It’s a nudge-wink afternoon at one of the floors of Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios, where, declares the writer and director of the upcoming Mastizaade, “The summer has already arrived.”
Milap Zaveri and the female lead, Sunny Leone, are being interviewed against cutouts that show two Leones (she is playing a double role). Both are spilling out of their clothes and holding up phallic-shaped balloons. The heroes, played by Tusshar Kapoor and Vir Das, are clutching globular balloons to their chests, their tongues hanging out. Zaveri, a writer of comedies that used to be described as “naughty” in the years before the term sex comedy became acceptable, brandishes a coin that features in the trailer for the January 29 release. The coin, when placed on the nether regions of the male anatomy, has a tendency to leap into the air.
“We discovered after scientific research that this coin is the force that holds all things together,” Zaveri says in mock seriousness as Leone grins. The coin comes out over and over again with the hope of a talisman. Mastizaade is keen to cash in on the perceived mainstream acceptance of sex comedies in India, especially after Grand Masti, which Zaveri wrote for director Indra Kumar in 2013, hauled in Rs 100 crores at the box office. The casting of Leone, the former Canadian porn star, coupled with the promise of unbridled ribald humour, might just do the trick for Mastizaade, which has been produced by Pritish Nandy Communications.
Curiosity about Mastizaade’s female lead is high enough to encourage the seasoned staff at the studio built by legendary director Mehoob Khan into sneaking a peek. A man with a badge that identifies him as a “fire marshall” strolls in for a quick look – after all, fires have been known to break out unannounced. Leone is the most searched personality on Google in India in 2015 for the fourth time running, and here she is in the flesh, gamely answering questions on whether or not the film is “vulgar” and how much “masti” [mischief] she did on the sets.
When reporters are done earning their bread, they make a grab for dessert – a plug for their networks, and a selfie with the actress, which is immediately scrutinised and commented upon by their peers.
The entertainment media scrum and the movie business have a symbiotic relationship, with both needing each other to drive ticket sales and ratings. Sunny Leone represents the perfect blend between newsiness and sensationalism. Reporters, photographers and camerapersons might leer at her at media events, but they cannot ignore her. Leone’s persistence with her acting career despite poor critical appreciation and ordinary box office returns has helped her breach the boundary wall between stars and starlets.
The magic word is “entertainment”, which has limitless meanings and implications in Hindi cinema. “People love entertainment, and she is a very entertaining personality,” observed reporter Prabhat Sharma, who is clutching separate microphones for the three media outlets he represents, APNS, Mayapuri and Jhanjaar.
Leone has been interviewed extensively of late, and she even appeared on the chat show Walk the Talk on the news channel NTDV24x7 that is hosted by Shekhar Gupta, the venerable editor and political commentator. Leone is poised, candid and dignified on the show, and she shares as many details about her family-unfriendly professional past as possible. Leone is also the subject of a cradle-to-the-present documentary by Canadian filmmaker Dilip Mehta, which will be completed later in the year.
The demand for interviews with Leone has been “insane, across all media”, producer Rangita Pritish Nandy said. “Sunny is hugely popular and she is a phenomenal human story,” Nandy said. “There’s curiosity, morality, fan-love, a whole host of emotions at play even for the interviewer. She makes good news. And that’s fabulous for our film.”
One of the running themes of Leone’s publicity outreach is the return of the prodigal daughter. Born in Canada into a Sikh family as Karenjit Kaur Vohra in 1981, Leone has spent the bulk of her career in the American pornographic industry. The shock over her entry into the Indian entertainment scene through the reality television show Bigg Boss in 2011 has now leavened into admiration for her sustained attempts to rebrand herself as an uninhibited and boundary-pushing sex symbol who wants a career in Bollywood.
Prabhat Sharma remembers being both intimidated and dazzled by Leone the first time he interviewed her in 2012 before the release of her second Hindi movie, Ragini MMS 2. “I was excited about interviewing her, I am a guy, after all, I like her,” Sharma said. Whatever his personal feelings about Leone at the time, what worked in her favour at the time was that she was still relatively new. Given the over-supply of eager aspirants in the Mumbai entertainment scene, it helps if a new entrant has something more to offer than good looks and a modicum of acting skills. “I remember there was a press conference for Ragini MMS 2, and I praised her beauty in a negative manner, I said something on the lines of, you are so beautiful, what do you do in the day time and at other times?” Sharma said. “Sunny said, you have a dirty mind. But she apologised to me later, and I realised that she is humble by nature. She has a sparkling personality, but she is also softspoken, and you cannot make a fool out of her. She takes things lightly, and she is too smart to be sucked into controversies.”
Putting the comedy into sex
Leone is the spearhead of Mastizaade’s publicity campaign, which is summed up in one sentence by producer Rangita Nandy: “Bums on seats at the opening weekend of January 29.”
