Dilip Mehta’s absorbing documentary on Sunny Leone attempts to establish its feminist credentials from its first frame. A quote by Erica Jong on Leone’s former profession (“I don't know what the definition of pornography is and nobody else does either”) fills the screen at the beginning of Mostly Sunny. Next, a taxi’s windscreen wiper tries to get a clear view of the road ahead, providing a visual metaphor for Mehta’s efforts to demystify the ex-adult entertainer who is working in Hindi films, cutting ribbons and dancing at private functions, and generally enlivening the entertainment scene in India.
Beyond refusing to condemn Leone’s professional choices, Mostly Sunny does not wade far into the debate about feminism and pornography. But it does have a lot to say about Leone’s pluckiness, her astute handling of the Indian public’s fascination for her, and the workings of the Mumbai entertainment world. The 92-minute documentary will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27), and has been picked up for worldwide distribution by Netflix and iTunes.
The narrative that emerges in Mostly Sunny is of an industrious professional whose current persona is of the prodigal daughter who has returned home. Leone has been using her Indian heritage to bag film roles (such as the October 7 release Beimaan Love), and while she is not apologetic about her past, she wants to maintain a distance from it. Although Leone has disowned the documentary despite giving Mehta considerable access to her private life, the film actually champions her regular transformations. “This film will come as a surprise – we like Sunny!” Mehta told Scroll.in. “I am giving you a totally different gravitas than Sunny’s own interviews to fashion magazines.”
Mehta, a photojournalist turned filmmaker who divides his time between Delhi and Toronto, interviewed Leone and Daniel Weber, her husband and business manager, at length over a two-and-a-half-year period. He was commissioned to make the film by two Canadian production companies, Ballinran and Nomad. Mehta had been working on a screenplay for his upcoming feature film In Search of a Hangman, and he agreed to sign up only if he had the final cut. His producers agreed.The documentary gained urgency with the gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old intern in Delhi on December 16, 2012. “It was being bandied about that people like Sunny were responsible for the spread of rape culture in India,” Mehta said. He met Leone in Mumbai, and told her that he wanted to make a no-holds-barred film that would portray her like never before. The documentary benefits tremendously from this access, especially in the sequences that feature Leone and the brother whose name she adopted, Sunny Singh Vohra.
“It’s a fascinating film to do – she has an interesting life trajectory, and it reflects so much on present-day India,” Mehta said. “You have a right of centre government and moral police at every nook and cranny, and suddenly you have a porn star – what a contradiction. Who says we are intolerant? Maybe we are not.”
Mehta shot Leone on film and music video shoots and followed her to Sarnia in Ontario, Canada, where she grew up, and Los Angeles, where she lives when she is not in Mumbai. The filmmaker also interviews the characters in the Mumbai entertainment industry who made Leone a household name in India, such as Raj Nayak, the head of Colors television channel that recruited Leone for the reality television show Bigg Boss in 2011, and Mahesh Bhatt, who produced her first Hindi movie, Jism 2, in 2012.
As is to be expected in a film about a conversation starter, Mostly Sunny is filled with views and counterviews, spot analyses and inadvertently hilarious statements that betray the public’s ambivalence towards the former porn star. Remo, a journalist with the website India.com, quotes lines from his profile: “There is only one cosmic entry that unites all heterosexual Indian males and that is Sunny Leone.”
This heterosexual Indian male tells Mehta that he bought a credit card only so that he could watch Leone’s pornographic films on the internet. ”You can never see an Indian actress naked,” says the visibly excited journalist.
The goggle-eyed approach to Leone follows her as she performs as a wedding party. As her wealthy patrons gawk at Leone gyrating on the stage with other dancers, it is clear that for many Indians, she is little more than a sex object who has leapt out of the video into our midst. The former adult performer is under no illusion of her appeal. “I am not only on the videos on the other shelf, I am also on the wedding shelf,” she jokes.
Mostly Sunny considerably humanises the object of near-universal lust in India, where she ranks as among the most-searched YouTube celebrities. She was born Karenjit Kaur Vohra in a Sikh family in Sarnia in Canada, to an engineer father and a housewife mother. The family moved to California when she was 11. Seven years later, she entered the porn trade to earn money without her family’s knowledge. Her brother supported her career choice, and hawked her autographs at college to earn a few extra bucks.
