Sunny Leone's amazing grace:
on what it means for a porn star to be a mainstream movie star

by Paromita Vohra

There’s a curiously distant feeling, about the rise and rise of Bollywood actress Sunny Leone [1] [open endnotes in new window] from the time she entered Indian households via Colors’ TV show “Bigg Boss Season 5” in 2012 to April 2015 when her film Ek Paheli Leela (transl. Leela, a Riddle, 2015) became a hit. Soon after, she topped the Times of India’s list of most desirable female stars, ahead of A-listers Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif—no small achievement. Yet, her success feels blandly numerical, with none of the visible cultural resonance that accompanies the rise of a new star.

Bigg Boss Season 5," Mumbai reality TV show (2012) that first introduced Leone (foreground) into Indian households. Respectable “A-list” female star Deepika Padukone, pushed down the “most desirable” list by Sunny Leone.

On consideration, it becomes apparent that this feeling arises from a certain invisibility of Leone’s fandom. The number of fans of her various Facebook pages total about 1.5 million. Yet, while images and videos earn plenty of likes, there are hardly any comments on posts. The media compounds this by constantly reporting on her with reference to her past work as a porn star or, as she prefers to call it, adult entertainment professional, thus providing no fresh persona—a Sunny Leone of the Hindi films, distinct from her earlier avatar.

Ok, let me not beat around the bush. Let me just come right out and say what I feel. Sunny Leone is one of the most boring performers I’ve ever watched. I fast forwarded my way through two of her porn films, so tedious and mechanical was their spreadsheet porn-sex. Her hit song, “Baby Doll” may be catchy, but visually it is so leaden that I have never been able to watch its video through to the end, not even for the purposes of this piece. As for Ek Paheli Leela, despite my love of kitschy reincarnation dramas [come on, I’m Indian. I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha art. I loved both the reincarnation dramas, Karz (transl. The Debt, 1980) and Madhumati (1958)], I found it very easy to take my eyes off Ms. Leone when she was on screen. There’s nothing offensive about her. In fact, she is somewhat sweet. There’s just nothing riveting about her.

Sunny Leone’s additional vocation as a pop singer. Music videos, usually but not always attached to imminent film releases and “picturized” by film stars, constitute a major media genre in India. No one cares that the performers are almost never the singers and are always dubbed by members of another star subgenre, the “playback singer."

When I discussed this with a male friend, he joked, “Well obviously. You’re a straight woman.” But, as a dedicated viewer of porn, he admitted in the next breath that he wasn’t a fan of Ms. Leone’s adult videos as they were “typical Amriki (transl. American) porn. Too plastic for me.”

So, the real mystery of Sunny Leone is not how an adult entertainment artist has crossed over, with such success, to a mainstream entertainment space in India.  The real mystery is, how did someone so completely unremarkable on screen, possessed of such limited charisma, achieve this?

One of the reasons particular stars achieve ascendency at particular moments in history is because they somehow embody the social rhythms and cultural tendencies that are still taking shape around us. They represent the gestalt of a moment—some essence of larger social experience and aspiration that have not yet been fully recognized. Often, the “official,” elite culture does not have space, vision or the means to recognize these new feelings, these still-forming quicksilver selves. What is this sense that Sunny Leone captures through her success?

Three major films featuring Leone show the generic range of her vehicles: the erotic horror film sequel Ragini MMS 2 (2014); the comedy Kuch Kuch Locha Hai (Some are flexible, 2015); and Raees (Noble, 2017). In this political melodrama, Leone is paired with Shah Rukh Khan, one of the biggest stars in world film history.

I somewhat missed Sunny Leone’s entry into Indian living rooms via “Bigg Boss Season 5” because I was deep in the bowels of television production myself, working on a somewhat arty reality TV show. Called “Connected Hum Tum” (transl. You-Me, Connected, 2013), the show hoped to track the inner lives of contemporary urban women in India. The process of choosing characters involved meeting literally hundreds of women from varied backgrounds. Many of these were suburban or small-town women who wanted to make it in show business.

They had no real connections, training, or frankly, talent. But they were bursting with a kind of unchanneled assertiveness, a strong need to “show the world what I am.” They did not want to be constrained by older identities of family, community or caution. Chetan Bhagat,[1a] a bestselling Indian author, speaks for many young men like this. He has frequently suggested (however disingenuously) that they can shrug off the limitations of feudal India, with the leveler of the English language.