Nandy said, “We are a broad spectrum comedy for an adult audience, 18 and above, so the media mix has been a sharp use of internet, digital and social media with TV, which gives us legs running on the ground reaching the masses, coupled with chart-busting, popular, mainstream music being delivered through digital media, the internet and TV again and radio.”
A trick adopted by recent adult comedies is to release on the internet the material that did not make it to the final movie. But in the adult-rated Mastizaade, “What you see in our campaign leading up to the release of the film and after, is exactly what you will see in our film” Nandy said. “The gags you see across media are actually in our movie. That’s why our campaign is a no-cheat campaign.”
Zaveri is having to explain some of these gags during the Mehboob Studio interviews as well as the songs, which include the suggestive “Hor Nach” (Let’s dance some more). He points out to Live India news channel anchor Parag Chapekar, perhaps not too convincingly, that the song is in Punjabi, hence the use of the word “hor.” The afternoon takes on a surreal air as topics that would not be heard outside of the comments sections of adult videos are casually discussed. For instance, there is a reference to breast milk in the trailer, which Zaveri explains is not a bad thing, since “milk has vitamins and minerals, as I told my wife”.
Zaveri also invokes the tradition of adult comedies embodied by the Mumbai filmmaker Dada Kondke. However, Kondke was an outré figure who hovered on the fringes of respectability and mainstream film culture, and he did not command the level of mainstream media interest that Leone is being accorded.
Parag Chapekar chafed at being asked to interview Leone for the first time some years ago. “I was apprehensive, since I had done very serious interviews, and I had not done these chichora [indecent] type interviews, and I wondered what I was doing exactly,” Chapekar said. “But when I spoke to her, I realised she is nice, she is not like her videos. She is also very creative in her interviews, she gives you cues as to what you are supposed to ask. She knows the copy.”
Leone became “a news story that you could not ignore,” Chapekar added.
‘I’m used to being attacked all the time’
Reporters who are assigned to interview Leone bring along their visions of a porn star, only to be greeted by an attractive and intelligent woman who is not ashamed of her past and plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. In a world in which tantrums are the order of the day, a co-operative face before the camera can be a relief. “Sunny is very nice, she is a chulbuli [mischievous] type in real life too,” declared Sudha Singh, a reporter with Channel One News and Lemon TV. “She co-operates at press conferences – there is no ego or attitude. She also takes on questions about her past easily, and says she was just being a professional.”
Singh was admiring of Leone’s determination in creating a new image for herself, one that includes elements of her past as well as fits into a category of Bollywood actresses described as “bold.” Leone has proved people wrong, Singh said, and has reached this far with her hard work. She has learnt Hindi, for instance, which she speaks with an accent.
Leone’s acting skills are still shaky, as proven by her movies Ek Paheli Leela and Kuch Kuch Locha Hai in 2015. Her main weapon remains her image, at once inviting and disarming. She makes no bones about her reputation, but hopes to broaden her appeal as a comic actress in Mastizaade.
“I am used to being attacked all the time,” Leone told Scroll.in during a break between interviews. She signed up for the role because of the promise of the comic material, which she described as being in the vein of the American Pie sex comedies in Hollywood. “I really liked the double role Milap created, the over the top, sexy, glamourous and promiscuous bombshell Laila as well as the geeky, dorky and nerdy Lily,” she said. “Even though people are seeing the film as an adult comedy, the boys have done a lot more crazy stuff than I have.”
There is a growing market for this kind of uninhibited movie – 2016 alone will see three such adult comedies – Kya Kool Hai Hum 3, which opens on January 22 and stars Tusshar Kapoor and Aftab Shivdasani, Mastizaade and Great Grand Masti later in the year. “When an adult comedy [Grand Masti] makes over a 100 crores, it is speaking to a lot of people and their wants in life,” Leone said. “We have so many things going on in our lives, we have all kinds of problems, so why can’t an adult at the end of his or her day leave the kids with the babysitter, go buy a movie ticket and have an adult evening?”
Reporters are willing to forgive Leone for her past transgressions, but they are not willing to forget. As Zaveri and Leone submit themselves to being grilled by Chapekar, the lighting scheme is decidedly dance bar-ish. The subjects are bathed in a green-pink-blue hue and shadows cast by an imaginatively placed grilled window frame and a table fan, which casts webbed patterns on the bare white walls.
Is Mastizaade vulgar, as people say? Zaveri launches into a spirited defence, explaining how his family has no problems with the material and advising those “veg” types who don’t like “non-veg jokes” to stay away.
“We are not holding a gun to people’s heads,” Zaveri reminds Chapekar. Leone chips in: “Hire a babysitter!”
The interview is likely to have its desired effect when it airs on television. After Chapekar first interviewed Leone, he was inundated with calls from his friends from around the world, telling him, “You idiot, why are you making us jealous,” he said. “I have interviewed stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Amitabh Bachchan, and I have never got such calls.” Fame is great, but notoriety is even greater.