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Sunny Leone cannot erase her past: Documentary director Dilip Mehta

The maker of the documentary Mostly Sunny expresses surprise at the former porn actress's call to excise portions from the film.

Mayur Lookhar

Thunderstorms have lashed Mumbai in the past few days, but running into rough weather is Sunny Leone’s documentary, Mostly Sunny, Partly Cloudy. The ‘Partly Cloudy' bit has been removed from the title, but the documentary has hit a roadblock with the former porn actress not keen on the film being screened in India. Her decision came after director Dilip Mehta refused to cut out certain scenes in the film. Leone, whose real name is Karenjit Kaur Vohra, skipped the film’s première at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has now said she doesn’t want it to be screened in India.

Cinestaan.com spoke to Mehta, a journalist best known for his award-winning coverage of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, who comes across as a man who knows his craft. In the course of the interview, he explained why he did not give in to the actress's request and also gave an insight into what to expect from the film. Excerpts from the exclusive conversation:

How did the idea of making a documentary on Sunny Leone strike you? Was her crossover to mainstream Hindi cinema the trigger?

Well, absolutely. It's a fascinating story. For anyone who crosses over from adult entertainment to mainstream, it's never an easy crossover. Leave alone India, such a thing was seldom heard of before even in North America. On the one hand we see an India where there are issues of alleged intolerance towards our Muslim brothers, moral policing where couples get beaten up, but on the other hand, there is the acceptance of a former adult entertainer, by 1.2 billion, (figuratively speaking, not literally though). That is an amazing story.

Nomad Productions and Balliran Films [Canadian film production firms] had offered me the directorship. I was in North America then. Unfortunately, the Nirbhaya tragedy had taken place then and there was some criticism of actors like Sunny Leone, their films inciting crimes of passion. So, I didn’t want to get embroiled in unnecessary controversy. The producers then, very sensibly, asked me whether I could meet her [Leone] and take my decision.

How easy was it to convince Sunny Leone to give the project a go-ahead?

I went to Mumbai three years ago. We had a three-and-a-half hour meeting. The producers had already spoken to Leone and her husband, who was very enthusiastic about it. I was the one who was reluctant. Sunny and her husband were publicity hungry. We reached an understanding where I said that I will only do the film if you don’t hold anything back, otherwise what is the point doing a documentary film?

To her credit, I must say that she, too, wanted to make such a film. Here’s the expression that she used, she said, 'I too want to do a film, warts and all'. She also wanted to speak clearly and convincingly about her past. So, on that premise, we all agreed to do the film.

What's the 'Mostly Sunny' part of the documentary and what’s the 'Partly Cloudy' bit?

Firstly, the title has now changed. It is now titled Mostly Sunny. It’s the first time somebody has asked me about it. Sunny’s disposition as a person is very positive. She is a very lively, friendly person but when you say ‘mostly sunny’ you realise that there was a part of her life which is dark, now whether it is as an adult actress, or how her parents died, how she got the name Sunny, how her husband became an adult actor, it’s that part which is not exactly cheerful. So, it’s not 100% Sunny, but mostly Sunny. The idea of the title still remains valid, even though ‘partly cloudy’ is no longer there.

With 'Partly Cloudy’ out from the title, should one assume that the cloudy bit has also been removed from the film?

No, not at all. It’s just a name change. The distributors felt that people might confuse it as a film on the weather. So we made sure that it has got nothing to do with the weather.

What has the response been like at the Toronto festival?

A lot of people who turned up for the screening at Toronto came by word-of-mouth. Not everyone knew Sunny Leone, but they were very intrigued. So, I’m not just looking at audiences who know Leone, but also looking for a person who has discovered what Leone is. The response was triumphant. We had two screenings. The first world première was absolutely fantastic. TIFF had fixed the screening at 10:30pm because they wanted to get the younger audience, who like viewing late. The film began at 11pm and ended 12:30am. Half an hour later the Q&A happened. There were many questions and, unfortunately, the theatre had to shut so we couldn’t answer all of them. The curiosity stretched outside the theatre, too, as they found the character very interesting. They all kept asking where is Sunny Leone? She was in New York. Then began the controversy as to why she wasn’t in Toronto.

