The widespread ridicule and condemnation that the Sunny Leone- Bhupendra Chaubey interview met with, was perhaps the only good thing to come out of it. The interaction was seen as judgmental and misogynistic, even hostile, with the host repeatedly shaming the actor to try and elicit a reaction he wanted, that of guilt and shame. Sunny refused to be bullied, stood up for her life choices, and came out like a trooper that she is.
While the interaction was a train wreck even before it started, with a smug Chaubey standing before the studio, alluding to Sunny’s past and her being most ‘googled’- something that he went on to repeat several times, the main conflict arose because Chaubey had already decided on the narrative that he was trying to construct even before talking to the actor. The interview can be largely seen within three themes of judgement: First, trying to elicit guilt and attempts to get an apology; second, the idea of seeing sexuality both as a threat and a thing of shame; and third, the idea of moral corruption, of purity and pollution. I explore these in turn.
The interview was a classic case of a man silencing the woman by the act of hijacking her story and trying to substitute his own. His own voice was informed by the conventions of narrow moralities; he had decided to judge her from what he assumed was the locus standi of the middle class (it’s another matter that the same class was united in support for Sunny). He wanted her to subscribe to his idea of a woman (he alludes to an average house wife at one point), where any deviation from the normal (like the actor’s choice to act in porn movies) was expected to be accompanied by guilt and apology.
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As Sunny refused to apologise for her choices and stood her ground, Chaubey became desperate. His questions became pointed and he asked her not once but twice if she regretted anything in life. She spoke about not being home fast enough when her mother passed away. She also said that she has no professional regrets, only few mistakes like everyone else (he asked ‘what kind of mistakes’). She spoke of the cultural shock she experienced initially in Bollywood – alluding to method in its madness. This could have been an interesting line to explore but Chaubey was not interested, he ignored that and asked of other regrets, to the extent of giving her the choice to turn back time and do over.
Sunny answered that since her past actions have made her what she is today (a person that she is happy with and proud of) she would not take that option.
Chaubey, despairing for the answer he wanted; the narrative that he was looking for, tried scare tactics, he used the word ‘haunt’ and ‘holding back’ for her past- she pointed out these were media terms and not hers. He alluded to her past as a ‘porn star’ (using air quotes) and said that given her history no ‘good’ actor like Aamir Khan would want to work with her. He questioned whether her ‘body’ will take her everywhere, she pointed out that applied for most people in the entertainment industry.
Chaubey’s problem was not just with Sunny and her choices but also with her guilt-free and unabashed celebration of sexuality. Since he viewed sex as taboo (unless perhaps within conjugality) and a threat (he tries to paint her as the temptress, trying to disrupt the domesticity by ‘stealing’ husbands), he just could not fathom her actions as her choice. Clutching at straws, he even asked her to narrate how she became a porn actor, trying to fit her into narratives of being an unwitting ‘victim’ of loss of ‘innocence’. Here Sunny was perhaps best in her interview; she said that she didn’t have any ‘horror stories’, she wasn’t abused or beaten or molested. She went to the extent of inverting the narrative and said that when she saw the pictures of the women she found them to be free, sexy and beautiful, women who are doing what they want to do.
Anxious and taken aback, Chaubey was at his most ridiculous when he said that she is facing criticism from ‘even politicians’! Indian politicians are not exactly paragons of ‘high standards of decency’ which the host was expecting from the actor and certainly they are no guardians of morality. In a country where victim blaming, boys will be boys narrative, and ‘slut’ shaming is the norm and political discourse ranges from blaming noodles to jeans (anything but patriarchy and rape culture) for crimes against women, surely politicians will judge any woman not confining to their narrow norms. Then he answers his own questions, saying that they hold her responsible to the moral corruption in the society and gives us a peek into his own psyche and discomfort; he wonders if he is being ‘morally corrupted’ speaking with her. He tried to substantiate by giving her some data on Indian porn consumption, and attributed its rise as being Sunny’s sole doing.
Wow you just made my whole year saying that! I was just happy you wrote me back :) respect you dearly! :) :) :) http://t.co/j4lxuVuar8
— Sunny Leone (@SunnyLeone) January 20, 2016
Our society’s discomfort with sexuality and especially with women’s sexuality has meant that it has always tried to view sexual pleasure with guilt and shame. Instead of trying to locate this discomfort within one’s own narrow definitions of morality and hypocritical acceptable standards of an Indian woman, the society looks outside, and tries to point blame on some externality. This they can do when they hold someone else responsible for ‘corruption’. Sunny Leone in this interview seemed like a fair game to Chaubey. He said at one point that if she was becoming ‘brand ambassador of New India’, then it was a ‘very dangerous trend to have’.
So entrenched he was within his ideas of purity (his idea of housewife) and pollution (the actor who he held responsible for polluting him and his country) that he just couldn’t reconcile to the idea that she could have a happy married life (she alluded to her smart, kind, sexy husband at one point) and be an uninhibited, successful movie star at the same time. He took it upon himself to speak of the wives whose domesticity he believed was threatened by the sexuality of the ‘other woman’. There was remarkably no judgement of the husband, a consumer of her movies and perhaps in Chaubey’s view someone at the centre of the tension between comfortable domesticity of a housewife and temptations of a seductress. He tried to project Sunny as Eve before and after her fall, and loss of presumed ‘innocence’, asking her about her ‘old life’ and whether she was still called Karanjit.
He has now come up with a half-hearted and poor defence of his tasteless interview in his blog, completely missing the criticism and again referring to her as ‘Karanjit, as she used to be called earlier’: a past he is obsessed with and the one he feels existed before the ‘fall’. A ‘past’ which he pompously claims was the only reason she ‘qualified to be on my show’ and the past which is informed by the narrative he wants to impose on the actor. He reiterates that people are not going to watch her because of her status as a star and chooses to define her by her past and past alone (remarkably something which Sunny has never shied away from and, in fact, celebrated her choice). However, the worst is his odious attempt at another hijack of her amazing courage and conviction: he takes the credit for making her look good, like a test she passed he gives her grace marks, ‘So Sunny you did well’. But most importantly by writing this blog he ensures that this interview almost functioned as a microcosm of the society, where the woman’s narrative was prologued and epilogued by the narrow, hegemonic judgement of the patriarchal values.