Taking Sunny Leone at Face Value

Taking Sunny Leone at Face Value
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RGV is now out with an 11-minute short, Meri Beti Sunny Leone Banna Chaahti Hai

BOLLYWOOD FILMMAKER RAM Gopal Varma (RGV) revels in controversy. On Women’s Day earlier this year, he’d tweeted, ‘I wish all the women in the world give men as much happiness as Sunny Leone gives.’ Unsurprisingly, the tweet had people up in arms; some even filed a complaint. Inspired or provoked (we shall never know) by that outcry, RGV is now out with an 11-minute short, Meri Beti Sunny Leone Banna Chaahti Hai.

Over the decades, RGV has become the fallen figure of Bollywood. In the late 90s and early noughties, he directed hit films such as Rangeela (1995), Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005). He has since become the has-been who has been unable to retrace his lost glory. With his debut short movie, RGV might have hoped to reclaim a modicum of respectability, but altogether fails at that mission.

The plotline (if one can call it that) is simple enough. A young adult daughter (Naina Ganguly) announces to her mother (Divya Jagdale) and father (Makrand Deshpande) that she wishes to become the new Sunny Leone. The daughter spends the entire movie espousing her reasons, and her parents lose their cool. In the end, the daughter leaves the room and parents share a moment of silence. It is up to the viewers to deduce whether that means reconciliation or resignation.

The premise of the movie is fair enough. One could look at pornography and make the case that some women choose this career. Sunny Leone, for example, did. While Karenjit Kaur Vohra started out with modeling, she strayed into porn, and did so on her own terms. She chose to do only lesbian porn and then later did only straight porn with her then boyfriend and now husband, Daniel Weber. But having returned to India, Leone no longer works in the adult entertainment industry.

If one were to look at Leone’s career, one could assume that she made professional decisions that she was comfortable with. The problem with Meri Beti Sunny Leone Banna Chaahti Hai (and other such supposedly ‘feminist’ arguments) is that it elevates sexual freedom by mocking more conventional choices. At the end of movie, a line reads, ‘I sincerely believe women empowerment should have no discrimination. Her power should be her choice—Ram Gopal Varma’. The precise problem with the movie is that it doesn’t factor in different kinds of choices.

The movie opens with quotes from George Washington to Ayn Rand on the importance of allowing people to make their own decisions. The problematic one reads, ‘The pleasure arising from the beauty of a woman and sexual union reflects the blissful nature of the god almighty,’ attributed to the ‘Hindu Upanishads’. The main problem with a movie such as this that wave the flag of empowerment is that they are detrimental to feminism, as they espouse the cause of beauty and sex over all else.

Even if one were to overlook the hamming in front of the camera, one can’t bypass a line spoken by the daughter; ‘Aurat ki sabse badi value sirf aur sirf uski sundarta aur sex appeal hai (A woman’s greatest value is her beauty and sex appeal, and nothing else).’ This sentiment goes against every tennent of empowerment. How can a movie that supposedly is fighting against centuries of close mindedness and conservatism actually tout a dialogue like this? Reducing a woman to merely her face, figure and oomph, is not just patriarchy, it is misogyny.

While supposedly fighting for the cause of women, the daughter goes on to say that battles through history have been fought over a woman’s beauty, never because she is someone’s mother of daughter! The filmmakers seem to forget that women are not only objects of beauty or relatives to others, but that they are autonomous individuals. They are not just mothers, daughters or sisters, but also writers, intellectuals and fighter pilots.

Books and films, TV serials and songs which deride and dismiss women are aplenty. And to pick each one apart would simply be a colossal and useless exercise. The danger arises when books and films, which supposedly deal with empowerment, end up being completely regressive. A movie such as this looks at marriage as a one-way street where the wife’s body is abused by the husband and used by the children. It seems to deny the possibility of wives also being decision makers.

The daughter then says, ‘Meri sexuality meri power hai.’ Which is fine. But being a porn star is not the only way for that power to be used. Movies such as this believe that promiscuity equals female agency. Forgetting that if promiscuity is one kind of power, then for others, monogamy can also be. It is after all a matter of choice.

The movies gets a few things right; ‘morality’ has made ‘dirty’ the most natural of acts. But its way of supporting that is cringe worthy. It holds up the US as an example of an advanced country which gave Sunny Leone her due and fame. But as anyone would know the adult entertainment industry is a highly hierarchical and often perilous world. The recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is an uncomfortable documentary about the modern relationship between sex and tech, agency and exploitation. The Sunny Leones out there might claim that they’ve chosen these lives, but the reality, of course, is far more complicated.