What do these young women feel they have as a leveler, given that they come with no other advantages? It is their bodies. These young women represent the idea of show business not as a place of ephemeral, alchemical talent, but a labor market where you can acquire a suitable body, which will be employable. In the noir-ish warren of gyms, dance classes and auditions that is Oshiwara [suburban Mumbai neighborhood], thousands of aspirants apply themselves to this endeavor. Having a sexy body is now not a sign of your immorality, but your professionalism and ambition. Hence, “compro” or compromise— of some sexual nature, is also looked at far more pragmatically. They have rephrased the body, from a symbol of honor and morality to an instrument of work and progress, of the entrepreneurial self. To a certain elite eye, these young people represent vulgarity and desperation. Their “indecent” aspiration finds little recognition— unlike the “decent” MBA style aspirations of Bhagat’s following.

It is innumerable young men and women like this that Sunny Leone, with her surgically, impersonally perfect body and her matter-of-fact approach to it as her skill set epitomizes. Coming from an immigrant family[2] that has left its roots to search for a better life, she represents this same unsentimental immigration which thousands of young lower-middle class Indians undertake—one which searches for new destinations, not permanent belonging, and refuses to be imprisoned or limited by a past identity.

Because of her past work in pornography, it’s easy to place Sunny Leone at the cusp of India’s “combination of prurient prudishness and genuine tolerance” and suggest that she is a “walking talking double meaning,” as the writer Kai Friese recently did in the New York Times.[3] This is the kind of truism about Indian culture that we are now used to hearing from liberal elders. That India, the land of the, yawn, Kama Sutra ,[4] has fallen into a state of sexual hypocrisy.

Double meanings can only be a source of contempt if we believe that meanings are or should be single. This belief in a linear truth or identity, which only allows you to be one thing at one time, which chooses to fix or “expose” you, is a deeply moralistic one. Whether coming from the left or the right, it is the judgmental gaze that shames people for their desires. You can do this from the left by talking about how Sunny Leone exemplifies Indian hypocrisy where porn stars become rich while LGBT+ rights are denied. You can do it from the right by raving about depravity. The purpose of this gaze, this nazar (transl. sight, surveillance and attention) from either direction is to shame you for routine human aspirations. It is in fact a classically pornographic gaze, seeking always to expose and demean you, metaphorically.

As both a performer and producer of pornography, Sunny Leone understands this gaze well and knows not only how to counter it, but how to invert it.

Her master-stroke, consciously or unconsciously was to appear on “Bigg Boss,” the ultimate mainstream pornographic vehicle, where apparently “decent” people reveal their dark and “indecent” selves. Except, she did a complete reversal—an apparently “indecent” character came on the show and revealed her niceness, her, as one YouTube clip calls it, “cute-bhara” (transl.  full of cuteness) self. She was courteous, soft-spoken and all family values: “Bahut accha lagta hai jab sab pyaar dete hain mummy daddy ko, hai na? (transl. It feels nice to love your parents, right?) I miss my parents, but they’re watching from above.” She made rotis (Indian bread), hung out in track pants and told Amar Upadhyay (an Indian TV actor) off for being handsy (“he is married and so am I”), sending out the message that she decides the terms of use when it came to her body, as any person should.

Through this vehicle she established a narrative that no one is defined by only one part of their identities. Yes, she is a porn star, but she is also a professional and a nice person. She established that these childish polarities of good and bad simply did not apply. To some this is a double meaning. To many it is just the normal complexity of all our lives where we are many different things at the same time. It was a much needed message, and people responded to it fervently.

“Splitsvilla” an Indian MTV dating reality show launched in 2008 and hosted by Sunny Leone since 2014.

For instance Scarlett Rose, a Mumbai based bikini model and “Splitsvilla”[5] contestant, told Anushree Majumdar who profiled Leone for Indian Express

“Sunny… is one of my role models. It’s not easy to be a bikini model; people think you’re a porn artist. When I heard that Sunny was hosting the show, I felt that here was somebody who would understand my line of work.”[6]

Unlike Rose, Leone never speaks of being a porn star with even a hint of apology. On the contrary she takes pride in her self-made identity. With practiced yet never fake ease, she never submits to the attempts at shaming implicit in many interviewers’ questions. She refuses to submit to the hierarchies by which people establish themselves as acceptable by differentiating themselves from “inferior” others, as Rose does here (I’m not a porn star. I’m a bikini model) or Rakhi Sawant, another Indian actress has (I’ve not done pole dancing like Sunny Leone). [7] She slipped up once in an early interview by saying “a porn star is not a prostitute,”[8] but never again has she resorted to such stereotyping.

Leone never offers a victim narrative. She owns her work completely and emphasizes that it has always been her choice and no one ever forced her. She also never resorts to bad mouthing or stereotyping Indian culture, which many Indians do in order to set themselves as “modern,” apart from other “natives.”

