Whitewashing Sunny Leone: The Chaubey-Gupta Conspiracy

Anyway you look at it, the core is morality. And the patriarchal prism. Two senior male journalists interviewed Sunny Leone, an adult film actor, and the shows appeared on mainstream national news channels.

The dramatis personae have been made to fit into neat Bollywood slots of heroine, hero and villain by the viewers, adding to the stereotypes.

While Bhupendra Chaubey of CNN-IBN is accused of misogyny in his The Hot Seat with Sunny Leone, Shekhar Gupta's 'Walk the Talk with Sunny Leone' on NDTV is being heralded for its kindness towards the subject and for granting her dignity.

This is where the problem lies, and why there was a need for a more avante garde perception. Sunny Leone, despite making it clear that she has no back story of tragedy and that she joined the pornography industry out of choice, still finds herself interrogated about her past while being reassured that it is okay to have one. The inquisitors are desperate to be seen with a whitewashed individual who has no links with her own history. They, in fact, believe they are there to assist in some form of purification.

Chaubey used the needling technique, assuming he was a voodoo doctor exorcising her of some evil; Gupta played the sponging priest at a Confession. One was downright shaming; the other was patronising in a paternalistic way.

Does the most-searched woman on Google in India need these as endorsement of her present?

The truth is that when Chaubey asked, "I wonder if I am getting morally-corrupted sitting with you", he was echoing the prevalent hypocrisy. Joining the herd on social media to applaud a woman gets negated if it comes with the proviso that she is to be lauded for having made a choice and of getting over with it.

This is not a sign of liberalism. How many go back to check on the stories that make women pose naked before we judge them? Are those forced into such professions of any less value? Besides, why should the past be erased?

It is a bit strange, for these interviews were essentially about her past and how it influences her present. Chaubey asked, "Do you think an Aamir Khan would work with you?"

"Probably not," she replied. "Why?" he persisted. "Because of my background."

A background that does not haunt her, but it perhaps does haunt those judging her, whether to empathise with or to deride. Aamir Khan, as always, decided it was time to be the shining knight and got into Satyameva Jayate mode. He tweeted for the readers' benefit, without tagging her:

"I think Sunny conductd herself wid a lot of grace & dignity.I wish I cud hav said the same abt the interviewer ... Sunny,I wil b happy 2 wrk wid u.I hav absolutely no problems wid ur "past", as the interviewer puts it.Stay blessed.Love .a. (sic)"

Whether we admit it or not, we want dignity and grace. Had she shot back at the queries, or argued, would that have made her less dignified? This has been the pattern of responses, with dignity being the branding iron people want to mark her with. It appears as though we need to validate, even exonerate, her with our adjectives before we can accept her. Big stars like Khan indeed have no problems with female actors in trophy roles. But Sunny Leone is no trophy, for the adult film industry, at least in its projected narrative, is democratic. Unfortunately, much of the support for her today is based on existing prototypes, in effect wiping out a huge part of her identity.

There is no need to put the past in quotes, for the very fact that Aamir has no problems with it begs the reference. As it does for her presence on these shows as well as people's interest in them. Nobody would interview her or watch her for feeding stray dogs.

Whether it was Chaubey's leering, "You have a body" to Gupta's reference to "notoriety" to the many saviours, society ultimately want to make her respectable.

After her appearance on the Bigg Boss show, the then Chief Justice Markandeya Katju had decided to take up for her. He said he had not seen anything to suggest that Leone was indulging in pornography. He cited the example of the courtesan Amrapali who served food to Lord Buddha and Mary Magdalene who was allowed by Jesus to wash his feet.

Inherent in this supportive statement is the belief that Ms. Leone's nirvana lies in being a disciple. That she is not here to cook, serve food and wash feet or whatever the contemporary equivalents are, but to act in the movies, baring skin like other movie stars do, poses a challenge to their attempts at making her past invisible.

Katju had made it worse by stating, “My opinion is that Sunny Leone was earning her livelihood in USA in a manner acceptable in that country, though it is not acceptable in India... if she conducts herself in India in a manner which is socially acceptable in India and does not breach the social moral code, we should not treat her as a social outcast.”

What is the Indian Moral Code (IMC)? Is it the same for women of certain tribes whose dress code is different from those of the more ‘civilised’ urban areas? Is it not precious that the elite among the latter in some ways mimic a natural state as clotheless designer hippies?

It is a similar attitude that sees the recent surge of support where two designer national TV hosts take time out from the state of the nation to bring an adult movies star to our homes. Shekhar Gupta started his show by reminding her, and us, that he has interviewed only the top actors of this country, implying that he had legitimised her. He ended by saying that she was the most articulate. Would he dare to give such a certificate to an Aamir or a Shahrukh? Why is it necessary to treat someone as sorted as Sunny Leone as one would a fragile thing?

The most mature and clinching comment came from her in the CNN-IBN interview: "I want the viewers to look at me the way they want to look at me."

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