Mumbai: How do you solve a problem like Sunny Leone?
Do you, as a director, get coy about the fact that you have cast a pornstar who has featured in lad mags such as Hustler and Penthouse, and who has won awards for such things as “Favorite Breasts” and “Best All-Girl Group Sex Scene”? Or do you flaunt her credentials, which may work nicely for Internet trawlers, but might just harm the box-office chances of a film that will release across single screens and multiplexes in the country?
Pooja Bhatt, who has directed Leone in the forthcoming Jism 2, says she has found a middle path that aligns Leone’s pornographic past with her Bollywood present. Jism 2 is about “emotionally damaged characters” in search of sexual fulfilment, said Bhatt. Leone plays Izna, an adult movie actor who is used as a honey trap to draw out an assassin, Kabir (played by Randeep Hooda). The film’s pre-release campaign, accordingly, mimics various stages of erotic pleasure, from intense arousal to extended foreplay, toa climactic release of emotions—timed with the actual theatrical release on 3 August.
Jism 2 has a small window to win its box-office battle before Salman Khan carpet-bombs every screen in sight with Ek Tha Tiger on 15 August. The main weapon in its armoury is Leone, the Canadian adult film actor and director of Sikh origin who first grabbed eyeballs across India as a contestant on last year’s season of the reality television show Bigg Boss. Jism 2’s writer and Pooja’s father, Mahesh Bhatt, signed up Leone in a well-publicized gesture—he dropped into the venue of the Bigg Boss show to offer Leone the lead in the sequel to the 2003 movie Jism.
Since that moment, carefully released doses of publicity—in the form of statements and interviews, film stills, trailers, music videos, tweets, and Facebook updates—have steadily built up Jism 2 from yet another exercise in India-friendly cinematic sensuality from the Bhatt family to a movie with legs at the box office.
The promotions dwell on the carefully lit, well-toned and semi-clad bodies of both actors in various lovemaking positions. The effort has been to balance the fervour that follows the very mention of Leone’s name with reminding audiences of the movie’s overall theme. A widely circulated poster in January showed not Leone’s face, but the body of an unidentified naked woman covered with a diaphanous garment. “The poster doesn’t depend on the person, but the physical form,” Bhatt said. “I was told that you can’t have a hoarding where you don’t show the person’s face. But we often underestimate people. When you hold your cards back, that’s where the excitement begins.” Another poster shows a bare-backed woman stepping into a waterfall.
The pre-release build-up has played out largely on the Web, where the long arm of the Central Board of Film Certification doesn’t reach. “We knew that television would have a problem with the promotions, so we put them directly on the Internet,” said Ramachandra Srinivasan, whose company Sanskriti Media has handled the publicity campaign. The tremendous curiosity created by the coming together of “Sunny Leone’s personality and brand Jism” has made publicity a “cakewalk”, added Srinivasan. Bhatt wanted to cast Leone in 2002 itself in Jism after reading a magazine article about her being the first Indian-origin adult film performer to be featured in Penthouse, he said. Jism, a rehash of the Hollywood noir classic Double Indemnity, launched the film career of former model John Abraham and sealed his co-star Bipasha Basu’s image as a home-breaking seductress.
Bollywood’s understanding of erotica has largely been shaped by the love-sex-betrayal-murder cocktails of Vishesh Films, run by brothers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt. Pooja Bhatt’s company, Fish Eye Network Pvt. Ltd, collaborated closely with Vishesh Films on such films Paap and Dhoka. The Bhatt movies are sensual rather than explicit, which allows them to slip past India’s censors, but also tantalize audiences into reaching for their wallets. Jism ranked 18 in industry tracker BoxOfficeIndia’s list of top 30 films for 2003—its gross box-office intake was listed as Rs 13.25 crore.
The Bhatt brothers, who are astute producers as well as shrewd publicists, cast Emraan Hashmi as a heat-seeking missile in such films as Murder and its sequel, Murder 2. Film publicist Rahul Dubey, who worked on Murder 2, said the movie’s marketing campaign took a cue from the appeal of its predecessor. “The only strategy on Murder 2 was to project the movie correctly for its target audience,” Dubey said. “Everyone though Murder 2 would be as erotic as Murder.” Murder 2’s posters suggested steamy business between its leads, Sri Lankan model Jacqueline Fernandez and Hashmi. Fernandez danced provocatively for a video of a song from the movie, and her sultriness was emphasized throughout. Like with Jism 2, the Internet helped ratchet up the interest, Dubey said. “Whatever promos cannot be aired on television, move to YouTube,” he said. “And with smartphones, such images are now in our pockets.”
Audiences seem to be more tolerant of bare backs and lip-to-lip contact than before, but that doesn’t mean that the box office has been fully tamed, cautions Prabhat Choudhary, a publicist with communications agency Spice. “We are more accepting now and we are less scandalized,” said Choudhary, whose company helped with marketing The Dirty Picture last year. “I have seen grandmothers watch Murder with their granddaughters. If there is a challenge, though, it is that we are getting immune. Just because a film has nudity, it won’t be exciting enough.”
Leone remains the most powerful selling point for the Jism 2 team. Although Bigg Boss got her to India before Bhatt, the show has taken some of the edge off her image. Besides, audiences who expect a skin flick will find their expectations challenged, claimed Pooja Bhatt. Jism 2 has a “seriously feminine gaze”, she said. “The film is not about a woman being used to titillate an all-male audience—a lot of women have been telling me that the men in the film look equally hot. It’s more about the anguish and loneliness you feel after a sexual encounter.”
Leone will gauge for herself the local media’s response to her latest career move when she undertakes a tour of Indian cities from 28 July. She might find endorsement in strange places. “Sunny was at a restaurant after signing Jism 2,” recalled Srinivasan. “A couple walked up to her and requested her to take a picture with their son. She has been accepted and that’s what it’s all about. Cinema gives you acceptance.”
At least one part of Jism 2’s battle for respectability has been won. The film is being released in the Mumbai circuit across at least 500 screens by Raksha Distributors. Raksha has released all types of films in its 40-plus years of existence, including action films (Singham), romantic dramas (London Dreams) and thrillers (Kahaani). It has stayed away from sex-themed cinema, however, but has succumbed to the seductive powers of Jism 2. “We haven’t done anything like this before, but we picked up the film since we felt that there was a lot of curiosity and buzz around it,” said distributor Rakesh Sippy.
“Without taking things for granted, we’re expecting a very good initial,” he added.