A Porn Star Goes to Bollywood

New stars are frequently born in Bollywood and just as suddenly disappear. Few stay on and most don’t make it beyond a few films. The buzz presently is about Sunny Leone.

Leone’s toned body and attitude have catapulted her to a spot at the top of India’s most-searched Internet celebrity list, beating out such top actresses as Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor, who generally rule Internet trending in a country crazy about good looks, as anywhere else.

Good looks-wise, Sunny is definitely high potential – a cute face sitting atop a fabulous figure surely honed into place via hours at the gym, pool, pilates, a protein-abundant, low-carbohydrate diet --and a fair amount of surgical enhancement.

The problem is that if she indeed attains stardom, she would be doing something that is almost unheard of, not only in Bollywood but in Hollywood as well, except by a handful of fringe crossovers. She earns her living as an adult pornography star, which is illegal despite India’s thriving and throbbing underground porn industry.

For all of their verve, Bollywood movies remain relatively chaste – the industry has become famous for “air kisses” – lips rarely touch, let alone genitals, despite the fact that this is the country where the Kama Sutra originated, the famed ancient Sanskrit text describing the rules for sensual pleasure, love and marriage.

In the recent past, visitors to India have included heiress Paris Hilton and actress Pamela Anderson, both of whom have had the misfortune of being the subjects of leaked home-made videos of them performing in bed. However, a full-blown, intelligible porn star is a novelty in India.

The 30-year-old Leone was born Karen Malhotra to Punjabi Sikh parents who migrated to Canada from India. She is now based in California, where practicing her craft is legal. Indians have made it big as doctors, software engineers and investment bankers in the US. Sunny chose an alternate path to success, in which she demonstrably has thrived.

She might have remained unknown in India except perhaps to some hard-core aficionados. But, as luck would have it she was picked up by Bigg Boss, a top reality show on TV, endorsed by Salman Khan, the he-man Bollywood superstar.

Bigg Boss, which plays to huge ratings, follows a format pioneered in the Netherlands in which celebrity contestants stay in a single house for about three months with no connection to the outside world. A mysterious person known as Bigg Boss oversees the household, although he is never seen. It has no television, no telephones. no Internet clocks or pen and paper.

Surrounded by scores of photographers and television cameras, she sashayed her way onto the show with a huge smile, then entered the Bigg Boss house wearing traditional Indian attire and an admittedly imperfect Hindu pronunciation. Then, surprisingly, among the ragtag accumulation of loud, callow, empty-headed, vulgar and immature participants, Leone stood out as the most reasonable, fashionable, eloquent and personable.

Unfortunately she also attracted the attention of the Indian Artists and Actors Forum, which demanded that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting take action against the network that carries the show.

Information & Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni declined and was quoted in the local press as saying the complaint hadn’t reached her, but that Justice S K Shah, the former chief justice of Delhi, was leading a “self-regulatory mechanism” to take charge of the “safeguarding of such vulnerable issues and sections of society.”

Leone has been criticized for promoting pornography, which she hadn’t done, at least on the television airwaves. It was claimed that young Indian impressionable minds are being lured to search her on the Internet and led to her website, hosted abroad, that feature porn clips featuring Leone.

As expected in India, the actress has become the target of radical, fringe, ultraconservative elements who relish such moments for their two minutes of fame on TV and in print. Nor is she alone. One of the latest victims has been the author Salman Rushdie, who was forced to cancel a trip to an Indian literary festival by politicians condemning him for his famed book the Satanic Verses in an attempt to gain Muslim votes in a local election.

Others have ranged from M F Hussain, considered India’s finest artist, who was forced by ultranationalists to go into exile for his paintings of Hindu deities in the nude; tennis player Sania Mirza, who was condemned falsely by major Hindu political parties for making a blue film after it became public that she intended to marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik; and the iconic cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who was caught up peripherally in the so-called “Monkeygate” scandal when a teammate use a racial epithet to describe an Australian opponent.

The fact is that young and old with access to the Internet visit porn sites, irrespective of Leone. The government has ignored the unnecessary attacks on Leone, unlike the other recent instance involving Rushdie, in which identity and vote bank politics muddled a sane response.

Leone, appearing unruffled by the controversy, has continued her expedition into the heart of India’s movie and entertainment industry. She has been signed up by the film makers Pooja and Mahesh Bhatt, known for their bold but commercially successful movies.

Appropriately, the movie that she has been picked to star in is titled Jism2, a Hindu word meaning “body,” obviously an effort to cash in on Leone’s physical allure, a quality that she appears to be immensely endowed with.

As has been proved time and again in the past, for any actress to make a lasting impact on Indian audiences and movies, Leone will need to earn her stripes as an actress. Sometimes it talks more than looks. In one recent super hit film, titled Dirty Picture, actress Vidya Balan fattened up herself to play the role of the central character. As an actress, Leone will be judged, in many ways, much more critically than for being a porn star, as she is sure to find out.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)