A tale of two Keralas – From shunning Shakeela to inviting Sunny Leone

Why it was not possible then and why it could happen now
A tale of two Keralas – From shunning Shakeela to inviting Sunny Leone
A tale of two Keralas – From shunning Shakeela to inviting Sunny Leone
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It may have been a decision of the organizers of the Vanitha Film Awards to invite Sunny Leone to give a dance performance at the ceremony, but a move of similar magnitude would have been unwelcome in the Kerala and also India of Shakeela’s times.

That the decision was made, is both a reflection of changing attitudes and the product of some developments. The result was heartening: some more of our collective conservativeness has been chipped away, even though a large block still remains.

Some days ago, the Vanitha Film Awards were held in Thiruvananthapuram. During the award ceremony Sunny was asked to give a performance. But naturally, when people meet, they interact. One of those interactions – actor Jayasurya’s Facebook post about a conversation with Sunny Leone and a selfie with her – went viral.

Responses were naturally of all colours, but the incredible thing is, that such a photograph with, wait for it, a former porn actor, was uploaded on Facebook with a mostly glowing account of a conversation with her. It was also publicly written about by others.

It never happened with Shakeela. Given the lack of public acknowledgement of her and her films, you’d think that theatres were filled with ghosts who melted away as soon as they stepped outside the cinema halls where they lusted after their imagination of her. She acted in over 100 films in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu – all the four major south Indian languages and then some. But the bulk of her acting has been for Malayalam films.

In an interview with Dalit Camera, Shakeela says that she had heard rumours that mainstream actors invisibly lobbied with the government to get her films banned as their own films were not doing too well. She baldly talks about the hypocrisy when she acted in ‘B-grade’ films, also called soft porn.

Despite the obvious denial of recognition to Shakeela – she was either ignored or ridiculed – it is important to remember that there are several differences between the time when Shakeela was at the height of her career and when Sunny Leone was invited to the awards.

Firstly, Sunny Leone is no pushover. She has proved to be both shrewd and intelligent, and has pursued the so-called mainstream. She has – rightly – refused to be shamed into apologising for her choices. But, she owes her current image and position not just to her own intelligence, but also to public relations strategies.

Secondly, we have, for some time, been living in a world where even the India media are reporting porn viewership statistics. According to PornHub’s findings for 2015, India has the third-highest number of porn users. We even have data on how watching porn actually dips around festival time.

In contrast, back in the 1980s when Shakeela made her debut, watching any kind of explicit film had to be a sort of forced public yet secretive activity – watching sexually arousing content with a bunch of other men, often strangers, while trying to conceal your face somehow.

But later, because of CDs, and then the internet, watching porn can be a private activity, and it changes the relationship that people have with pornography. Most people – men and women – who watch porn do it privately even though they would have had some experiences of having watched it with friends and peers. Although it need not happen in every case, this can give youngsters a chance to eventually grow out of the early awkwardness, sense of shame / guilt / fear associated with engaging in a forbidden activity, that too a sexual one, and accept sexual desire and masturbation as a part of normal life.

Today, youngsters can and do have discussions about porn (not just exchanging views on what the best stuff is), sex and masturbation but also in terms of simple tales of how and when they first watched porn or how and where they first had sex. Back in the 1980s, there was little chance of this. You were more likely to find a book with explicit covers hidden in a dusty corner of the house, and then not be able to tell anybody about it.

Thirdly, feminism has made some gains, a little more freedom here, some more support there, a Kiss of Love movement that got people talking. For some time, we have also been a society whose youngsters are thinking about sex, sexuality, and experimenting with both – this includes the whole gender, sexuality and sexual orientation spectrum, not just the hetero-normative one.

Lastly, even though Sunny Leone has been invited into hallowed spaces today, it’s a moot point whether Shakeela will ever be extended such a gesture.

So yes, Jayasurya’s Facebook post had a rider. He said to say that his brief meeting with Sunny Leone dispelled all his doubts about her. A rough translation of a portion of his post: “Such pleasing and respectable behaviour. Within moments she was able to purify the impurity in our minds. She is a woman with great qualities. The best education one has is the respect they show to others.”

Feminism – a hope and action that one day caste and patriarchy will end – has made many gains, thanks to people of the whole range of gender, sexual orientation and sexuality spectrum. If a Jayasurya is willing to meet a Sunny Leone and only slightly passes judgement, then we are one step closer to our aspirations of a society where people don’t have to fear or hide.

The tragedy is, that we will never be able to correct the wrongs that were committed against people like Shakeela. All the more reason for us to hurry up.

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