Being the most Googled name in India is a double-edged sword, as Sunny Leone would well know by now. As possibly the world’s most famous porn star and definitely the only one to be a successful Bollywood actress and reality TV star in India, the 35-year-old is the only Indian woman who can claim to straddle the universe of the sleazy and the respectable at the same time. Is this the fairy-tale ending success stories are made of?
Notwithstanding the scathing moral policing she has faced in her rise to fame, Sunny’s porn-star past has been a stepping stone on her path to Bollywood success. In fact, she does great business off both till today – her porn site is easily available to anyone who wishes to view her body of work (with several other non-desi actresses as bonus) and going by her own estimates, she has a reach of about 100 million people across her digital universe.
To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice the readership of the Bhaskar group, which is read across 16 Indian states in 4 languages. Of course, sex has no language or literacy restrictions.
Indeed, it would be hasty to assign Sunny to the titillation hall of fame for her jaunts on the Internet and in adult Bollywood comedies. This lady’s much more than eye candy.
By the time Canadian-born Karenjit Kaur Vohra made her entry into the Indian glamour industry through the reality TV show Bigg Boss, she was already an established name in internet porn along with her husband and fellow adult entertainer Daniel Weber.
Being on Indian television only gave her a greater boost to her online business. “Our research showed that majority of the traffic that came to my website or different social media sites was from India. We were not capitalising the traffic. Nobody made it to the ‘join’ page or purchased anything. Bigg Boss was my chance to break into a market that I had never been able to tap into,” Sunny told Mint in an interview.
When Bollywood film offers came along – ‘R’ rated ones like Ragini MMS 2, Mastizaade, Jism 2 and the latest One Night Stand – Sunny was only happy to sign up. The femme fatale roles were perfect for the real-life bombshell image she had cultivated.
Soon, Sunny launched a perfume – predictably named ‘The Lust’ – and a gaming app ‘Teen Patti with Sunny Leone’. With her husband Daniel as her business partner, she also buttressed her online investments with others in real estate, mutual funds and stocks in the US. By now, she had a formidable social-media following – 18 million on Facebook, 1.5 million on Twitter and a whopping 5.3 million on Instagram.
As the Kardashians would tell you, any social media fame brings with it much fortune – brand mentions are chargeable, photos are strategically taken, locations are carefully selected. The more one’s following and ‘engagement’ on social media, the more one can charge for brand endorsement. Every time a lusty teenager comments, “Look at that booty,” on Sunny’s social media, it has a snowball effect, leading to support or arguments, ending up with another ka-ching in Sunny’s cash register.
Sunny used her superlative, carnally motivated command over the nation’s youth to huge profit. The more people Googled her, the more valuable her time and social media became. Nature had bestowed her with bombshell looks. With her brains, the combination was nuclear.
On the other side – away from the cleavage-baring, lip-smacking image that wooed the masses with its elusory aspiration of unbridled lust – was another Sunny, an articulate, well-dressed desi diva. She favoured Indian designers, showed up at fashion-related events and posted images in trendy garments that rivalled Cannes-trotting fashionistas like Sonam Kapoor. She appeared on TV talk shows as the ingénue with a past trying to shed her old image and make her way in the big, bad world of Bollywood.
And such was her wide-eyed charm that even heavyweights like Aamir Khan tweeted their support when an interviewer challenged her on TV if she was ‘respectable’ enough for a mainstream Bollywood film role. Out of a controversial interview came a huge payback: the interviewer was called out for his male chauvinism; Sunny’s acceptance in the Hindi film industry was complete.
Then came another benchmark in the glamour story: Sunny launched her own calendar this week. It was sponsored by a condom brand and shot by Dabboo Ratnani, a Bollywood photographer whose main claim to fame are his Bollywood besties and his annual calendar that features them.
The parallels between the Manforce calendar, Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher calendar, and the world-famous Pirelli calendar are inescapable. All are shot by well-known photographers, and all feature sexy women in bikinis. But while the others feature 12 different people – even Dabboo’s annual calendar features 12 top Bollywood stars – Sunny is the only one in hers.
The writing on the wall is clear: we can’t get enough of Sunny even if we see her undressed 12 different times.
And yet, the question remains: Is this a fairytale ending? If you look carefully, you can spot the derision on her face during her own calendar launch, a fake smile, a forced laugh for the cameras, distaste perhaps for the mediapersons and brand representatives of the condom company who had paid for her to be there. Maybe being every Indian man’s ultimate masturbation accessory isn’t so pretty when it’s in your face.
The double-edged sword of erotic fame cuts not just Sunny but all Indian women. On one hand, there is empowerment envy: we can’t help admire a woman who can make millions out of men’s lust for her body. Like the buxom 13-year-old character in an Elena Ferrente novel who charges money to show her breasts to her pubescent classmates, there is something wondrous and even courageous in Karenjit’s ability to rake a living out of other people’s weakness by doing nothing much herself except shedding her own inhibitions.
On the other hand lies Sunny’s dubious association with porn, an industry that is time and again proved to be detrimental to women’s safety and empowerment – both for the victims who are forced into it, and the hapless others who are targeted for sexual violence out of it. Sunny is part of the system, even if admittedly on top of it.
Sunny’s story – bad girl gone good – could have been a fairytale ending if only it did not further promote women’s bodies as a commodity that lines millions of pockets worldwide. As of now, it’s just another cliché.