Standing Up for Sunny Leone / by Tara Kaushal

May 2015: Why Sunny Leone is a cultural icon to reckon with.

I arrive at her site to be greeted by “WARNING! ADULTS ONLY! This Site Contains Sexually Oriented Material”, followed by a detailed disclaimer spanning legality, culture and morality. Below, it says, “If minors have access to your computer, please restrain their access to sexually explicit material by using…”, with links to parental control products. I then proceed to get really turned on. Boy, is Sunny Leone hot!

Although I’ve never watched any of her movies or TV appearances (saving for these *ahem* clips), she has always fascinated me as a sociocultural phenomenon: an Indian-origin American porn star doing increasingly mainstream roles in the Indian film industry. She exists at the nucleus and intersection of several paradoxes—between her Sikh upbringing and career in the adult film industry in the US; feminism, choice and acceptance; her past and her present; legality; post- and multiculturalism; the idea of marriage; the internet and ‘mainstream’; Bollywood’s and audiences’ standards of morality; etc. (All this is for a much longer piece, perhaps.)

These politics that coexist in Leone’s life are brought to the fore by the PIL filed by a Mumbai Auntie on behalf of a fringe Hindu organisation on the 15th of May. She is accused of creating “grossly indecent” material and publishing it on the internet. This is going to be interesting because, hey, the adult film industry IS legal in the States, where all of her porn was created and published, but she faces up to five years in jail if she is convicted under Indian laws. She is also charged under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. This case pertains to her porn-star past, not to her current mainstream career.

It is safe to say that what comprises “grossly indecent” content is subjective: Fair & Lovely ads, with their deep-seated cultural ramifications are “grossly indecent” to me. What comprises the “Indecent Representation of Women” is also subjective—many Indian movies reinforce the good/bad girl binary, bring female sexuality into bedrooms via item numbers, and badly fail the Bedchel Test. But we live and let live with our (largely unenforced) U/UA/A certifications, in the belief children should be protected and that adults are to be treated as such.

Ditto with porn.

Porn is illegal in India, but the complainant, Anjali Palan has her head buried deep in the sand if Leone’s content is the only—or worst—of the pornographic content she’s found on the internet. Studies have shown that a majority of digital immigrant Indian men first go online for porn, and Sunny Leone is India’s most searched person according to Google’s 2014 list of top searches. Palan is reported to have said that adult content poisons the minds of people and children, and I wonder whether she is proposing that India ban porn on the internet? Here, might I suggest that parental vigilance and controls on computers are a more effective solution than targeting the actor’s solitary site, and there be stronger enforcement of audience-appropriateness based on film certification.

There is no doubt that the organisation Palan belongs to is star-bashing to moral police and culturally persecute Leone, as well as to gain publicity.

According the Daily Mail, its spokesperson Dr Uday Dhuri admits: “Sunny Leone should be ousted from the country. We have registered several complaints but unfortunately no action is taken against her.” Palan too seems to be a bit confused. “This actor is coming here and displaying vulgarity. Bollywood films could earlier be watched with families. Today we cannot see them with our families,” she told reporters, yet her complaint has nothing to do with films you could (or should!) watch with family.

Leone is a strong feminist force, a woman forging her own path and not bowing to stereotypes, and I wish her all the best in battle. At the time of submitting this article, her latest post on Facebook is a quote by R Hunter accompanying a picture of her and husband Daniel: “Sometimes we live no particular way but our own”. Take that!

An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in May 2015.