As I was making decisions for movies to see during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival #TIFF16, considering Mostly Sunny on my list, it occurred to me that I had seen my fair share of documentaries covering the experience of adult entertainers. Porn Star – The Annabelle Chong Story, Sex – the Legend of Ron Jeremy and the recent, and most frightening Hot Girls Wanted, are the three that stand out. I had never heard of Sunny Leone (that tells you how my sex life is going eh?) and was drawn to the idea that the most famous person in India, who had a decade long history in making porn, was from Sarnia, Ontario.
A good documentary peels away the layers of what the participants want you to see and shows you the real story. I think Dilip Mehta, although very kind to Sunny Leone in this film, does reveal not so much a dark, but a sad side to a life that othewise seems to be in the fast lane, dripping with access, excess and accolades.
There isn’t a bigger contrast in locations than between Sarnia, Ontario and “Anywhere, India”. Growing up brown as part of a newcomer family, in a small town in Canada has it’s challenges, mostly due to culture. Because culture is one of the most important influences on behaviour and expectations. One can predict nothing but disappointments for a young Karenjit Vohra with a self admitted princess complex, who goes to California looking for the attention she craves. But as the right person in the right place at the right time, Karne found financial success as an adult entertainer by becoming Sunny Leone. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen, is achieving your wildest dreams at a young age.
Dilip Mehta is an accomplished photo journalist, and his close up camera work delivers intimate visuals, boring past what the subject is saying, reflecting the truth in their eyes. Even in Bollywood dance sequences with glittery costumes, flashing lights and dozens of extras around, he finds the angle that shows an insecurity in Sunny’s demeanor. I was fixated on how much makeup Sunny was wearing, even in the most relaxed settings, on the couch at home. In the Q&A after the #TIFF16 screening I attended, Mr. Mehta mentioned that she would never take of this ‘mask.’ In extended shots, her lovely face filling the screen, I saw sadness in her eyes. She is an intelligent woman, dealing with the inevitable shelf life of an adult entertainer, balancing the adulation of hundreds of millions with the rejection of an extended family who are ashamed of the little girl who came from a good Sikh family.
One interview sequence shows the hopeful enthusiasm of three young girls who aspire to be just like the porn star. Leone has it all; beauty, a career, a viral fan base, and the perfect husband. Acknowledging the demands of men who are predators in the entertainment business, demanding ‘your soul, and your hole…” they point to Sunny as the example of who they want to be, despite the moral price. All I could think was how unlikely it is that Leone’s success happened in the first place, and could ever be replicated again.
Business associates in the film describe Sunny as professional, different from the others, with a business plan and savvy awareness of what she was willing to do to stand out. She surrounded herself with those who would further her career, projecting a small town innocence while becoming a Penthouse Playmate and the most searched person on YouTube. But her evolution to main stream entertainment has been rocky. The first, overhyped Bollywood film she headlined was a commercial and creative disaster. Her disbelief confirmed to me, that her singular success has become almost a solitary confinement where, the newly released is naive about inevitable challenges of what comes next. Her incredulity is more than one would expect from anyone else in this business who would have learned from previous failures.
My overall impression, is that Dilip Mehta found Leone just before a veil was lifted. A strong brand can be a cage that will become a prison if the guards won’t let you out. In her case, Leone has been surrounded by admirers who will be the ones controlling whether she can walk free.
Dilip Mehta at the Q&A after the screening of Mostly Sunny at #TIFF16