In a still deeply conservative country, the participation of an “adult” film star in one of India’s most popular reality shows was always likely to boost ratings. Few, however, anticipated that the nightly appearance of Sunny Leone, a Canadian-born porn star with Punjabi parents, would provoke a row over attitudes to pornography and the Internet.
Leone, whose real name is Karen Malhotra, has been appearing in Bigg Boss, the Indian version of what is called Big Brother in some countries, where a group of minor celebrities spend months in a house cut off from the world, vying for publicity and a cash prize.
To the surprise of media commentators, Malhotra has been better behaved than most of her housemates, so far remaining polite, well-spoken and fully clothed. Leone’s appearance has not only boosted ratings, but triggered a debate about the place of pornography in India.
Though every year brings a new crop of films pushing the frontiers of what can be shown in Indian cinemas, restrictions remain. Censors recently objected to the word “sex” in the trailer of a forthcoming film, and regularly insist on heavy cuts to any scene deemed too graphic. The sale or production of pornography in India remains illegal and taboo, and sex outside marriage is frowned upon.
Many observers have contrasted the relative tolerance of Leone’s TV appearance with a recent crackdown by police in a city near New Delhi on unmarried couples visiting parks. However, the spread of the Internet in India — there are 80 million users in the country, but the total is projected to exceed 230 million within five years — has meant an explosion in pornography sites catering for Indians.
Though the Indian Artistes and Actors Forum, an industry body, has complained to the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting about the “indirect promotion of pornography” and a conservative MP has spoken out against “the negative impact on the mindset of children,” there has been little protest from normally vociferous right-wing groups about the appearance of a porn star on prime-time TV.
An editorial in the Economic Times suggested the absence of vocal outrage suggested that Leone’s apparent widespread acceptance was reason for hope.
“Maybe the notorious Indian hypocrisy has tired of its own weight [sic],” it said.
Another possibility, the newspaper admitted, was that Leone was not seen as authentically Indian and “no one minds a salacious Caucasian.”