The Sunny Leone interview: Should capitalism be confused with morality?

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 5:31 AM

‘Morals’ and ‘morality’ are the most misused excuses for justifying sexism in India. Before I write more about that, lets be clear that one or another form of sexism exists in all countries around the world. But my post today will focus specifically on India. The intention is not to criticize the country for what it believes to stand for. The intention is just to highlight the hypocrisy that exists in the fabric called ‘our society’.

The Sunny Leone Interview

The Executive Editor of India’s leading English news channels recently did an interview with porn star-turned-Bollywood actress Sunny Leone. Sunny Leone, originally named Karenjit Kaur and born to Punjabi Sikh parents in America, has worked as a porn star in the United States for several years. About four years ago, she ventured into mainstream Bollywood and has since worked in some small-budget hindi films. She also made an appearance on Indian reality show Bigg Boss in 2011, a stint that made her popular with the average Indian household.

Sunny Leone followed the same publicity path that most film stars follow to promote their films. A guest appearance here and a celebrity interview there to keep her name current in mainstream media before the launch of her films has been her PR strategy. All stars do that and she seemed no different. So when I heard Bhupendra Chaubey almost chiding her for her pornographic ‘past’ in a television interview before the launch of her film ‘Mastizaade’, obviously I was very shocked.

First and foremost, the smirk on his face and the judgment in his voice was apparent and totally cringe worthy. It almost seemed like he felt a sense of entitlement to question Sunny on her career choices. He asked her repeatedly if her past (working as a porn star) ‘haunted’ her and whether she would do anything ‘differently’ to change it. Thank god Sunny held her fort and answered back with tact and confidence, confirming that she doesn’t regret anything in her past and wouldn’t want to change anything about it. It would have been a real shame to see her crumble to such blatant sexism on television.

Second, the chief point of having a guest on your show is to let them speak! A lesson that Chaubey clearly forgot to learn at journalism school. He masked his own personal opinions as questions and hogged most of the interview himself with insulting remarks about Sunny’s ‘shameful past’. He constantly cut her midway through her answers and dumped yet more demeaning remarks and outdated self-beliefs on her. He educated her about ‘the grace of being covered from head to toe in a saree’ and once even asked her if sitting with her was making him ‘morally corrupt’! He blamed her movies for the increase in the number of porn watchers in India and asked if she saw anything wrong with that (according to him, how could she not!?). Through it all, Sunny sat there with a smile on her face and tried to remain as calm and confident as is humanly possible through such barefaced adversity. And just for that, it became hard not to love her.

Third, and this was the funniest bit, Chaubey was completely oblivious to the sarcasm that Sunny threw his way in return for his barbed attacks. She politely offered to leave the interview if it was ‘corrupting’ him, she pointed out that only he saw her publicity as ‘negativity’ and that he was also the first person to call her acting a ‘danger to the fine art of cinema’. She also said that like Indian politicians, she was waiting for Obama to include her in his speeches! Dear old Chaubeyji failed to take the cue each time and continued hounding her with age-old views and his backward opinions. I wonder why he chose to do the interview himself in the first place. He could have easily asked someone else to do it. I also wonder if his own secret crush on Sunny Leone made him so thick-skinned about her oncoming sarcasm. Or maybe, he was just trying to prove to his wife sitting at home that he did NOT have that little crush (he also questioned Sunny about her views on how ‘every Indian housewife is threatened by her stealing their husband’!)

Why the furor?

In my opinion, the interview was completely offensive and chauvinistic. It was hard not to feel sympathy for Sunny Leone for her poised stance and seasoned responses. If I had been in that seat as a guest, I would probably have walked out of the interview within the first five minutes. Or at least a little bit of my anger would have shown on my face. She did neither and that made her a real-life hero. It was also disappointing to see Bhupendra Chaubey pose such crude questions. I personally respect his channel for quality journalism but with this interview, his credibility took a severe hit. Safe to say, while some would agree with his line of thinking, the mood on social media was gruff. Audiences and celebrities criticized him for his coarseness and questioned why such an opinionated interview was conducted.

