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Hindi Movies + the Sexual Revolution

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Sex, Saris + Sunny Leone

Bollywood Gets SeXXXy

Why you should care

Because India’s film industry is undergoing a sexual revolution and challenging the country’s conservatism.

Fortune favors the bold, something Indian moviemakers learned a long time ago. The film industry in the world’s largest democracy produced its first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, back in 1913.

That film, albeit silent, speaks loudly for an industry that has since evolved into the Bollywood powerhouse of today, and the latest bold stroke is directors welcoming adult film stars into the fold — and shaking things up in the process.

Mainstream Indian actors have traditionally locked lips, even if it pushed the envelope in terms of social acceptability. In fact, the longest on-screen kiss ever in an Indian film dates back to 1933, in the film Karma, lasting a full four minutes.

Actresses are baring more skin, full-throttle kissing has made a comeback and simulated sex scenes have become the norm.

But what’s “sexy” on India’s silver screen has historically been rather tame — even prudish by western standards. Long lustful glances, wanton lips quivering but never touching and women dancing in the rain, soaking their skin-tight saris, was as steamy as it got. As the years rolled by, even kissing was rolled back as the Indian Censor Board grew increasingly conservative.

Shanti Dynamite in red head scarf looking into camera

Shanti Dynamite

In the past decade, however, censorship has eased, and there has been something of a sexual revolution in Indian cinema. Actresses are baring more skin, full-throttle kissing has made a comeback and simulated sex scenes have become the norm. In turn, Bollywood’s beating heart, Mumbai, is attracting a new kind of actress — straight from the world of porn. None are homegrown because India has no (official) porn industry, but foreign-born sex stars with Indian roots are finding their spotlight in Bollywood.

First up, there’s British adult star Shanti Dynamite. The 23 year old of Indian and Greek descent got her start as a teenage topless model before shifting to TV, where she fronted a topless chat show for an adult channel in the U.K. She has a small part in the upcoming Chal Doctor Doctor Khelien (Come, Let’s Play Doctor Doctor), and she’s been tapped for one of three female leads in Indian producer Rupesh Paul’s next film, described as a mixture of gangster, horror and erotica, that’s due to start filming later this year.

Foreign-born sex stars with Indian roots are finding their spotlight in Bollywood.

Then there’s Miriam Weeks, an American porn star who claims to have an Indian mother. The Duke University graduate (better known as Belle Knox) entered “the biz” to fund her education, and word on the street is that her next stop is Bollywood.

But the most successful of the bunch so far is hardcore porn star Sunny Leone. Born in Canada but brought up in America by Punjabi Sikh parents, Leone had a leading role in the mainstream Bollywood erotic thriller Jism 2 (jism means body), released in 2012. The film may have received a cool response from critics, but Leone set the screen on fire. The actress has clearly struck a chord with Indian audiences: She was the most Googled person in India last year.

Sunny Leone on white backdrop

Source: Sunny Leone

Sunny Leone

So why would the film industry in such a seemingly conservative country have developed a taste for porn stars? India is leaping ahead in many ways — most obviously in the economic and social realms. Bollywood tried to court porn stars from abroad in the past but simply didn’t have enough money to reel them in.

India’s newfound prosperity, however, has changed the equation, and adult film stars have watched a lucrative market open up. None more so than Leone, who comes with a $1 million price tag and refers to herself as a “businesswoman” as well as an actress and porn star.

In an industry that produced 1,000 films last year (double Hollywood’s output) with a global audience of at least 3.6 billion, the money-making possibilities keep growing and so does the fan base, with the Indian diaspora stretching to every corner of the globe. According to a KPMG report last year, the Indian film industry is set to expand by 11.5 percent by 2017, delivering an estimated $3.1 billion.

We’ve reached the stage where there’s a porn star who is acting in a mainstream film, and middle-class Indians are having a conversation about it.

By importing adult stars, Indian films — typically prudish, family-friendly affairs — are challenging notions of propriety, as well as women’s status in general.

“India’s changing in a very interesting way — and rather fast,” says Indian cultural commentator Aseem Chhabra. “100 years ago, women couldn’t even act in Indian films. And so we’ve reached the stage where there’s a porn star who is acting in a mainstream film, and middle-class Indians are having a conversation about it.”

The conversation is indeed changing — censorship has eased to such an extent that the board allowed 12 Years a Slave to be screened unedited, the first-ever display of full frontal female nudity and rear male nudity.

Just how far will it go? Could there be an Indian porn industry in the future? Leone doesn’t think so.

“That will never happen. People are too conservative,” she says, and she should know. When her film Jism 2 opened, protesters across India harassed moviegoers and called for the film to be banned.

An X-rated film industry in India may still be a long way off, but foreign-born porn actresses are reaching for their saris to follow Sunny’s footsteps — and the scent of money — to Bollywood.

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