Reportedly, Leone was upset with you for not editing certain portions in the film.

After two-and-a-half years of making the film, she has now sort of put different words to it, like, ‘Nobody else can tell my story’ (laughs). I don’t understand that.

Is there a breakdown in relations with you?

I wouldn’t say it’s a breakdown in relations, but it's probably a hairline fracture. My background is of a journalist. For me honesty is honesty, you’re a journalist, you don’t suddenly change. A documentary is exactly that, where a documentarian tells the truth. Not many people like to hear the truth. I might tell you the truth, but when you write the truth, I might not exactly like it. If I’m going to ask you to write a story about my life, you are not only going to talk to me, you will speak to my colleagues, you are going to delve into my past, talk to my associates, and invariably someone is bound to say something other than the PR that I speak about myself.

Was it a nude video from her past that she wanted out?

She, at one point, said that she didn’t want partial frontal nudity. Of course, there is archival material of her adult films. After all, she’s a former adult actress. The only reason why we are doing this film is because of her past career and then of course making the journey into the current career as a Hindi film industry actor. If I wanted to make a film on a Bollywood actor, then I’d make one on Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor or Priyanka Chopra, who are not only attractive, but are equally talented as well. We did not make a film on Leone because of her talent as a film actor, or a great dancer, it’s because of her journey. The only reason people have her in films is because of her past. So, suddenly for her to say 'please remove this' doesn’t make any sense. With her statements, she is now only ensuring that everybody is going to see the film. People will be more than keen to know what is it that Sunny and her husband don’t want in the film.

Do you plan to show the documentary in India? Do you think it will be shown in its entirety or will we see a truncated version?

There is not much pornography. Why? It’s simple. If people want to watch porn then they’ll see the actual Sunny porn, they don’t need a documentary. I don’t think people are curious to see this film to see pornography. Everywhere you look about Sunny Leone, it’s pornography, pornography, pornography! So what is the point of me showing pornography? I’m doing a documentary on her life journey. So, I don’t need to convince anybody that Sunny was an adult actress. It isn’t a film that will be censored or truncated because it is that kind of a film. Whatever is there in the film is very interesting, and never seen by audiences before.

Despite her popularity in India, most of Leone's films have tanked at the box office. Do you think that is because most Indian fans are besotted with her alter avatar and have not really warmed up to her crossover?

Sunny Leone is respected for the person she is, not for her craft. However, there must be something going right at the box office, otherwise why would many producers cast her? Nobody does a film for the sake of losing their money. You have to ask yourself, why is it that Sunny Leone has been signed for many films? The producers surely must be recovering some money. India makes about 900 films a year, but only 5% of them click. So there comes a film [with Sunny Leone] where at least you are assured of recovering your cost. Well, this is purely my assumption.

What was your perception of Leone before she arrived in the Hindi film industry?

I knew very little about her. I had read about this one Punjabi Sikh girl whose family had migrated to Canada, the family didn’t have a great financial success story, so they moved to America and that at an early age she had become an adult actress. I’d left the country soon after my college. My exposure to pornography was very perfunctory. I had no personal interest in Sunny’s escapades as a pornography artiste. However, as a journalist, her story was appealing to me.

I read that even today, the community from where Sunny hails in Canada largely ignores her because of her porn industry background. Did you get any members of her family or extended community to speak about her for the documentary? 

Her parents were alive when they found out that she was an adult actress. 

Oh ho! 

That’s what makes her an interesting person. You’ll find what happens in their conversation when you see the film. But you realise later what a strong person she is. Who are we to make a judgement?

Nobody in Sarnia, where she was born, wanted to even talk to us. They simply didn’t want anything to do with her. It’s ironic in Sarnia, Canada, people have ostracised her, but in India, 1.2 billion people have welcomed her with open arms.

But did you get to meet her relatives?

Most of her relatives refused to talk to us. We did meet one couple who were friends with her parents. This woman had held Karenjit when she was born. She showed us the apartment that the family lived in. She spoke of how beautiful Sunny was as a child. How she went ice-skating in winter – all this is on record. She basically recalled her childhood memories, but categorically refused to comment on her profession.