Shards of Leone’s possibly troubled childhood and adolescence emerge through the film – her family’s financial struggles, her disciplinarian mother’s descent into alcoholism, and her beloved father’s death from cancer.
As Leone became popular on the girlie mag circuit and later in pornographic films, her family shunned her. After she married Weber, with whom she has appeared in several videos, and with whom she set up the adult entertainment company Sunlust Pictures in Los Angeles, the television channel Colors made her an offer that she initially refused.
Leone and Weber reveal that they initially quoted an astronomical sum to Colors to appear on Bigg Boss in 2011, thinking that they would be rejected. The Colors management knew better than to turn down a ratings magnet, and by adding Leone to the Bigg Boss line-up, they paved the way for her entry into Bollywood.
Leone’s track record in the movies has been mixed. Her presence in a film’s credits has the potential to add bums on seats, and Leone has obliged by appearing in what are called “bold roles” in the movie trade. Yet, Indian censorship laws prevent her admirers from getting the complete Sunny Leone experience, and her severely limited acting skills have resulted in diminishing returns for her releases, which include Ek Paheli Leela and Mastizaade.
The colossal failure of Leone’s second Hindi film, Kaizad Gustad’s Jackpot in 2013, disheartened her and Weber so much that they decided to return to Los Angeles. The massive success of the song Baby Doll from Ragini MMS 2 in 2014, which was accompanied by a suitably raunchy video, persuaded her to stay back.
Mostly Sunny treats its subject with respect, so why when has she disowned the film? Leone signed a contract and was paid by the documentary’s producers to share her time with Mehta, as is the norm in the West. Leone possibly had reservations about the inclusion of short clips from her pornographic videos in Mostly Sunny. Or was she upset at the inclusion of an explicit interview with the controversial talk show Howard Stern, who has a lengthy record of sexualising women, and is in the news for his association with the disgraced American Presidential hopeful Donald Trump?
It would not have been possible to make a film on a porn star without referring to these professional milestones, Mehta argued.
“If I did a film on a football legend, would I not show at least one scene of him kicking the football,” Mehta said. “How am I going to talk about somebody’s former profession without showing it? If she were a phenomenal actor, I would not be interested in doing this film. The only reason people watched her is to see her naked.”
Mehta suggests that Leone got cold feet because the documentary does not fit the narrative that she is peddling at the moment. “It’s a trajectory within the trajectory – in my view, she is trying to do a spin by saying, this is not my story,” he said. “But when we started out, she said, I want to do the film, warts and all, and that stayed with me.”
Mostly Sunny’s kid-glove treatment should actually have charmed Leone, who has been treated by the Indian press with opprobrium and prurience. Leone “honours who she is” and has “never apologised for herself”, Mehta said. “We have stayed true to the facts and I have not been judgemental,” the filmmaker added. “I am doing what a documentarian does – I am not pontificating, but merely recording. Even during the editing, there were so many ways one could have manipulated and controlled the material.”
Despite the tensions, Mehta continues to express admiration about his subject. “She is a remarkable person – unapologetic, unrepentant and a liberal feminist,” he said. Viewers might disagree on Leone’s significance as a feminist icon, but Mostly Sunny will leave them in no doubt about her focus on her career and her self-confidence and canniness. The biggest insight from the documentary is not that India is a tolerant nation despite its contradictions. The local entertainment industry’s collective sangfroid towards fame and notoriety has been crucial to Leone’s quest for reinvention. The Hindi film industry’s ability to repackage and repurpose a controversial personality is legion, especially when there is money to be made.
The episode on Leone’s designer Hitesh Kapopara reveals the grit that gets alchemised into glamour in Mumbai. Kapopara lives in a one-room house and gets his clothes tailored from tailors in slums, like so many other second- and third-rung couturiers in the movie business. His mother says that Leone is like the goddess Lakshmi – she has brought the family prosperity.
Turning a quarter into a dollar, that’s what I am good at, Leone tells Mehta. Of all the things said during the running time of Mostly Sunny, this simple and reliable observation rings out the loudest.