Web series

Sunny Leone on her new web series: ‘This was for my fans and their curiosity’

The Zee5 series ‘Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone’ charts the early life of the former adult entertainer and Bollywood actress.

It is raining star biopics and biographies on the screen and in the literary world, and the internet does not want to be left behind. Zee5’s web series Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, directed by Aditya Datt and steered by Leone, offers a peek into the life of the former adult entertainer and Bollywood actress.

Leone stars as herself in the 10-episode series alongside Bijay Jasjit Anand and Grusha Kapoor, who play her parents. Rysa Saujani portrays her younger self, Karamvir Lamba plays her brother, Sundeep, and Marc Bucker depicts her husband, Daniel Weber.

The series, as the title indicates, explores Leone’s back story before she became a reputed porn star in America and a popular name in the Bollywood entertainment industry after her appearance in the reality television show Bigg Boss in 2011. She was born Karenjit Kaur Vohra, into a Sikh family in Sarnia in Canada, grew up to be a rebellious teenager after the family moved to Los Angeles in America, and became an adult entertainer at the age of 19. The ‘Sunny’ in her name has been inspired by her brother, Sundeep Vohra.

“Karenjit Kaur is a human being and Sunny Leone is a brand,” Leone declares as the series opens.

The idea of an autobiographical web series came from producer Shareen, Leone explained in an email interview from Los Angeles. “She [Shareen] came to us and explained what she wanted to shoot and the story she wanted to tell,” Leone said. “How she wanted to tell the story of not just my career choices but my family as well, adding a more personal feel to the biopic. It was again Shareen and Daniel’s [Leone’s husband] idea that I would play myself which has not been done in Indian cinema.”

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Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone (2018).

The web series comes on the heels of Dilip Mehta’s 2016 documentary Mostly Sunny, which is streaming on Netflix. Mostly Sunny is an attempt to decode the Indian public’s fascination for Leone and map her life before she came to India. Leone participated in the film, candidly spoke about her personal and professional choices, and gave Mehta considerable access to her world. However, by the time the documentary came out, Leone had distanced herself from the film.

“A lot of people liked it but I did not like his [Mehta’s] filming style or how things were manipulated to his benefit,” Leone said without elaborating further. “I wanted to tell my story and the Zee5 series is my story completely.”

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Mostly Sunny (2016).

The Zee5 series opens with what appears to be a dramatised recreation of a television interview that Leone gave News18 journalist Bhupendra Chaubey in 2016. Chaubey was criticised for his questions, which included, “How many people would grow up thinking of becoming a porn star?” and “There are lots of married women who look at Sunny Leone as a threat to their husbands. Do you not care about all this?”

In the web series, television journalist Anupam Chaubey (Raj Arjun) asks Leone similar questions, although they are even more dramatically phrased. Example: “A lot of people would say that there is no difference between a porn star and a prostitute. What do you have to say about that?”

Leone uses the interview to address questions that have often been asked of her: was she forced into becoming an adult entertainer? Was she pushed by financial troubles in her family? Does she regret any of her decisions?

“The interview was a vehicle to propel the story forward and the journalist needed [to] ask the right questions that most people out there have,” Leone said.

Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone. Courtesy Zee5.
Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone. Courtesy Zee5.

Leone clarified that the web series was aimed at her fans rather than her detractors. “That [A response to her detractors] definitely was not my first thought at all,” she said. “This [the series] was for my fans and their curiosity and also to share with them my story to hopefully help people to know it’s okay to create your own destiny. Not choose my path but their own. It might be hard but the reward of freedom and accomplishment means more than dealing with a few haters.”

The series stops at the point at which Leone becomes an adult entertainer. Will a second season include her plunge into Hindi films too? “Not sure about another season but we shall find out if people are interested to see my version of things, those I went through and witnessed,” Leone said.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.