If India chooses to buy tickets to (or download) Sunny Leone’s movies and watch them, Chaubey has no business blaming the actress for it. As a commercial actor, she moved from America to India in the search of greener pastures and she seems to have found them. I see no harm in doing that. She seems well aware of where her niche lies and what’s her appeal as an actor. If someone doesn’t like that, they can choose to close their eyes. Do Indian actors not visit Hollywood and act in foreign films? How could we look up to them for doing that but show scorn to Sunny Leone? She seems to be harboring very realistic expectations about the reason for her popularity in India and the kind of roles that she will be offered in the future. She didn’t seem starry-eyed about working with ‘big Bollywood names’ and said that she still read every script before accepting it… all standard procedure for an actor and nothing different because she is an ex-porn star. I wonder if Chaubey would have found the guts to pose similar questions to the male actors who star in ‘Mastizaade’. Or to a member of the Censor Board who passed the film. Such impunity, given India’s patriarchal set up, only comes while questioning women actors. Chaubey clearly talked to her differently because she was a 'former porn star' and cut her mid-sentence repeatedly, showing deep discourtesy on his part. The furor on social media after the interview was actually heartening. Small beginnings lead to bigger ends.

But I am mostly penning this blog down because it is hard for me understand why we as a society can’t treat an entertainer as just that, an entertainer. They simply do what they know best to earn a living. It is the society as a whole that makes these actors so popular by watching their movies or downloading their work. So in such a scenario, who is the culprit? Actually, why should anyone be labeled the ‘culprit’ at all? It sexual liberalism not a good thing? Does it not reduce the advent of gender-related crimes in a society? Is sexual repression the way forward? How can we continue to have the second largest population in the world and still continue to show disdain towards the act of ‘sex’? Frankly, when will our obsession with sex end? Or does it always have to be a love-hate relationship? Can we not see it as something as normal as eating food? Do we really believe that the people who carry out these interviews with such judgmentalism have never watched porn themselves? Or that they are saints behind closed doors? The problem arises when such prominent journalists earn the field of journalism a bad name with their personal prejudices. The familiarity that Chaubey displayed while conducting the interview was contemptuous. Sure, you have seen her work on screen. But that doesn’t mean that you know her personally, can forget the fact that she is a guest on your show and inundate her with your under-developed views about what the viewer wants. Like Sunny pointed out, he gets paid to interview her just as she gets paid to sit and chat with him. So where is the shame in that for both of them? Or if there is, then there is equal shame in it for both.

Small voices of dissent are a good thing. They might seem inconsequential at the time, but they go on to stir up bigger changes. We can’t leave everything to chance and time. If Sunny was still living in the United States, I am sure people would have found the good sense to see her for just what she is – an actor and an entertainer. No politician would have cared to include her in his political speeches, the people would not have blamed her for ‘corrupting the society’ and she would most probably have been lost in the stream of similar actors who do what they do best to earn a living. No one would, and they actually didn’t while she lived there, make her the topic of daily discussion and offer her the stardom that she now enjoys (and that the givers themselves so dearly loathe).

We need to stop this sense of entitlement that Indian men feel towards a woman’s career choices. Not just a woman that he knows, but any woman. No one has the authority to be judgmental about a choice that someone else makes. No profession is ‘shameful’ or deserves the scorn of the entire society. We need to realize that supply is only churned where the opportunity for a demand exists. The blanket cover of ‘morality’ cannot be used to justify a man insulting a woman on television. I guess that is my fundamental problem with the interview. Again, I am not saying that sexism doesn’t exist in other countries or that it only plagues India. My larger point is simply that we have to make it harder for people to get away with such blatant sexism. To uphold the respect of women, all women, is a fundamental value. Not a choice and definitely not a thing to be toyed around with. All power to Sunny.


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