As India turns 71 next week, Outlook zeroed in on 21 individuals who have made a lasting impression on this country – for both good and bad – so far in the 21 st century. And we got 21 equally important personalities to write on the 21 individuals we chose.
In this column, novelist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu writes on actress Sunny Leone. Kundu says "for a generation of Indian women who couldn’t talk or write on sex without being slut-shamed, Sunny Leone holds a torch."
Let me say this upfront. I am not a huge fan of Sunny Leone’s writing. When Juggernaut first released her short story 7E on their smartphone app, it was widely downloaded, before physical copies of Sweet Dreams were available in bookstores. I was asked to review the collection for a digital news platform, possibly, thanks to the epithet, ‘India’s first erotica writer,’ that has been prefixed to my writing credentials, since my second novel, Sita’s Curse, climbed the ranks on the bestseller ranks. Which is why I admire Sunny Leone the person, who explained why there was no Fifty Shades of Grey sort of dog collars and handcuffs and whips to be found in her 12 erotic sagas that actually land the reader in safe and sanskari ‘romance’ territory. “I like the idea of two people falling in love. Being physical then becomes a part of getting to know someone,” she tamely said.
Sunny, whose real name is Karenjit Kaur Vohra, is a Canada-born Indian-American who was named Penthouse Pet of the Year in 2003. Maxim magazine rated her as one of the top 12 pornstars of 2010, but it wasn’t until she debuted in Pooja Bhatt’s erotic thriller, Jism 2 in 2012, following it up with mainstream roles in Jackpot (2013), Ragini MMS2 (2014) and Ek Paheli Leela (2015) that she challenged the very fabric of deep-rooted patriarchy the popular film industry in Mumbai pretends doesn’t exist. When botoxed, size zero, still not turned 30, actresses have no qualms lip syncing to vulgar item songs in hundred-crore grossing movies, bat their fake lashes, refute the prevalence of the casting couch and address a senior actor ‘Sir’, Sunny objected to being treated like a dumb pin-up in a chat show hosted by senior television journalist Bhupendra Chaubey. His blog, which sought to defend himself against scathing criticism that he was a male chauvinist, was also peppered with sentences like, “the only reason why Sunny Leone or Karenjit as she used to be called earlier would have qualified to be on my show is because its her past now evolving into her present which is the story waiting to be ‘told’,” and “we aren’t really going to the cinemas to watch her because she’s a star. And I might add I haven’t seen any of her Bollywood films, because I have kids at my place, so I can’t watch any of her films in her earliest avatar even if I wanted to.”
While other actresses bow to Bollywood’s patriarchy, Sunny objected to being treated like a dumb pin-up in Bhupendra Chaubey’s show.
Truth be told, in a nation with over a billion people, where MPs watch porn in Parliament, where the brutal rape of a nomadic girl goes viral on social media, where teenage pregnancy is soaring and where an earlier government bans a porn character (Savita Bhabhi), it doesn’t take too much of guesswork to understand exactly what part of our misogyny a woman like Sunny challenges—the part that tells its girls to wear dhang ke kapde, but won’t use a condom lest it lessens sexual bliss. Where shopkeepers exchange glances when a woman asks for an Ipill and when women kissing is sinful. With all her shudh desi sex appeal and that delicious firang accent endorsing lubricated gels the same way she struts her stuff onscreen, pouting, crawling on her fours, saying the word, ‘babydoll’ just the way every Indian man fantasises, Sunny makes not just porn mainstream, but breaks the myth that distinguishes between dhang ke kapde pehenewali acchi ladki, and gandi, gandi harkaton wali ladki. I believe Sunny can be credited with this democratisation of desire in some measure. In a culture of hush hush, ‘bacche jag jayenge’ pillow talk, it perhaps even motivated actor Aamir Khan to extend his support towards her. “Sunny, I will be happy to work with you. I have absolutely no problems with your ‘past,’’ Khan tweeted.
Whether Sunny has shattered the male bastion or not remains yet to be proven. But, for a generation of Indian women who couldn’t talk or write on sex without being slut-shamed, she holds a torch. You can’t shame Sunny.
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Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is a bestselling novelist. She writes on sexuality and gender.