Is this woman the face of India's sexual revolution?
The poster for Jism 2.
Things inside Mumbai cinemas sure are hot and steamy at the moment, and for once it’s not due to India’s infamous humidity but to the charms of a 31-year-old porn star.
Sunny Leone is an Indo-Canadian actress whose "body" of work includes erotic dancing, appearances in Penthouse magazine and hard core adult films.
Posters of her first foray in to Bollywood in an “erotic thriller” called Jism 2 (relax, that’s Hindi for “body") show a languid, half-dressed woman -but oddly not Sunny Leone - reclining under a wet sheet. It's an incredibly racy image for a country and industry known for it's conservatisim. (Bollywood movies often climax without the romantic leads even getting to seal their feelings with a kiss).
Meanwhile, another well-known Bollywood actress Sherlyn Chopra took out the dubious title of “India’s first playmate” after stripping off for Playboy magazine.
I admit there’s something strangely beguiling about India’s latest flirtation with adult-only entertainment.
Certainly, with its pneumatic female stars, highly contrived plot and breathless ‘action’, the Hindi model seems something of a natural fit—putting aside its deep conservative core, of course. As Bollywood actress-turned-director Pooja Bhatt recently quipped: “We’re obsessed with sex, but in a very repressive way.”
And for India’s disenchanted youth—reportedly angered by recent systematic raids on popular nightspots—here was an opportunity to shine light on what they consider to be the country’s abject “moral policing”.
Measuring social progress against the pornographic yardstick, however, was more worrying. Especially in an industry that has long mythologised the female form.
It’s not enough that young women look alluring (don’t confuse that with available) in Bollywood, they’re required to be incandescent, too—and Krishna help her if a nubile star falls short of social expectation, as evidenced recently when actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, dared look like she’d recently had a baby (because she had).
As Delhi-based novelist and film writer Advaita Kala writes: “Bollywood has the power to change the mainstream—in the way it depicts women at work, in families, intimate relationships—as well as perpetuate stereotypes. Most often we see examples of the latter.”
From Bollywood to Brussels, where another kind of sexual celluloid revolution, albeit on a more modest scale, was also unfolding. If the Bollywood argument sought to bring women’s sexuality out of the dark ages, then young women in Brussels were living with the effects of a glare from which they couldn’t escape.
Film student Sofie Peeters, who lives in the working-class suburb of Anneessens, decided she’d had enough of being showered with wolf whistles, catcalls and such greetings as “slag” and “How much?” each time she stepped outside her door.
Once Peeters got over the non issue of self-blame (“Could it be what I’m wearing?” she asked herself more than once), and swapped similar disheartening stories of harassment with female friends and acquaintances, she took to the streets with a hidden camera and began recording.
Her short film, Femme de la Rue, is “a shocking account of everyday sexist insults in the street”, as the Guardian described it. By pointing her lens at her community, Peeters also put Europe under the spotlight, and few were ready for their close up.
In France it “triggered a Twitter offensive…after one male tweeter said he had never seen anyone complain of similar street harassment”, added the Guardian.
“Under the hastag #harcelementderue (street harassment) testimony flooded Twitter by women proving him wrong, followed by #harcelementdemetro about harassment on the underground.”
That Peeters had unearthed a universal theme was supported by a UK poll released in May which found four in 10 young women had been sexually pestered in London over the past year. It also came as no surprise to those of us who joined the recent Slutwalk conga line.
For these reasons alone I, for one, would love to see a porn star at the centre of change. Back in the early 1990s, former American porn actress turned sex educator Annie Sprinkle certainly knew what it meant to ruffle feathers with her adventurous workshops and live shows, such as the marvellous A Public Cervix Announcement, which proved not only legendary but truly illuminating.
Chopra and Leone are savvy businesswomen and unapologetically proud of their achievements. But they’re no Sprinkle#2. Chopra is fond of spouting grrl-power platitudes through her porcelain smile, and, away from the publicity trail, Leone’s advertisements for grape-flavoured condoms and the sterilisation of pets haven’t exactly pushed the envelop on stereotypes.
In a country where women are “assaulted for visiting pubs or wearing westernised clothes”, as Advaita Kala writes, there’s a need for a movement that stops more than just traffic. Shifting a mindset can be creative as well as cultural, but for that to happen in Bollywood the real song and dance needs to occur well way from the screen.