Sunny Leone and the Indian porn debate: Where do you stand?

Aug 6, 2012 12:39 IST

#Jism 2   #NewsTracker   #pornography   #Sunny Leone  

by Abhay Vaidya

The land which gave birth to the Kamasutra is confused. After treating sex as a taboo subject for centuries together, the Indian psyche has been thrown face to face with what was till recently unmentionable: pornography.

There is hypocrisy and confusion in the midst of the unfolding Indian sexual revolution, because in Sunny Leone (born as Karenjit Kaur Vohra), pornography has got a new face in India. This face is neither seedy nor has anything to do with the underworld: It is as incredulously middle class as it can get.

It is part of the NRI narrative in the US and Canada of which Indians have always been very proud. Sunny Leone belongs to that same stock of migrants from where all the successful and eminent NRI scientists, entrepreneurs and academicians have come from- right down to US prosecutor Preet Bharara who nailed the former head of McKinsey & Co. Rajat Gupta in the securities fraud.

Activists burn Sunny Leone's effigy. What does the larger acceptance of her, say about India? AFP.

So, Sunny is one of us and she’s a proud porn star. Made all the more famous by her debut in Bollywood which captivates audiences in the subcontinent and beyond.

We are confused because while the sex industry is a story of cruelty and exploitation which should be exposed and crushed with all the severity that law enforcers can command, Sunny chose the profession voluntarily. There was no coercion of any kind or any extreme situation which compelled her to act in a porn film. She’s even established a company of her own and is still undecided on whether to give up entirely on the adult film industry.

Throughout last week she was sought after by media interviewers one after the other and was there in virtually every channel and newspaper. Her presence in the TV reality show Bigg Boss in 2011 did not generate the kind of near-frenzied press coverage that we see today, most of which is generous. What has happened is that in a spoken or unspoken way, Sunny has become a household name in middle class India. There is tremendous curiosity about her and also a twinge of admiration for boldly standing up for what defines her and her way of life.

The confusion over the changing values in India is also reflected by the presence of women -  Sunny and director Pooja Bhatt - at the helm of the film Jism2 about a porn star hired by a secret agency to seduce a killer. Wouldn’t a sex-thriller led by male counterparts have provoked the usual protests about the commodification of women as sex objects? What happens now when women are themselves driving this trend?

It’s rather co-incidental that 16 years ago, in 1996, it was none other than filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who sparked a controversy when as the then Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, he declared boldly that it was his right to watch pornography. The controversy would have been restricted to Bhatt alone but for the fact that he dragged in the then Information and Broadcasting secretary Bhaskar Ghose while criticising the members of a Parliamentary subcommittee on media policy. As recounted by Outlook magazine of 24 January 1996, Bhatt was "upset by the barrage of criticism unleashed by the committee members on Bombay filmmakers for the obscenity depicted in films…" and "questioned the government committee's right to be "morality kings" when "your own secretary tells me that he watches pornographic films behind closed doors".

Ghose reacted sharply and demanded a published apology which he got. As quoted by Outlook, Ghose described Bhatt as "...a complete ass. Just another windbag. Next he'll say I go to brothels. Some people will say anything, implicate anybody, make mendacious remarks to garner cheap publicity." Within a week, Bhatt apologized in a faxed letter to the Indian Express with a copy to Ghose, saying among other things that he had been "quoted out of context" and that he was “referring to another secretary he'd met in the course of his run-ins with members of the Censor Board", whose name he would prefer to withhold.

A lot has changed since then and even the Bombay High Court ruled in 2010 that the act of watching a pornographic film at a private place does not constitute an offence. As it happened in the West, in India, too, the entire Christian morality ethic of treating sex as sin has been challenged. In Western societies, conservatives and liberals have been engaged in a perennial battle over pornography and the state's "coercive powers to limit the freedom of individuals."

The liberals' argument on the right to pornography is based on the right to freedom and expression, the right to privacy and on the premise that "neither the expression of pornographic opinions nor the indulging of a private taste for pornography causes significant harm to others in the relevant sense of 'harm' (i.e. crimes of physical violence or other significant wrongful rights-violations)."

Liberals take recourse to a compelling view on liberty by the British philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill when he says, "The only principle for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right."

Where does India draw and re-draw the line when it comes to pornography, individual rights and freedom and social compulsions? How should India deal with pornography in a non-hypocritical manner? What steps should be taken to crush the criminalized sex industry and protect our children from sexual exposure and exploitation?

As ironic as it sounds, these are the questions provoked by India’s acceptance of her first porn star, Sunny Leone.

 

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