From the We’re Getting Awfully Tired of Reading the Same Stories About Sunny Leone Files: She Continues to Promote Jism 2 Like It Was Gone With the Wind

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from – AFTER 10 years, too many photo spreads to count, 38 films in front of the camera, 39 films as director and producer, and several awards along the way (she’s won two AVN Awards, the Oscar of the adult video industry), Sunny Leone can hardly be branded a newcomer.

But on a rain-soaked day, as we head to a studio for a television interview, she spots a billboard for Jism 2, gets into a tizzy and stops the car to take pictures. She behaves as any other debutante, expounding on her nervousness about learning her lines, and fascinated by the paparazzi maelstrom she had caused the night before at the Mumbai airport when she arrived from Los Angeles.

Her publicist Rama, prone to Bollywood excesses, says: “From the laptop to her very first billboard, this is her journey.”

Last year, Sunny Leone, 31, was the most Googled celebrity in India, ahead of favourites such as Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor. In the six weeks she spent on Bigg Boss, our collective curiosity got the better of us, as we tried to find out just how seriously adult was the first Indian-origin adult star.

According to industry gossip, amongst the curious was Kareena Kapoor, who saw her videos, was suitably shocked, and made her pronouncement: “Chhee”.

How ironic then that Kareena Kapoor might be vying with Sunny Leone for that small pie reserved for films driven by women in Bollywood. Kapoor’s Heroine is the other woman-centric film to release this year, in September. This week’s release, Jism 2, is riding on Leone’s talent for grabbing eyeballs. The tagline says, “To love her is to die”. The two male leads, Randeep Hooda and Arunoday Singh, are largely irrelevant.

If the past few months at the movies have given us anything to think about, it is that we like our heroines to be good and hold up to certain standards of morality. Think Ishaqzaade and Cocktail, where the rule-breakers are taught a lesson in docility. “Like everything else in India,” says sociologist Patricia Uberoi, “the depiction of women in movies has changed and yet it hasn’t. It’s very rare to find a new idiom in the portrayal of heroines; the good girl narrative is very strong.”

In this context, the Sunny Leone phenomenon isn’t just about piquing curiosity, it is unprecedented. Not surprisingly, a PIL has been filed in the Allahabad High Court demanding a stay against the release of the film “for the adverse moral impact that her presence would have on society”. Leone says that moral guardians do not scare her anymore. “The backlash has already happened.

When I entered Bigg Boss, it was the first time someone like me was on TV. I was expecting the worst from conservatives. But, week after week, when I was not voted out, I realised something amazing must be going on outside.” She believes that young people in India are ready to admit her into the mainstream.

Pooja Bhatt, who directed Jism 2, makes no bones about the fact that she cast Leone to “grab maximum eyeballs”. Not straying too far from life, Leone plays a porn star named Izna, who is hired as a honey trap. “What is defining about Sunny is that she chose her profession,” says Bhatt, “there is no tragedy in her past.

It is exactly what I wanted for the character, someone who strips for profit and is not hypocritical about it. I have not put an item number in my film or objectified the actress like everyone does. All one sees is reality.” One film has followed another, and Leone has already signed on to appear in the sequel to last year’s sleeper hit Ragini MMS. She has also snagged some advertising campaigns. What happens once the novelty wears off? Bhatt is not so sure: “If she only does body-centric roles, it could become her calling card or she could soon burn out.”

Leone, though, has a plan. Her production company, Sunlust Pictures, produces on average five adult films a month. Her stint in Bigg Boss and her foray into Bollywood have raised her stock back home in LA. In an exhaustive analysis of the adult industry, CNBC places her third in the list of most popular porn stars for 2012.

She is straddling (sorry) both the worlds of adult and mainstream entertainment and hedging her bets. She knows when in India, do as the Indians do. So, Leone says that she hasn’t acted in an adult film for over a year and is a happily married woman in a monogamous relationship with her husband and business partner Daniel Weber.

She grew up in a conservative Sikh household where her parents always forced her to cover up, wear loose tees over her bathing suit and not draw attention to herself. “People meet me and are surprised to see I’m normal. They have fixed ideas in their head of what an adult film actress is. They expect me to climb a table and start stripping any minute.”

Leone knows when in India, do as the Indians do. She says she hasn’t acted in an adult film for a year and is a happily married woman.

Perhaps her biggest advantage has been that pornography remains unacknowledged in our country. Her husband Weber says that, unlike in India, in the US and Canada most people would be able to name Leone’s films.

“This is the only place,” he admits, “where she could have gone mainstream.” The going is never easy for adult stars in the West. The CNBC report detailed that many may dream of making the transition to traditional acting, but Hollywood and mainstream culture tend to keep the men and women of porn at arm’s length.

The exception is the former adult star Sasha Grey, who starred in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, and in the TV show Entourage, but ended up playing herself. Leone is aware of the trap, but feels confident that she has separate fan bases in India and North America. She is also certain that her Indian roots give her opportunities denied to other adult stars.

RACHEL DWYER, professor of Indian culture and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, wonders if Leone’s advent could imply the return of the vamp.

Hindi cinema buys completely into the Madonna-whore complex, dissociating sexuality from its heroines and reserving it for vamps. Dwyer says, “I think it’s key to note she’s in a film called Jism rather than a family film.” “The difference with Leone’s off-screen persona,” she adds, “is that actresses have always presented themselves as having respectable backgrounds. Performing in public was taboo in certain parts of Indian society — Dadasaheb Phalke couldn’t get any women to act in his films — although these boundaries have been broken down gradually by women from Durga Khote to Shabana Azmi to Vidya Balan. However, the public often obsesses over sexual gossip about female stars, imagining they have wild private lives, while Leone is open about having a colourful life.”

On the brink of mainstream success, though, Leone hopes she does more than just challenge a few stereotypes.

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