‘Mostly Sunny’: Film Review | Mumbai 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Sunny Leone in 'Mostly Sunny'
A revealing, well-told story sans sleaze.

Sunny Leone’s journey from porn star to Bollywood item is traced in Dilip Mehta’s celebrity portrait.

Called the woman of every Indian man’s dreams, porn icon Sunny Leone’s fame extends quite a bit farther afield for fans of her triple X-rated, U.S.-shot body of work. Now reinvented as a singer-dancer and would-be actor in Bollywood, she comes across in Dilip Mehta’s feature documnetary Mostly Sunny as an outgoing, fun-loving, vapid businesswoman for whom the bottom line outweighs any other consideration. Mehta, an accomplished photojournalist and the director of Cooking With Stella (2009), fleshes out his subject in an intelligent, highly watchable celebrity portrait that skips the titillation while it ably captures the cold heart of the adult entertainment industry. Its uncompromising approach may disappoint the star’s usual fan base, but in compensation it can be watched without embarrassment by any broad-minded and curious adult audience. The film made its Indian bow at the Mumbai Jio MAMI festival after premiering in Toronto and should continue to gain momentum in the fest and art house community.

At 35, Sunny (real name Karenjit Kaur Vohra) still combines the supernatural beauty of an Indian movie star with the clean-faced innocence of a girl from rural Canada. Mehta’s screenplay, written with Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Water) and producer J. Craig Thompson, views her in her various habitats. We meet her bundled up for the snow and cold on a nostalgic visit to her home town of Sarnia, Ontario, with her husband, co-star and manager Daniel Weber. She is surprisingly open and childish talking to the camera, swinging emotional whenever family is brought up. As a communications guru later suggests, this may be a calculated image-making tactic.

Though her chatter is chipper, tears seem to be close at hand as she remembers the deaths of her mother and father, who never fully accepted her choice to embrace adult entertainment, where she began appearing exclusively in lesbian roles around the age of 19. Her frankness and openness about her sexuality, personal life and some of her failures (example: the 2013 Bollywood film Jackpot, which tanked on release) win sympathy, however.

The choice was hers, and it appears to have been a joyful no-brainer; she is genuinely proud to have won $100,000 as Penthouse Pet of the Year in 2003. She naively believed that her father would understand her decision when she told him how much she had won, and moneymaking is one of the film’s underground threads. The good-looking Weber, a musician and heir to a Brooklyn steel factory, initially refused to let her perform on screen with men — until she was offered a huge salary, which made it OK, especially since Weber himself signed to co-star. Given their mutual business acumen, it’s no surprise when, after Sunny completed her contractual obligations with Vivid Entertainment, she and Daniel set up their own company, Sunlust Pictures. There is obviously much more to tell about her wily deals for online content distribution, but Mehta isn't aiming at a comprehensive biography here. He says just enough to provide the mercenary motivation for a life in porn.

Nor does the film really follow the steps in her screen career, which culminated in her first starring Bollywood role in the critically infamous, but commercially hot Jism 2. The story of how director Mahesh Bhatt first contacted her on set of the Indian reality show Bigg Boss is humorous and insightful about the way producers repositioned her on the respectability meter, while fully exploiting her porn reputation and following. But despite making several Indian films, she has not clicked as an actress, though her sexy MTV songs have a strong following.

In the end, the film is fair and respectful, but far from celebratory. It is strikingly skillful in suggesting the atmosphere of the porn world, particularly in a frank interview with one of the heads of Vivid. But its final contrast between counting cash and ordinary people dancing in front of the camera leaves something to think about. 

Mehta’s background in photography is evident in the doc’s stunning look, not just in the close-ups of a beautiful celebrity face, but in stolen glimpses of Mumbai’s street kids and the working conditions of Sunny's harried costume designer. Nothing is overemphasized, yet it all makes a subtle impact, like Michael Vuscan’s excellent, classy score.

Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (World Cinema)
Production companies: Ballinran Entertainment, Hamilton-Mehta Productions

Director-director of photography: Dilip Mehta
Screenwriters: Dilip Mehta, Deepa Mehta, J. Craig Thompson
Producer: J. Craig Thompson
Executive producers: J. Craig Thompson, David Hamilton
Editor: Decebal Dascau
Music: Michael Vuscan
World sales: Mongrel Media

Not rated, 86 minutes