Why India needs Sunny Leone

While safety, human rights and dignity matter more than morality, the adult movie star-turned-Bollywood actor may serve as a flashpoint for gender issues


Sunny Leone has a lot of pluck in trying to stay in the midst of a highly judgmental society as a Bollywood heroine, while remaining one of the most searched Indians on Google. Photo: AFP
Sunny Leone has a lot of pluck in trying to stay in the midst of a highly judgmental society as a Bollywood heroine, while remaining one of the most searched Indians on Google. Photo: AFP

It is easy to deride someone if you “believe” that the person is morally inferior. One’s own assumed superiority is more dangerous, in fact, than the other person’s supposed inferiority. These may be much debated theorems of human nature, but this very belief (of one’s superiority) is often an illusion. Moral superiority is, after all, a thorny issue, hardly as simple as a TV anchor thinking he is made of gold just because a former adult movie star is on the other side of the goodness scale. This theory became a flesh-and-blood drama recently when TV news channel CNN-IBN’s anchor Bhupendra Chaubey insulted Bollywood actor Sunny Leone while believing he was interviewing her. He crossed the boundaries of journalistic decency with the tone he took, the look he wore and the words he used when he asked her whether “he would become morally corrupt by speaking to her”.

So, you may have read all about the outrage over Chaubey’s continued questioning of Leone. That’s though not the point of my article.

It was while watching that interview, observing Leone’s poise and control in the face of deep embarrassment while Chaubey hurt himself as a journalist that it struck me why India needs Sunny Leone.

From the moment this lady entered the fifth season of the reality TV show Bigg Boss, she woke India up to long closeted impulses.

Even then, in 2012, after watching her perform a pole dance in the Bigg Boss house, I had written why bringing an adult movie star into the drawing rooms of India was the smartest thing that had happened to Indian television. In the form of a gutsy woman, the audience was actually confronted with the outrage they tend to expend towards “sex and assorted debates”. Here was a person who had openly owned up to her career in X-rated films in her resume. The audience was free to vote for her or not, make her a winner or not and, through social and other media, voice what they really thought about adult film actors. Leone’s reality show presence became the reason to put a forbidden dialogue out on the table.

Children and adolescents as well as mummies and grandpapas all watch Bigg Boss. That was the best part. She forced Indians to ask themselves whether, as a changing society, they were ready to give a former or current adult movie star the same adulation they drum up for other wannabe celebs. So the applause that then went up when actor Aamir Khan told her he would be happy to work with her regardless of her background was actually an endorsement of a film industry—and, through it, the society—willing to shed its tightly held notions on “morality”.

Four years later, as “senior journalist” Bhupendra Chaubey revealed, India, as a society, still needs Sunny Leone to remind it that it is as hypocritical as it always was. That the people of India still need a former porn star to assert their moral superiority. Not only that, as the past fortnight revealed, India needed Leone to roll out a much needed debate on celebrities endorsing paan masala—one of the leading causes of oral cancer. Leone was the only half-celebrity to respond to the Delhi government’s appeal to film stars to avoid endorsement of paan masala, saying she would do so. None of the other macho heroes—Saif Ali Khan, Ajay Devgn, Shahrukh Khan to name some—bothered.

Yes, we may want to pause for a moment and ask whether a misogynist attitude led to contracting Leone for a paan masala brand in the first place. I couldn’t find any other female celebrity endorsing paan masala in my searches. So, what was it? A certain type of look-at-me sexiness that she is known for that made her the right choice for paan masala, an addictive substance often associated with male hauteur? It was up to Leone to refuse that endorsement. It was an error especially if she is trying to recast her image.

I am no fan of her acting, but think she has a lot of pluck in trying to stay in the midst of this highly judgmental society as a Bollywood heroine while remaining one of the most searched Indians on Google.

She should be brought back to news television with an incisive and sensitive anchor who can focus on her experiences and retrospective learnings from the adult movie industry. Veteran editor Shekhar Gupta’s recent Walk The Talk interview with Leone on NDTV was near faultless in its manner and content but Leone speaking exclusively on the pornography industry, the reality of porn surveys and its ramifications in India is perhaps a story whose time has come.

Just as an audience needs someone who has been imprisoned for years to give us a first-person account of the horrors of incarceration, just as only earthquake, molestation or rape survivors can sensitize us to what really happens when nature or humankind choke their lives, viewers need Leone to understand the impact of an adult movie career on relationship intimacy, crime and human trafficking.

She could perhaps help the society understand what exploitation in the adult film industry really means and if there is indeed a difference between free-willed careers and victims.

Why safety, human rights and dignity matter more than morality. She may serve as a flashpoint for gender issues.

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