The salad days of Sunny Leone
A new series, 'Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story Of Sunny Leone', has nothing new or interesting to tell
Actor Sunny Leone’s best on-screen moment—I mean no offence to her long and storied pornographic career—came two years ago, when an insufferably chauvinistic Indian news anchor tried to make her uncomfortable about her life choices during an interview. Leone, a refreshingly no-nonsense woman who seems utterly assured about life and choices, shut this man down with considered ease as she dismantled his parochial mindset as well as his smutty attempts at sensationalism. It was a striking television moment that showed off Leone’s confidence and clarity, a video clip that went viral for the right reasons.
Director Aditya Datt, in his recent 10-episode memoir of Leone’s life—Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story Of Sunny Leone, streaming on the Zee5 network—uses that very interview as the peg from which to hang the narrative of an easily shocked girl who went on to be shocking on her own terms. This, in principle, is a good idea: Cut back and forth from a moment we already know to tell us a story you claim we don’t. Unfortunately, this recreated interview is itself unbearable, with a hammy and leering news anchor behaving like a B-movie villain and asking questions very archly indeed, while Leone, who was so candid and confident during the real interview, here launches into sanctimonious essay-length responses. Unlike the Leone we glimpsed so sharply in the real interview, this version of Leone spends too much time posturing.
For one thing, Leone, 37, plays herself throughout most of the show, which is fine when showing her at 35, but understandably laughable when we see her aged 27, 21 and even 18. I imagine Datt may have wanted to follow a porn film approach: performers of the same age routinely play each other’s bosses/stepmothers/siblings in x-rated content, which is why he might have felt that Leone, a veteran of the field, could easily double up to play many versions of herself. It’s just that porn is almost always unbelievable—it is where viewers suspend their disbelief more willingly than with any other genre—whereas this “untold story" is supposed to give us something realistic.
It does not. What it does give us is scenes like one where a young Leone overhears her brother making out, and runs around the door saying “ewww" and “gross", minutes before telling him she’s signed on for a Skinemax film, which is to say soft-porn. Or when a pre-teen, unibrowed Leone—played mercifully by a different, genuinely younger actor—watches her first porn film and is horrified by what is on screen. This mortification is something we can relate to. The show also includes shots of lingerie photoshoots and music videos attempting to titillate and, true to soap opera histrionics, far too many shots of disappointed and heartbroken parents. Sudden slow-motion scenes of lovemaking are thrown in, including a girl-on-girl scene in a nod to Leone’s bisexuality, but all of it is handled with the suggestive sheepishness of low-budget Bollywood, never able to justify the 18+ tag of the series or the subject.
The series is, thus, David Fincher by way of Madhur Bhandarkar. There is certainly a story here, but Datt spells it out using clichés and painfully caricatured tropes. American models tell Leone they have been ruling the porn industry since the 1700s, and how dare she compete with “us blondes at our own game". Naturally, this line is preceded by American disgruntlement at immigrants taking their jobs. Everyone calls her “black tresses", and there is much racism she faces because of her “stinking Indian values". Not to forget the Mrs Doubtfire moment when her phone rings right when Karenjit Kaur has to pick a pornstar name and she decides to christen herself after her brother, Sunny.
It is pabulum, and to give you a taste, here’s one scene: Leone is out to lunch with her parents and brother in an attempt to win them over. She orders a salad, and her mother makes a crack about how she must maintain her figure to make a living. Then her father spots a relative in the same restaurant. Sunny and her family tail this relative only to find their family matriarch celebrating a birthday. Teary-eyed and crestfallen, Sunny’s father touches her feet and leaves, with his uninvited family silently in tow. Meanwhile, a young girl sitting at the table boasts to her friend, “That’s my cousin. She’s Penthouse Pet Of The Year."
Later, she appears on a barely veiled version of the infamous Howard Stern show, discussing her sexuality while several Sikh relatives, possibly in India, huddle around an antiquated transistor radio to see what this girl—“Listen, listen, this is Jaspal’s daughter"—is up to. Evidently that raunchy radio show penetrates more demographics than we think.
It is the self-glorification that is often most tiresome in a celebrity-endorsed biography, except unlike Sanju—the recent and ghastly Sanjay Dutt biopic that tried hard to convince us that Dutt is not a terrorist—Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story appears to have no clear agenda while also refusing to tell us anything new or interesting about its subject. We get to know that she values money, that she loves her family, that she has a strong work ethic, and that’s about it.
Leone’s story charts an unprecedented rise, where a hardcore pornstar crossed successfully into mainstream entertainment in an increasingly puritanical nation, which is intriguingly explored in the 2016 documentary Mostly Sunny, available on Netflix. This show gives us none of that, not even her first Bigg Boss appearance. I remain curious by what Leone may have to say about her unique career and vantage point, but this series feels like a faithful version of a carefully constructed “diary" a young girl may leave behind for her parents to find. It’s meant to make her look sweet, which robs an extraordinary character of her spirit. She emerges too much of a baby, too much of a doll.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @RajaSen