Later, we tried to speaking one of her aunts, but she too snubbed us. We did contact a gentleman who was very close to her late father. This gentleman and his wife, too, didn’t speak, but ironically, this couple had invited Sunny and her husband Daniel for their son’s wedding. The younger generation in the family has no qualms with Sunny Leone.

Does she continue to be ostracised in Canada?

Hmm. The older generation still does. They don’t call her an Indian, Sikhni, or Punjabi.

But I assume that all those people who say it are probably the ones who have seen her porn videos.

You’ve said it yourself. I agree with you. People who make the most noise are the biggest culprits. What is wrong in pornography? What is wrong in watching pornography? It’s meant for pure pleasure. I don’t think pornography is the cause for rape. I may watch pornography, but I will never put a gun to your head, it’s an individual’s choice.

How long did it take to make the documentary? Can you share something about the process of shooting this film? Were you following Leone for a long time or did she allocate dates for the shooting?

It took us about three years to shoot the documentary. It was a difficult edit. I wanted to maintain the integrity of Sunny’s life. We shot in Los Angeles, Canada, United States, Malaysia and of course extensively in India. The methodology that was involved here was that of being a fly on the wall. I don’t think Sunny Leone is not that good an actress when she is aware that the camera is focused on her. We had become more like an extended shadow to Leone. Not once during the making of the film did Leone ask us to hold back the camera.

What are Leone's expectations from the film? Did she discuss those with you?

Probably, in hindsight, her expectation was to have a squeaky clean image. That though is a bit ironic. You can’t change your past. You are a sum of what you were. I read that Leone didn’t want this film for a certain age group. It didn’t make any sense because other than that element of her past, the film is for all age groups. This film is about an adult actress, but it is not a porn film.

Did Leone speak to you about her controversial interview with TV news anchor Bhupendra Chaubey? Is that portion included in the film?

No, that happened much later after we had finished the shoot. Here’s my view though. The first time I saw it, I shook up. I thought he was being unnecessarily harsh. But was he being misogynistic? Absolutely not. He was a bit harsh and offensive, but I believe that was part of his strategy. Chaubey misread the fall-off of his interview, the fall-off was totally in favour of Sunny. She is a smart, articulate, erudite woman. That interview helped her break through that invisible glass ceiling from B-grade films to A-grade films. Suddenly, you had an Aamir Khan wanting to work with her. I think Chaubey was a victim of his own rationalism. Unlike writing, there is no place for reading between the lines on television. I think he should have been careful about his words, but it’s unfair for us to hang him.

After this controversy, are you confident that the Mumbai screening will happen now that she has said that she doesn’t want the screening in India?

I hope to reconcile our differences. I’m very fond of Sunny and her husband. They are the ones who have to talk to me. Look, I’m not going to change the essence of the film. The entire structure of the film is because of her past as an adult entertainer. If I start compromising on that, then I’m going to end up having egg on my face. If I’m going to try and portray her as sati savitri then people are going to laugh at me.

Is Leone objecting to the film because she fears it could prove detrimental to the goodwill that she has earned in India?

If the film were detrimental to it [her goodwill] then she should feel hurt. But the film is not. It actually celebrates a woman who has had the courage to put her past behind her. Actually, you cannot eradicate that past. The day it hit the internet, you cannot erase it. India is known to be a prudish country, but in spite of that she has been accepted by the country. Isn’t that a brilliant story? I had a responsibility to my producers, distributors, but more importantly, a responsibility to the viewers. The producers will go ahead with their scheduled screening at MAMI.

Have you spoken to her after this controversy broke out?

No, I haven’t. I last spoke to her one day before the première in Toronto. I had a long conversation with both Sunny and her husband. Unfortunately, we couldn’t agree. We had accepted changes that they had requested earlier. Each time we made changes, they would ask for something else.

Once it is screened the people are going to turn around and celebrate Sunny Leone even more. The documentary is a hard-hitting film that celebrates the life of a woman, of a person, from childhood to adulthood, from the cold and snows of Canada to the sunny skies of California to the heat and monsoon of Mumbai. Sunny is single-handedly at the helm of a sexual revolution in India, which is going to make adults out of us.