Sunny Leone with Randeep Hooda in Jism 2
A decade after Jism gave Bollywood a new sex symbol in Bipasha Basu, Pooja Bhatt directs porn star Sunny Leone in Jism 2, that releases this Friday. A t2 chat.
Sunny Leone’s Isna is a porn star. Did Isna happen because of Sunny or did Sunny happen because of Isna?
It’s a combination of the two. The character that I wrote was always someone who dropped her clothes for profit and was aware of the kind of effect her body had on men and shamelessly utilised it. Unlike Bipasha (as Sonia) in the first part, who uses her sexuality to lure a man and con him into killing her husband, Sunny uses her sexuality in not-so-sinister a manner.
It is about a woman who makes her own choices — whether she wants to sleep with someone or not… whether she wants to use her body to earn money or not. We live in a society where men can exploit a woman’s sexuality for profit, but when a woman does the same with her own body, we have a problem. She is someone you will root for at the end of the film because we all love the underdog.
Isna is a porn star and that was not a difficult persona to create with Sunny. It just became easier to tag the character because that’s her profession in real life. We had to change the character a little bit, because initially she was a girl who was more on the edge, bordering on self-destructive. With Sunny, we left that element out because we didn’t want to play her as a victim.
What struck me about Sunny the first time I met her was her attitude that ‘I do what I do because it’s a choice I have made. I have no tragedy behind me’. And that in itself was quite refreshing because we need to allow women their choices, whether they want to be prostitutes, nuns or housewives. Sunny is a porn star in a nation (the US) that legalises the profession. So why hold it against her?
You apparently wanted to cast her in Jism nine years ago!
A magazine had done a column on her… the first Indian-origin girl who had chosen to be a porn star. What struck me was that face which was so innocent. Here was someone who was going against so many norms… coming from a conservative Indian background and though she was born and raised in Canada, I am sure there must have been a backlash when she chose this profession. I thought it would be a great combination because Jism wasn’t a timid film. So we wrote to her agent then, but Sunny wasn’t available because she had already been signed on by Penthouse as their Pet of the Year.
We forgot about this and then we cast Bipasha and the rest is history. In a way, I am glad that it didn’t happen because Sunny is a great Isna but I don’t think she would have been a great Sonia because she and Bipasha are two completely different kinds of women. While Bipasha had this very in-control sexuality, Sunny’s is something that completely disarms you, which is what I wanted in Jism 2. She has an author-backed role, something that most seasoned actresses would kill for.
Did Sunny come with zero inhibitions?
People, of course, assume that since she comes from the world of porn, she would be absolutely okay with the lovemaking scenes. Porn is sensation without feeling, but when you do a love scene in a film, emotion will have to creep in at some point. Jism 2 is like Last Tango in Paris where it’s just not about the sex, but also about sweeping emotions. It’s not about dropping your clothes, it’s about baring your soul. That’s something that I had to push her to do because she doesn’t know how to be vulnerable, given the profession she is in. She had to dig deep into her recesses and bring out all her emotions. She had to learn as well as unlearn a lot of things.
But you have used sex in the promos to lure the audience to cinemas on Friday…
There will be a lot of people who will not look beyond the body, but many will also see the soul of the film. It has a world-view that’s sparkling, characters that are rooted in the here and now and it’s not an average Hindi film that’s disconnected from reality. I haven’t dumbed-down my film because I know that the audience out there is far more evolved and accepting than the film industry that I am a part of. My film is erotic, but it isn’t pornography. It will surprise a lot of people because it pushes the envelope. It’s a sensual brand… an adult love story that extends into the physical plain and that’s perfectly natural.
Thankfully, even the men in Jism 2 have stripped!
(Laughs) With Jism, we gave Bollywood a sex symbol in John Abraham and someone to satiate the female gaze. In Randeep Hooda, you not only have a powerhouse of talent, but also a delicious-looking man. I have made him strip to get even with the double-standards in Bollywood where the woman has to frolic around in a wet sari and seduce the man. When we make the men strip in our films, its because there is an item number and he has to show off his six-pack!
Ram Gopal Varma offered to shoot a song in Jism 2 because he is a huge fan of Sunny’s and he felt that a male gaze was needed to present her the way she should be. When the first posters came out with my men showing off their bodies, he called me and said: ‘What the hell are you doing, exploiting the men like that?!’ (Laughs). What makes Jism 2 unique is that it’s from a female perspective and gaze.
How was it directing an erotic thriller as a woman?
I feel that I am the right person to do this because I have always been a bit of a rebel… someone who has celebrated her body. I appeared in a magazine in nothing but body paint so many years ago not because I wanted to make Internet wallpapers of it but because I wanted to do it. Even as an actor, I was far more comfortable doing a kissing scene than mouthing double-meaning dialogue. I have lived my life on my own terms. I have made a film in a genre that has always been considered to be a male domain and that’s where my victory lies even before my film has hit screens.
I cannot depict the female form in a vulgar manner because that would mean depicting myself in a vulgar manner. I haven’t put in a cheesy item number to exploit my heroine’s body. There are sex scenes, but those are integral to the plot and they are far more aesthetic than anything you would have seen on our screens so far.
The censor board asked for quite a few cuts…
Yes, but those are things that I would have done on my own because I have myself and my family to answer to. I am not a flake… I have a brain, unfortunately (laughs) and if I find something cringe-worthy, I won’t put it into my film in the first place. I went back and made those cuts and believe me, it actually made my film crisper.
Do you ever miss being in front of the camera?
On the days when I am tearing my hair out managing every department, then I think: ‘Why am I not on someone else’s set and being told what to do?!’ (Laughs.) That’s when I feel that I just want to wear a costume and say my lines and leave the headache to someone else. But it would be interesting for me to act today because I feel that I would take instructions better and display more compassion towards the whole process of filmmaking.