Earlier this year, Sunny Leone, who usually gives masterclasses on fingering on her website, gave a masterclass on grace. As CNN-IBN journalist Bhupendra Chaubey berated her with insulting questions, she was calm, unafraid, unashamed, even polite. Distancing himself from this kind of journalism, Dilip Mehta, who has shot a no-holds-barred documentary on Leone called Mostly Sunny, says, “We didn’t approach this film with an agenda. We’re not CNN-IBN.”
Mostly Sunny premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and was screened at MAMI (Mumbai) and Seminci (Valladolid) this year. It has also been cherry-picked by Netflix and iTunes for worldwide distribution. Mehta, a respected photojournalist (“I got my first cover of Time magazine when I was 20 years old”) and film-maker Deepa Mehta’s brother, is a clear-headed chronicler of Leone’s rise to prominence. He praises her with genuine sincerity; he censures her with genuine disappointment. He tailed her for almost two years, and was given unrestricted access by Leone and her manager-husband Daniel Weber. Mehta has seen first-hand what a “consummate professional” she is. “We’ve been on many, many film sets and item songs with her. She would be the first one on the set and usually the last one to leave. She never threw a tantrum — and there were many occasions when she could have or should have. Maybe she has to work harder than most others to prove she’s normal, that her past doesn’t dictate her present. She’s no angel, but then, who is an angel?”
The Indian-Canadian Leone, as has been exhaustively tom-tommed, was an adult entertainer of modest fame in the US. Then, she arrived in India, as a participant in Bigg Boss’s season 5, and within six years became Google India’s most searched personality. “Sunny, as a person, is a real winner,” says Mehta. “She’s totally unrepentant and unapologetic about her porn career. She isn’t ashamed of anything. This young woman, well, she’s not that young anymore, is saying, ‘Yes, that was my profession. Does that make me a sinner? Does it make me a social outcast? Don’t be threatened by me. I’m not harming anybody. You can do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s okay to chart out untraditional ways of living. You don’t always have to do what your forefathers did.’ It’s almost as though she’s a liberal feminist.”
Leone’s non-pornographic film career includes only seven Hindi titles; most of her visibility comes from trashy, yet catchy, songs such as ‘Baby Doll’ and ‘Pink Lips’. “If people didn’t want to see her, she might have gotten one or two jobs, but not enough to sustain. People want to see her in those suggestive songs with minimal clothes on. We’re the reason she’s so popular.” In the same breath, Mehta is candid about her lack of talent. “Her films may not be blockbusters, but producers recover their money. Her films don’t get five stars [from critics]. I think she’s not gotten more than oneand- a-half stars at best. It’s not as if there aren’t prettier, better actresses. It’s not as though Sunny is particularly gifted. I think she has quite a ways to go before she can convincingly act. But, there’s a reason why there are so many film offers outside her door — no one likes to lose their investment.”
Despite the financial successes, her background makes her an easy target. In the film, Leone says, “I’ve never been in a situation where I’m on set, casting or at a first-time meeting, and somebody is trying to hit on me and tell me, ‘If you do X,Y,Z, I’ll give you this job. That’s not happened to me, ever.” But, people have approached Weber, also a former porn actor. Mehta says, “He says in the film, ‘People ask me all the time — “Is she an escort girl? Is she a prostitute?” She’s not a prostitute.’ They’re not interested in all that just because of her past. They’re two people who love each other, and more important than love, they trust each other. I thought it was rather priceless [for the film] when they spoke like that.”
Given the abandon with which the two have spoken on camera, it’s now surprising that Leone has renounced the film. She didn’t attend the world premiere at TIFF, and has since claimed this isn’t her story. “I think she made a very poor judgment in not coming,” says Mehta. “She was really celebrated at Toronto. People loved her. They thought she was absolutely remarkable and courageous. She could have gone on to yet another high in life. All the things about not liking the film, between you, me and the lamp post, I think that’s just an excuse, because she’s in every frame of the movie. She talks to the camera so comfortably. Now, how can she deny it? It doesn’t make any sense.” Mehta’s film is the case study that the Leone spin machine deserves — how to turn a porn career into a huge professional advantage. “There’s more in the film than what’s usually handed out,” he says. “Tomorrow, if you interview her, and you ask her about her childhood, her schooling, her pornography career, Bigg Boss — you get the same answer. Everybody gets the same answer. And, now here’s this documentary, which is more probing. This is a very intimate film. Not in terms of sexuality, but in terms of personality. Because if someone wants to see her pornography, they should go to her website; they shouldn’t come to see my film.”
Other Documentaries To See
The Cinema Travellers
A Cannes prizewinner on the last travelling cinemas of the world.
Anatomy of Violence
Deepa Mehta takes a fearless approach to the gang rape of December 2012.
India in a Day
Footage shot by ordinary people on a single day assembles a lyrical portrait of modern India.
An Insignificant Man
A film that follows Arvind Kejriwal’s political rise.