Let’s face it. Sunny Leone isn’t being hired for her face. It’s a pretty face, but it isn’t what’s getting her hired. Neither is she being hired for her acting, which, to put it kindly, makes Katrina Kaif look like Smita Patil. No. Sunny Leone is being hired for her unswerving obedience to the directors of her films when they put her in the scantiest of tops and yell into their megaphones: “Now bend down and show us that W.” She’s a sport. She makes that W, by a rough count, about 26½ times in Bobby Khan’s Ek Paheli Leela. One of those times, she’s in a lacy bra, and the camera leans in on her from a height, the way you’d stand on tiptoe and stare down into a well to determine how deep the water is. The audience whistles. Another image is added to that great filing cabinet in the male mind. All is well.
But this isn’t some poor girl who came to Bollywood with stars in her eyes and ended up being exploited by lecherous men. In a way, she’s the one doing the exploiting. She’s a canny entrepreneur who knows what the market wants, and she’s exploiting that want. Early on in Leela, in a scene set at a party, she looks around at the men and tells her friend that they are “aankhon se rape karne wale perverts,” that they’re raping her with their eyes. You have to laugh because she’s simultaneously playing the victim card (within the film) and urging her fans to do the same thing those men at the party are doing (without). An unscientific web search told me that Leone’s net worth is $2.5 million. I’m surprised it isn’t more.
So hooray for her and all that, but isn’t this kinda-sorta bad news for the Hindi film heroine? Leone, essentially, is undoing what Zeenat Aman did in the 1970s. In films like Heera Panna and Manoranjan – which look tame today, but must have been shocking then – Aman wrested female sexuality from the vamps and said it was okay if the heroine had a great body and thought nothing of flaunting that great body. With the rare exception of a Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where Aman was reduced to doing what Leone’s doing in these films now, she made it okay for the heroine to wear, say, a cleavage-baring top and made the men whistle in open appreciation, even admiration, rather than salivate in a corner with barely concealed lust. She seemed to say, “Let’s not make a big deal out of this, boys.” This is what has led to Deepika and Priyanka and Katrina wearing (and getting way with) dresses that, at one time, would have made Helen and Bindu blush. We see these girls in these clothes and we react to them the way we react to Hollywood actresses in a bikini – it’s simply not that big a deal anymore.
But Leone is making it a big deal again. Or perhaps she’s proving that, despite Zeenat Aman, despite Deepika and Priyanka and Katrina, there’s always a market for full-figured women who can and are more than willing to bend down and make W’s. Mallika Sherawat proved this for a brief while in the noughties. Now, it’s Leone.
Only, Bollywood seems intent on crafting for her a different kind of narrative, one that she, unapologetic adult-film star that she is, probably never cared for in the first place. Bollywood seems hell-bent on giving her a Purab Aur Paschim makeover, wiping off her “shameful, Western” past and situating her in the continuum of the traditional Hindi-film heroine. What else is one to make of scenes like the one where Leone’s Meera utters lines like “Woh mera suhaag hai” or “Main shaadishuda hoon”? She wipes away a tear after receiving a proposal of marriage. She even gets to participate in a puja. And like the traditional Hindi-film heroine, she wears W-making tops earlier, but once married, she slips into demure – at least, as demure as her sensibilities will allow – salwar kameezes. Heck, by this point Meera could have been played by Rani Mukerji, circa Baabul. Why denude an actress of her USP?
But even with Leone brandishing her USP in the early scenes – at times, the camera angles make the 2D screen almost look like a pop-up book – Leela is an awful film, awfully staged, written, acted. (The wooden cast includes Rajneesh Duggal, Rahul Dev, Mohit Ahlawat and Jay Bhanushali, who looks like a fifth-grader who stuck on a beard to play Joseph in the annual nativity play.) This is the kind of movie in which we learn Meera is claustrophobic and fears flying, so to get her on a plane, her friend tells her it’s an… airplane-themed party. That’s enough to get Meera aboard. I suppose this is the distaff equivalent of men doing crazy things because all the blood rushed from their brain to their you-know-what.
The painfully snail-paced story is about the search for a statue, and there’s a reincarnation angle that goes back 300 years, which seems to be about the time we started watching the movie. The laugh track is filled with abominable fellatio jokes, and at some point you may begin to wonder if Leone isn’t regretting leaving behind her past. At least, there’s a certain kind of purity in porn. Pizza delivery guy rings the door bell. Co-ed opens the door. Insert joke about sausage toppings. Instead, here, we have to suffer through plot, character development, twist ending, dialogue… I laughed exactly twice during the movie. First, when the villain throws at Leone a bejewelled bra and a loincloth and snarls, “Yeh vastra pehen lo.” If this is vastra, then the Mahabharat we watched on TV would have been enacted by an all-nude cast, which probably tells us why Gandhari really wore that blindfold. The second time was when Meera is introduced as a supermodel who’s come “all the way from Milan.” Alas, nothing in this film goes all the way.
- “Woh mera suhaag hai”= He’s my husband.
- “Main shaadishuda hoon”= I am married.
- “Yeh vastra pehen lo.”= Wear these… clothes!
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.