Sunny Leone is a curious pop culture figure. She was once one of the biggest adult film stars in that dirty little secret of an industry and is now striving for mainstream success in India as a Reality star, musician and Bollywood actress. Dilip Mehta’s documentary ‘Mostly Sunny’ catches her at an unusual moment.
Leone is a star, just more infamous that beloved, and most of that stardom comes from halfway around the world. The Canadian-bred beauty is climbing through the ranks in India despite not traveling to the country until it was profitable for her. She’s open and proud about her Triple X past, yet had to accept an inevitable shunning from almost her entire family in the process, which she isn’t particularly pleased about. She has turned herself into an industry and knows how to make money, but seems to strive for a level of respectability that she might never achieve. In other words, Sunny Leone is a walking collection of contradictions, the type of subject that leads to fascinating documentaries. This is almost one of them.
Director Mehta worked as a photographer for years before transitioning into filmmaking with the help of his sister, Deepa (an award-winning director in her own right, who also shares a curious “screenplay” credit on this doc). His background in journalism shows in the film, which is comprised almost entirely of talking heads and “fly-on-the-wall” footage. The project obviously comes from a place of fascination with the subject and one with an agenda. Mehta comes at the movie with a desire to explore the adult industry and the bizarre spot of vast commercial appeal and complete artistic derision that it occupies. There’s an extent to which Mehta is using Sunny Leone’s life to express his own point of view on an industry that’s a bit manipulative, but never so much as to completely derail the project.
‘Mostly Sunny’ unfolds in a curiously episodic manner, often feeling more like a loose collection of ideas than an actual film. We see Leone return to her childhood home in Sarnia and discuss her humble upbringing as well as her family’s disturbed reaction to her eventual career choice (except for her brother, who was encouraging and often sold autographed photos of his porn star sister to make extra cash in college…yeah, he’s one of the more interesting people in the movie to be honest). There are scenes in India where greedy producers discuss the logic loops they jumped through to break her into the television industry. She attends a premiere to a movie that’s a flop. She discusses transitioning into producing porn with her boyfriend. Some amusingly forthright porn producers outline the economics of the industry. Leone and her husband discuss awkwardly revealing their porno relationship to his family via a radio interview. These are all amusing chapters, but rarely add up to much more than the thesis that Dilip Mehta wants to impose on the material rather than letting it unfold naturally.
That’s not to say that Sunny Leone was taken advantage of in this documentary. She’s clearly career oriented and image conscious. She’s thrilled to have an opportunity to talk up how important she is and list all the achievements that she’s racked up in a long, multi-faceted career. Unfortunately, her revelations are only ever skin deep and feel like résumé listing with a few diversions into autobiography. (Even the tears feel planned.) Given that this is supposed to be a confessional documentary that reveals the human behind the icon, that’s a pretty big problem.
Perhaps Leone is shallow and this is as deep as Mehta could possibly dive, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like a performance geared to the documentary that the porn star and director decided to make before they shot a second of footage. It’s still an intriguing movie given the subject matter, which remains mysteriously taboo in a world where porn is a multi-billion dollar industry that everyone accesses through the phones in their pockets. Just don’t expect the warts-and-all honesty the doc promises from the outset. Sunny Leone is always wearing far too much makeup for that.