Bollywood actress and former porn star Sunny Leone appeared in New Delhi on Tuesday for the unveiling of her wax likeness at the city’s Madame Tussauds museum, a symbol of changing cultural mores in a country where arranged marriages remain common and celebrity kisses in public constitute front-page news.
The statue represents the Canadian-born, Indian-American actress and entrepreneur’s acceptance by mainstream Indian society even as conservative Indian politicians condemn her porn-star past.
Born Karenjit Kaur Vohra to a Sikh Punjabi family, Leone, 37, made a name for herself in the porn industry before breaking into Bollywood in 2012, starring in the sequel to the hit movie “Jism,” Hindi for “body.”
A string of movies, a documentary and a Netflix biopic have garnered her huge audiences — even as critics have panned her acting abilities.
For years, Leone has been India’s most Googled entertainer. With the statue, Leone joins the pantheon of Indian celebrities — including Bollywood stars Madhubala and Katrina Kaif, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — immortalized in wax.
Leone’s rise in India has not been without controversy.
In 2011, Anurag Thakur, head of the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, now India’s ruling party, and a member of India’s Parliament, sought to censure a TV channel that ran a reality-TV show featuring Leone.
Thakur argued that an adult-entertainment star’s appearance on the show would have a “negative impact on the mindset of children.”
In 2015, India’s Community Party leader Atul Kumar Anjan decried a condom ad featuring Leone as “disgusting and dirty,” and said it promoted sex and could lead to a rise in rape cases in India.
An antagonistic interview with Bhupendra Chaubey of CNN News18 inspired a firestorm in the Indian press and on social media.
In the interview, Chaubey asked whether Leone regretted working in the porn industry, and whether she was aware that Indian housewives worried she would steal their husbands.
Chaubey said some found Leone “completely antithetical to what we perceive as the ideal of an Indian woman.”
While some viewers lambasted Chaubey for sexism, Indian author and marketing maven Suhel Seth tweeted that it was “a mirror unto us! How many people before this interview were willing to be by her side?”
“I don’t see myself the way other people see me,” Leone said in a news conference Tuesday, adding that the statue stood for “women speaking up and women doing what they’re passionate about.”