She felt devoted to an India she didn’t grow up in, but the country gave Sunny Leone a raw deal
Some performers are equal parts personality and technique; by the way most people write about Sunny Leone’s acting, you’d think that she’s all personality and no technique. There’s a fair share of critics who would not deign to call Leone an actress. Even her most impassioned cheerleaders will not defend her on this front.
The very potency of her backstory – an Indo-Canadian former pornstar who transitioned into Bollywood – outright eclipses all else, effectively doing all the talking. She’s spent her relatively nascent Bollywood career ghettoized to roles that retell the story of her own career path, either through the didactic self-referentialism of Jism 2 (2012) and Ragini MMS 2 (2014) or more tongue-in-cheek gestures toward “reincarnating” her bygone avatar in Ek Paheli Leela (2015).
By now, there has been an awful lot written about Leone, and with reason. The mere matter of her stardom has invited near-anthropological scrutiny from cultural critics. They are eager to parse the paradox of her stardom and defend her preemptively from any possible attack that could be leveled against her. (This apparently wasn’t enough of a buffer against that churlish Bhupendra Chaubey interview, but I digress.) The best of these pieces was Paromita Vohra’s in The Ladies’ Finger from a year back, in which Vohra made astute observations about the very questions that have vexed the world about Leone: Why her? Why in India? Why now? And how?
These questions have been uttered so often that they’re, frankly, a little boring. I’m more compelled by the conclusion that Vohra reaches at the crux of her sterling piece: that she doesn’t find Leone much of an actress. Vohra confesses to finding Leone’s performances wanting – excessively manicured, stylized to a fault, full of preening and posturing that recalls the wooden, rehearsed vocabulary of American pornographic acting from which Leone emerged. Vohra attributes this, partly, to her own position as a viewer. She’s a woman, not one of the globs of estrogen-hungry men who gleefully slobber over Leone.
Now, a confession of my own: I am a man who loves Sunny Leone. I am also gay. By consequence, I’m disinclined from viewing Leone with anything that approaches sexual fervor. And, aside from a few childhood sojourns in Kolkata, I was born and raised in New Jersey. Like Leone, I’m a child of the diaspora. I recognize traces of the same qualities in her that I see in myself – chief among them, a hunger to prove her Indianness to an audience predisposed to question it, as if they look at her and immediately ask, How Indian are you, really? I flinch when people level such predictable attacks against her.
Perhaps as something of a defense mechanism, Leone has spent the past few years developing an ironclad public image – that of a savvy businesswoman who is also unthreateningly kind. Yet I’m most drawn to her in the moments she lets this guard down. Roughly a year and a half ago, Leone penned an unexpectedly heartfelt letter to Kim Kardashian (curiously, another woman who became famous after having sex on screen, and subsequently had that cast a shadow on the rest of her career) in advance of her scheduled Bigg Boss appearance, telling her what to expect from such an experience.
“I had been through a lot with the Indian community not liking the profession I chose, and my life’s decision,” Leone wrote, regarding her initial reluctance to take part in the show at all. “I didn’t want to go there, and go through it all over again.” Though Leone spoke of the “Indian community” in somewhat essentialist terms here, what emerged from this letter was a sense of alienation from the very place Leone, as a member of the diaspora, hoped to claim as home.
She grew up far away from India but felt ancestral devotion to it. Though she possessed an openness to listen and learn rather than to impose herself, she found those intentions met with utter hostility. It’s impossible for me not to read a passage like this and feel that Leone has been gravely wronged by the very people who should’ve welcomed her.
I suspect the reality Leone wrote of in that letter is one many within the diaspora face, particularly those of us who deviate from the normative sexual behaviors we’re taught to parrot from youth. It’s certainly my own reality, as someone who isn’t heterosexual. What allows me to derive kinship with Leone is this suggestion of silent suffering the public largely hasn’t been privy to, because she’s done an expert job of hiding it – even in her aforementioned interview with Chaubey, she maintained her composure.
I can’t help but project my own experiences, along with what little I can glean about her own life from such interviews, onto Leone’s onscreen presence. There is a long, storied tradition of gay male audiences looking at actresses and finding some aspect of themselves in those women. This holds especially true when there is a prevailing sense that society, writ large, has been unkind to these women, yet they remain resolute in their refusal to kowtow to such indignities – think of Marilyn Monroe, pilloried in her personal life until she died.
The Monroe-Leone comparison is an easy, somewhat lazy one that many people have evoked. Writing for The Week this past January, Shikha Dalmia compared Leone’s graceful public image to Monroe’s. And there’s a scene in Kuch Kuch Locha Hai (2015) where Leone parrots the iconic image of Monroe from The Seven-Year Itch (1955) – white dress billowing against invisible wind machine, donning a platinum blonde wig, blood-red lips pursed at an ogling male onlooker.
To me, this image almost risks forecasting the same doom for Leone that befell Monroe. For Monroe was slotted into that symbol of the voiceless, smiling enchantress until death. Time has been retroactively kind to Monroe, but she didn’t exactly get her due as an actress in her lifetime. Only now has Monroe’s stock as an actress risen, with critics wondering why she wasn’t given more plum roles worthy of her comic agility and dramatic fluency.
Will Leone ever get a Niagara (1953) or The Misfits (1961)? I have been waiting for filmmakers to start shaping the obvious talent she possesses into something more affecting than a vaguely witty wink at her own past that people can’t seem to forget. Yet still, she seems to be wasted, because directors and audiences alike just can’t shake off the spectacle of her past as an adult film actress.
Prurience of this nature translates, after all, to capital. I won’t be surprised if, decades from now, we will collectively look back on Leone’s stardom in the same way we now look upon Monroe’s, wondering why few directors couldn’t see talent when all they perceived was her beauty and the seeming limitations that beauty suggested.
In making the case for Leone, a scene I continually revisit is the tagline from Ek Paheli Leela, in which she utters, “Glamour industry mein success ka shortcut…short skirt.” How do you justify this line’s presence in a movie? It’s indefensibly stupid, the kind screenwriters have subjected Leone to for the past few years – sledgehammer-subtle nods to the fact that she was once a pornstar, in case we haven’t belabored that point. Yet I marvel at what Leone does with that throwaway utterance, finding its sly irony in its bleary-eyed attempt at humor, as if to suggest that she’s in on the joke even if those around her aren’t.