Sunny Leone has 1.77 million Twitter followers, but Dilip Mehta isn’t one of them.
Not after making Mostly Sunny, a documentary about the porn star from Sarnia, Ontario, who became a sensation inside that most chaste of worlds: Bollywood. “I found out she’s blocked me,” Mehta tells the Straight during a call from Toronto. “And that I find hilarious. To be blocked by Sunny Leone. Imagine!”
A ghosting by the most Googled name in India is a rare privilege, for sure, but so is securing the permission to tell Leone’s story in the first place. Mehta and his producers found themselves in that exceedingly desirable position a few years ago when the first-ever Sikh Penthouse Pet of the Year (circa 2003) agreed to go on the record.
Mehta recalls that slavering organizers promised him “a circus” if he could bring Leone to the premiere of Mostly Sunny at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. That’s when he realized something was afoot.
“Listen,” he says, with a boisterous laugh. “All of Brampton and Mississauga would have been there. All of our dear Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi followers and fans would have been there—minus their wives, of course. But the day before the screening, she was in Manhattan, and I said, ‘Why aren’t you here with us?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, I’d really like some changes…’ ”
Mehta is still audibly amazed by what he heard next. Leone wanted the filmmaker to remove some “partial frontal nudity” from the film they laboured together for over two years to make.
“I stopped dead in my tracks,” he recalls. “I said, ‘But hang on a second; you’re a former porn star!’ She wanted to make it vanilla, but fortunately for me and the film I had retained the director’s cut, something I’d insisted on right from the very start. So in effect we sort of parted ways.”
Mehta adds that they’re still “not on speaking terms”, while Leone has distanced herself from a sympathetic portrait that’s gone on to win a warm reception from critics and viewers alike.
Mehta lets Leone present her own version of events, from her childhood in Ontario to the modelling and eventual career in adult entertainment that followed after a family move to California. She also talks candidly about her parents, both dead, and is visibly wounded by the shunning she’s received in her hometown. She’s charming (“I was smitten,” confesses Mehta) but clearly very shrewd and ambitious.
It also appears that Leone’s bid for Bollywood stardom was tanking when the Mostly Sunny crew first arrived on the scene. In fact, Mehta reports, Leone and her husband, Daniel Weber, were preparing to return to the U.S. from Mumbai, “either to continue making porn films or concentrate on her husband’s family business”, when a song from the middling Bolly film Hate Story 2 went viral and sent Leone’s profile through “the stratosphere”.
Thereafter, he says, “producers were lining up around the block with suitcases full of money, saying: ‘Act in our film.’ ”
The rest is history still very much in the making. As Mehta’s doc hits Vancouver screens on Friday (January 13), Leone looks forward to the 2017 release of Raees, second-billed to a Bollywood megastar, Shah Rukh Khan, whose vast fame overseas makes Leonardo DiCaprio, by comparison, look like a community theatre player.
“We started on the right note, and I had total access,” Mehta offers. “But as we went on, as she became a bigger star, as she started breaking through more glass ceilings, her caution increased,” he says.
By refusing to remove the contentious images from his film, Mehta arguably enters the grey area stretching between the brand known as Sunny Leone and the human born in 1981 as Karenjit Kaur Vohra. Still, he finds it hard to square Leone’s sudden attack of modesty with the woman who founded and continues to run her own hugely successful XXX production company, SunLust Pictures.
“What attracted me to the story in the first place was the fact that she was saying, ‘Yeah, I was a porn star—so what?’ I said, ‘Hey, yeah, there she is, she’s gutsy, she has chutzpah, and she’s making no bones about it. That’s brilliant. If she doesn’t have any apprehensions, if she’s not going to conceal her past, then bully for her and bully for this film.’ ”
It’s tempting to wonder if some of Mehta’s more challenging on-camera questions ultimately soured the project. An unusually rattled-looking Leone rejects any notion of the relationship between porn and rape culture—and “not very convincingly”, in Mehta’s estimation. He admits that he had “second thoughts” about continuing the project when an especially vicious gang rape in Delhi began to seize headlines around the globe in late 2012.
His sister, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, concurrently made Anatomy of Violence about that very same case, while taking a writer’s credit on Mostly Sunny. (Dilip says that both siblings consider Leone, reservations aside, to be a feminist.)
Leone’s family history hits even closer to home, and she can’t avoid the implication that her career choices took a grave toll on her mother. “The ramifications were resounding. Enormous,” says Mehta, who ended up closing his film with the one question that left the ever-composed Leone without an answer: what if she has kids of her own? What then?
“When it comes to progeny, I think everybody’s take on life changes dramatically,” states Mehta. “There’s a sense of responsibility that comes about because then, suddenly, you’re talking about a legacy, and I think that’s where I hit this note with her, and you see it unfurling in the film. I mean, she’s so confident throughout, and then suddenly, here she’s stuttering, she starts falling apart.”
In the end, Mehta remains “perplexed—to put it mildly” by the fate of their relationship, while Leone’s growing list of masala credits includes a feature listed on IMDb as the “Untitled Sunny Leone Biopic”, to be directed by Abhishek Sharma for SunLust Pictures (taking an abrupt turn into the mainstream after the company’s last title, 2015’s Girls Love Girls 3).
“But unlike the documentary, Sunny’s biopic will be a far more ‘entertaining’ offering,” reports the Indian press. It’s a backhanded compliment to a filmmaker who didn’t want to deliver “a snow job”, while Mehta’s excommunication by the rising star has its upside, too.
“Most of my followers on Twitter are die-hard fans of Sunny Leone, and they keep on sending me these really bizarre photographs of their private parts,” he says, with a sigh. “I’m actually quite pleased that chapter is now ended.”