In an interview with MensXP when asked for her response to Ekta Kapoor’s (an Indian TV and film director) comment that India is a sex-starved country, Leone replied that she doesn’t think India is a sex-starved nation. She adds that she wouldn’t say that about any country.  If Ekta Kapoorfeels that way then Kapoor is entitled to her opinion.[9] Leone has laughed at euphemistic questions by saying she receives mail regularly from women as well as couples on how to improve their sex life. She said in one video interview: “Sex isn’t something crazy. It happens every day, guys!”[10]

By doing this Leone acknowledges a whole other narrative of contemporary Indian sexuality—not the old one of repression and moral policing, but one of a great deal more sexual mobility. In fact, part of Leone’s relatively easy transition to the mainstream is because of the ubiquity of pornography for urban and small-town Indians thanks to the digital sphere. Indians ranks 5th highest of daily visitors to Pornhub and 4th highest in accessing it from mobile devices.[11] Given this fact, the transition of a body from the pornographic to the cinematographic space is not really so startling. It is traveling from the private to the public space, sure, but it is also traveling from one everyday space to another one.

Leone also never falls into any other cultural stereotyping. When asked in another interview what she thought about excessive violence against women in India, she said merely that this (violence) is applicable to any country in the world. “If our teachers and parents teach us differently the message will go out,” she adds.[12]

The Leslee Udwins[13] and the right-wing moralizers sure could take this leaf out of Leone’s book!

So, Sunny Leone is the “Other” NRI (Non Resident Indian). The one no one talks about and the one the Prime Minister doesn’t address. The one who isn’t ashamed of India and carries no post-colonial burdens. She speaks well for those other Indians who make a complex interweave of private and public self, of where they are coming from and where they want to go, to create a life for themselves, rather than constantly engage in defining the idea of India.

Despite all this non-denominational journey of individuality, Leone, in what may seem like hypocrisy to some and dexterity to others (like myself), never challenges basic traditional niceties. Consider, that she arrived on “Bigg Boss” the way most women arrive in their sasurals (husbands/ in-laws house)—in a doli. (bridal palanquin). The other F word is big in her vocabulary—Family. She spoke of Ekta Kapoor and Pooja Bhatt, her first producers, as treating her like family. Her earthy immigrant Punjabi background was reassuring. She speaks respectfully of her parents (as indeed of all people). Her demeanour is winning—I found myself quite in love after watching many of her intelligent, confident, always courteous interviews. She does not challenge family structures—and this is very crucial for success in India, because the family, no matter what you do in it, is still the primary social unit for our culture.

Her very frontalized partnership with her husband also makes Indians comfortable. It allows the actor Salman Khan to say about her:

“Unka kaam hai - Jo bhi hai unke family mein kuch aitraaz nahin hai.” (transl. It’s her work, whatever she does, her family—read, husband—doesn’t object.)[14]

The idea of a woman not connected to anyone is one Indians continue to find dangerous, unnerving. It is a reminder of the goddess unbound and makes people nervous. A woman who belongs with a man allows people to accept much more. Unlike actresses like Rakhi Sawant, Mallika Sherawat or Sherlyn Chopra who have inhabited the twilight zones between mainstream respectability and soft porn, Leone is not interested in directly speaking up about the patriarchy or social injustice, as much as swimming past it like a quick fish.

While Leone definitely signifies a break from certain past identities and modes, she is also part of a certain continuity. A porn professional today is only the contemporary extension of how women usually entered the film industry in the past—sometimes from the world of tawaifs[15] or bar-dancing communities and certainly through arduous trysts with casting couches. This belonged to a time when people entered the film industry from mixed backgrounds and remade themselves too. When the film industry was the location of so much miscegenation.

But today, families and businesses have been around for two or three generations and words like pedigree and legacy which were meaningless before are bandied about. Second and third generation filmi families have made part—but not the whole—of the industry respectable for their daughters to inhabit, and some other women like them, from elite social backgrounds. Corporatization has provided a finishing patina. The bodies of 21st-century actresses Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor et al. carry a different meaning than heroine’s bodies in the past. Any respectability one claimed came from the division of whether you played heroineor vamp, but it was a tenuous one.

Kareena Kapoor, a non-tawaif A-List star rising out of and marrying into “respectable” Bollywood dynasties. Emraan Hasmi, actor inhabiting the “B-World” of lower-budget genre studios.

However, the barrier that once existed between the heroine and the vamp has now been recast as a class difference. This is why Deepika and Kareena are in A list films while the actor Emraan Hashmi and various interchangeable women inhabit the B-world of Vishesh films.[16] It is in this B-world that Sunny Leone rules.

Can she break through that barrier? In response, we need only turn to Ms. Leone’s own wisdom and insight. As she said in an interview before the release of her film Jism 2 (transl. Body, 2012):

“There’s nothing too crazy in the film. You aren’t going to see anything here that you haven’t seen before. In India, you know, you can push the envelope, you can’t crack it open.”[17]

If she cracks it open, then forever and ever “chitthi ayi hai” (transl. you’ve got a letter) shall be a song dedicated to Sunny Leone.