Interviews

Pornography, Rape and ‘Mostly Sunny’: A talk with Dilip Mehta

Doc profiles Sarnia-born former porn star / current Bollywood star Sunny Leone

Sunny Leone in Mostly Sunny
Courtesy of TIFF


“There’s a very serious undertone to it, too,” laughs Dilip Mehta. “I hope you got that!”

It’s a warm September at the Toronto International Film Festival and director Dilip Mehta is eager to talk about his new doc Mostly Sunny. The interview begins with this POV writer making a gaffe by calling the film fun and bubbly, but, conveniently, it kicks the all-too-brief junket chat into serious territory right away.

Director Dilip Mehta
Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Mehta quickly points out that his film about Sarnia-born porn sensation turned Bollywood star Sunny Leone (born Karenjit Kaur Vohra) is anything but light. Like its subject, the doc is perky on the surface but surprisingly complex underneath. (Read the POV review of Mostly Sunny here.)

The film chronicles Leone’s shrewd business sense and unique career trajectory that went from pornography to India’s equivalent of Big Brother, which enabled her to make the leap to roles in Bollywood films and, eventually, create her own studio. Her success is remarkable given that Bollywood remains concerned about the impropriety of kissing and censorship long reduced sex scenes to wet sari dances underneath waterfalls.

“She did the impossible: she didn’t end up in an alley shooting heroin,” Mehta explains. “She went across the ocean to an orthodox country. She would never be embraced by Hollywood. If they wanted a porn star they would cast a Meryl Streep or a Julie Christie.”

As a character, Leone legitimately surprises with her attitude towards her X-rated past. “I knew that half my battle of acceptability was going to be won because she’s articulate,” says Mehta. “She’s attractive. She’s not a particularly good actor as of yet, but I’m sure she will be if she wants to and she’s not a bad dancer. As a person, Leone might surprise viewers given the preconceptions they may have about her.

Sunny Leone in Mostly Sunny
Courtesy of Mongrel Media


“There’s an intrinsic honesty to her personality that totally knocked me over,” continues Mehta. “That’s not what I expected. I thought that she would be doing a major cover up. On the contrary, she was unapologetic. She had no restraints talking about her past as a porn star in detail or otherwise.”

While making a doc about a porn star might invite some salacious research opportunities on the web, Mehta notes that he refrained from delving too much into Leone’s background. “I did not want to be pre-conditioned for the film,” he explains. “It’s so easy to fall into traps that you create and then there’s no spontaneity left. But, in the little research that I did, I was appalled. Everybody dotes on Sunny Leone.” The doc shows Leone performing at everything from weddings to children’s birthday parties. (A gift for the father in both cases, one suspects.)

Leone’s success in India is contentious in that country, which, like the UK and now the USA, is experiencing a return to conservatism. “The incumbent government is right wing,” explains Mehta, who is an open-minded Hindu. “Hardliners. They are rooting for the Hindu cause in India, Hindustan. My Muslim brothers and sisters are sitting on the edge of their chairs wondering what their lot in life could possibly be in this new India.”

Sunny Leone in Mostly Sunny
Courtesy of Mongrel Media


This shift brings the conversation to the serious business that makes Sunny Leone’s story extra ripe for a doc portrait. “Beef has recently been banned,” continues Mehta. “You used to be able to go to your local McDonald’s for a burger or your fine bistro for a filet mignon. Given those constraints, you have a porn star who is being worshipped, appearing at birthday parties and, for a large sum of money, is blessing children. I don’t get it. I just couldn’t understand it.”

The contrast between politics and desire echoes in Leone’s native Canada, as Canuck conservatism shies away from anointing stardom on adult film actresses. The few Sarnians who appear in the film, moreover, refuse to discuss Leone’s past. “Two or three weeks ago, Sunny was singing the national anthem on Indian television,” notes Mehta. “That would never happen here! So, on one hand, we don’t have sex education [in India] and rape is a great malaise that has affected the psyche of the women in India right now. It’s a misogynistic society terrible steeped in ball-scratching males.

Sunny Leone in Mostly Sunny
Courtesy of Mongrel Media


“For me,” continues Mehta, “the big picture was that I could use Sunny Leone to address the greater issue of rape in India. We are not handling the topic of sex and sexuality very capably, so that truly was my objective.”

Leone’s celebrity raises questions about building business on men’s desires. “Entitlement, pornography, all these things are used as vehicles for rape and she’s sitting on it,” explains Mehta. “When something goes wrong, they say it’s because of the likes of Sunny Leone.” Mehta doesn’t draw a cause and effect relationship between rape and pornography, but rather uses the Leone’s popularity to investigate competing cultural forces that crave sexual release on one hand and chastise it with the other.

The issue of rape in India is in fact so urgent that Mehta’s sister, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, debuted a film about the topic, Anatomy of Violence, at TIFF the same week. (Read the POV review of Anatomy of Violence here.) Mehta finds it remarkable that two siblings could approach the same topic from different angles unawares. “I was so caught up in my own film that I had no idea that Deepa was even making her film,” he explains. “At one point, I was in India, and Deepa was shooting—I was in Delhi and she was in another city—and I got quite a desperate call saying they were having issues with cameras. I offered her some suggestions because we collaborate in our work, but I said to her ‘What are you doing?’ and that’s when she told me about it and I asked ‘When did this happen?’ and she said that it had been going on for a while.

“That was brilliant because one side of the coin is Deepa’s film about six men who raped a woman and the mental make-up of a rapist. My film is essentially about a woman who is now accused of what is emerging as a cause for rape. So here we are brother and sister, siblings who love each other and are in the same profession, and we’ve made the flip sides of the same coin. It’s a good dialogue.”

Mostly Sunny debuts on iTunes January 10th and opens in theatres January 13th.
Read the POV review of Mostly Sunny here.

Visit the POV TIFF hub for more coverage from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival!