here
Scattered around these two movies were her cameo appearances in item numbers, those 3-minute advertisements for the cause of female objectification. Both Pink Lips and Laila exist only to show off Sunny Leone’s physical beauty. Like we needed two sleazy songs to remind us of that. The lyrics to both songs are obviously regressive, laden with double entendres and unbecoming of any woman with goals of not seeming like an object.
But this was still early in her career. Maybe these were the only kinds of roles she was being offered. But once again, our hopes to finally see Sunny Leone in a radical new avatar were dashed when she went on to star in Ek Paheli Leela and Kuch Kuch Locha Hai, both films equally bad, complete with their own sick item numbers and a self-sabotaging Sunny Leone.
Said Anupama Chopra in her review of Ek Paheli Leela, “I was exhausted. And there were hours and hours to go — hours in which Meera and Leela dance, strike Kama Sutra poses with different men and pirouette in the sand while mouthing a laughable Rajasthani accent. Meanwhile the men look on longingly and occasionally they get to touch.”
Rohit Vats’ review of Kuch Kuch Locha Hai in HT painted an even sadder picture of the once-promising Sunny, “Kuch Kuch Locha Hai is an insane, bizarre film with absolutely no intention of making the audience satiated in any which manner. Avoid it if you can. As far as the Sunny Leone fans are concerned, YouTube also has those songs.”
Could it be? Could she be stuck in the limbo of a stalled career? Her movies were making money, so there’s no reason for her to keep doing these roles. Can’t she simply choose differently now that she obviously has a say in what kind of projects she does? Why hasn’t she moved on? That interview with Bhupendra Chaubey comes to mind once again. She seems like a strong person. She has to be. Wasn’t she the one who told Chaubey that “first and foremost I am a business person and I am a realist.”
And it’s not like she’s the first adult star to try and make it into the mainstream. James Deen starred opposite Lindsay Lohan in Canyons directed by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader, a film Seth Rogen called “the best shot, second best acted in, and third best written porn I’ve ever seen.” Sasha Grey headlined acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experiences, a film about an escort but bereft of sex. Both played characters that weren’t much of a stretch and both had, in Schrader and Soderbergh, respected industry professionals guiding them. But then again Sunny Leone had Mahesh Bhatt.
Watch the Girlfriend Experience trailer here
Mastizaade was the final straw. It makes you give up on her. It is no longer excusable for her to go on starring in such dirge. “Mastizaade isn’t even a movie. For almost the entirety of its run time, it feels like getting screamed at by a pissed off plastic clown. It’s as pointless as a punctured condom. It’s as ghastly as a bad boob job. It’s like entering a lunatic pervert’s Internet search history tab and discovering only cake recipes. Let me repeat: Mastizaade isn’t a movie. It’s a bunch of sweaty sleazeballs exploiting Sunny Leone’s star power and straight up robbing your cash,” I said in my review.
A slight amendment needs to be made in light of all this. It no longer seems like she’s working under the influence of sweaty sleazeballs. To paraphrase Mandela, she is the master of her fate. She is the captain of her destiny. Let her be now.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan