Streaming platform: ZEE5
Director: Aditya Datt
Cast: Sunny Leone, Karanvir Lamba, Rysa Saujani, Raj Arjun, Bijay J. Anand, Grusha Kapoor
In 10 episodes of Karenjit Kaur, 37-year-old former adult star Sunny Leone essays the roles of 18-year-old Sunny Leone, 21-year-old Sunny Leone, 27-year-old Sunny Leone and 35-year-old Sunny Leone. There's also a 12-year-old version; fortunately, a girl named Rysa Saujani plays the prudish ugly duckling with hairy legs and a unibrow in a conservative Sikh-immigrant household. The intoxicated narrative ping-pongs – often, mid-scene, and at least thrice an episode – between multiple timelines: 1994 Canada, 1999 LA, 2002 LA, 2016 Mumbai, and even 1981 Canada. At times, it just dives into a random moment and we are supposed to guess which year it is based on the "youngness" of her clothes, the number of times she uses terms like 'dude,' the thickness of her father's beard or simply the frame's colour tone.
In one episode, events swiftly cut from her first breakup in 2002 to her love-at-first-song meeting with husband Daniel at the Adult Video Awards in 2008 (that's another timeline I missed) and then back to 2002 to a swanky pool party (all the parties seem to be held at the same Los Angeles mansion that overlooks what looks like Navi Mumbai's ghats) where she has her first girl-on-girl experience soon after winning Penthouse Pet of the Year.
I understand the makers are excited with the sheer amount of material at hand, but bunching together scattered scenes of Leone's vivid life under episodic themes (titles read: The First Dress, From Canada to LA, Virgin Mary, The Birth of Sunny Leone, Karenjit Reveals the Truth, How Karenjit Met Her Husband, Humiliation for Family, The Only Regret) might not be a wise idea. It is not just disorienting but incredibly mediocre storytelling – the kind of ignorant flashback-within-flashback-within-two-flashbacks writing that would make Christopher Nolan regret turning 'Inception' into a mainstream, misinterpreted idea.
Yet, somehow, for more than 200 inexplicably shabby minutes, this biographical web series manages to tell us virtually nothing other than the fact that money makes Leone happy and she regrets hurting her parents. It makes her come across as a shallow daughter, a weird sister, a flaky adult and a generally unreliable human – a far cry from the confident Bollywood 'crossover' celebrity who makes no bones about having lived life on her own terms. The show is designed under the assumption that only Indian parents would be disappointed if their child chooses to become a pornstar. The white characters are therefore xenophobic ("You Asians can't beat us blondes at our own game"), racist ("your stupid, stinking Indian values won't let you fuck that guy"), racist ("an immigrant father threatening an American citizen? LOL"), perverse (Leone's ex best friend's husband is seen masturbating to Leone's Penthouse spread) and just downright ghastly actors. The LOL I may have made up, but you get the gist.
All of them seem to be fetishizing our perception of Americans. In a way, they are role-playing badly, not unlike one of those cheesy 'scripted' pornos with housewives and pizza delivery boys – which ironically makes director Aditya Datt a "method filmmaker" of sorts.
The entire show pivots on a dramatized version of Bhupendra Chaubey's infamous 2016 interview with Sunny Leone. Each of his questions allows her to harp back to different stages of her life. Her father's joblessness. Her mother's alcoholism. Her brother's support. A judgmental community. The seduction of wealth. By the end we still aren't sure if she was ambitious, exploited, rebellious, independent or greedy. Raj Arjun, who was terrifying as the father in Secret Superstar, plays the condescending anchor here. He looks equal-parts constipated, murderous, Manoj-Bajpayee-in-Aks and aroused. The segment keeps cutting to disapproving reaction shots of producers in the control room; "You will get hit-wicket, be a Dhoni instead," one senior gentleman whispers into Chaubey's earpiece. Given Dhoni's current form, there is no doubt he was following these orders.
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Except for Leone and her brother Sunny (yes, his name flashed on her phone when she was choosing a stage name), no real identities are used: Bhupendra Chaubey becomes Anupam Chaubey, Howard Stern becomes Richard Stone, and most importantly, 50 Cent becomes 2 Pence. Or, as a wise critic once tweeted: 2 Rupees Person.
I wish I had something substantial to say about a show that could have, in better hands, explored a remarkable cultural phenomenon. But Leone is so insistent on advertising her mind – she has done so repeatedly, across tabloids and interviews and Hindi movies – that Karenjit Kaur is little more than a terribly crafted vanity project. It is by no means an untold story. It is at its best, corny D-grade entertainment.
When Leone first sees Daniel across a nightclub, romantic music fills the air, the camera focuses on her besotted face, and a naked model with nipple pasties casually chats with the bartender beside her. The scene is eye-catching; it can be looked at as one that tries to normalize the idea of nudity and eroticism and adult entertainment, yet it is also one that unwittingly resorts to the same clichés it tries to debunk. It is an image that epitomizes the show – and the overkilled legacy behind it.