Why can’t we leave Sunny Leone alone?
Bollywood actress and former adult-film star Sunny Leone has yet again been targeted, and this time it’s for her birth name, Karenjit Kaur. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC), an organization that manages gurdwaras and Sikh places of worship, has issues with the usage of the word “Kaur” in the title of her biopic Web series Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, alleging it would hurt Sikh sentiments.
Notably, Leone has made no comment on the matter. And seriously, good for her!
Even before the Indo-Canadian model, actress and former adult-film star debuted in Bollywood in 2012 with Pooja Bhatt’s Jism 2, Nationalist Congress Party legislator Vidya Chavan thought the movie posters were obscene and vulgar. Upon her complaint, then Mumbai mayor Sunil Prabhu ordered that the advertisements be removed from all BEST (Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport) buses and bus shelters. And BEST complied.
In 2015, Communist Party of India leader Atul Anjan said Leone’s endorsement for condom brand Manforce would increase the number of rapes in India. Never mind that the use of condoms helps the practice of safe sex, Anjan said the ad destroyed sensibility.
Last year, an outdoor ad for the same brand was released during Navratri, a Hindu festival, and the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) demanded a ban in Gujarat state, saying it was derogatory. “In the lust [for] earning huge money, these brand ambassadors (Sunny Leone) can go to any level irrespective of the pious and religious occasion of Navratri even,” said CAIT national secretary Praveen Khandelwal. He not only thinks sexual intercourse is a derogatory act but believes he has the right to tell people when they can indulge in it, and obviously that cannot be during a “pious and religious occasion.”
The same year, a Mumbai woman filed an obscenity case against Leone and demanded a ban on her website sunnyleone.com. A year later, a Goa-based right-wing outfit demanded the same ban and said that “her popularity has become a threat to Indian culture.”
In 2016, TV journalist Bhupendra Chaubey of CNN-IBN asked Leone judgmental and sexist questions on national television in an exceptionally condescending and insulting manner. Some of the questions were: “So what is it about, Sunny? Is it just about the money?” “Do you believe that your body will ultimately take you everywhere?” “There are lots of married women who look at Sunny Leone as a threat to their husbands. You do not care about all this?” “How many people would grow up thinking of becoming a porn star?” Leone answered all his questions gracefully, unfazed.
In 2017, she was in Kerala to promote a smartphone brand, and a sea of people showed up to see her, in effect blocking roads in Kochi. Two months later, Bharitya Janata Party supporters used the same picture of Leone’s fans, edited it with Photoshop, and attributed it to BJP president Amit Shah’s Jan Raksha Yatra (People’s Safety Rally) in Kannur. She might not be “sanskari” (kosher), but even the government tapped in on her popularity and crowd-pulling skills for its image.
The same year, Bangalore police denied permission for a New Year’s event featuring a performance by Leone. A pro-Kannada group protested that it would “spoil Kannada culture,” but the police said it had nothing to do with that.
When Leone and her husband Daniel Weber adopted a baby girl from Latur, Maharashtra, she received a lot of flak because what-will-your-daughter-think-of-you-when-she-watches-your-porn-movies.
For Leone, the list is an endless one.
Male actors, though, are treated very differently. Malayalam actor Dileep was arrested last year for conspiring to kidnap and attempting to rape an Indian film actress. Shortly after, he was released on bail by the High Court. Since then, many of his movies have been released, including Kammara Sambhavan and Ramleela. The shooting of upcoming film Professor Dinkan was stalled upon his arrest, but will resume in Dubai now that he’s out on bail.
How does it become OK for a male actor who has been arrested for attempting to rape a woman to continue to act in films but when a female actor who, out of her own volition, without forcing or hurting anybody, acts in adult films, she is looked down upon?
Nevertheless, India’s most Googled person of 2015, Sunny Leone has come a long way from playing a cameo in Hollywood movie The Girl Next Door to Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone.
Despite that, we don’t leave her alone.
A rapist propagates rape culture, not someone who acts in adult films. If you are a married woman and think Leone is a threat to your husband, honestly that’s between you and your husband.
Asking a woman uncomfortable questions based on a TV journalist’s judgment of her is not path-breaking journalism. It is bigotry. It is sexism. It’s the inability to be tolerant of anything that is not “normal.”
Nobody – no political or religious group or otherwise – can have any agency on Leone’s name or identity. If she has no objection to “Kaur” being used in the title of her biopic Web series, nobody else should. The harassment that has been meted out to her over the last six years is a definitive reflection on the regressive mindset of Indian society, but says even more about how strong Leone is.
Why can’t we just leave her alone? Why do we want so much of a say in her life? Why do we want to control and dictate her actions and then get angry if she doesn’t want to comply?
Sunny Leone doesn’t owe us anything that we ask of her, and we need to understand and accept that.
In the Netflix show Nanette, Australian standup comedian Hannah Gadsby makes an important point. She says, “If you were to plot my week, not a lot of lesbian-ing gets done. I don’t lesbian enough. I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as ‘that chef comedian,’ do they?”
Let that be a lesson, and let’s attempt to see Sunny Leone as more than a porn star. She is an actor, an entertainer, a mother, a wife, a woman, and a lovely human being. Why is it so difficult to see that? Why can’t we just let her be?