There is no subtle way to say this, Season 2 of Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone is way more interesting than it has any right to be. When the show was first launched earlier this year, it felt like a response to all the stories that have tagged Sunny Leone all her life. In particular, it was often ranked against another documentary about Sunny that she famously washed her hands off of.
You see, this was Sunny Leone’s version of her story, the one she wanted to tell. Call it low expectations or inbuilt bias, this show can’t be good, right? Subject-approved biopics are rarely high art and the first season seemed to confirm this theory. It fell into all the traps of moulding Sunny’s life to cater to an Indian audience, making her rise to adult film stardom appear both sleazier and more prudent at the same time.
Season 2 however, unburdened from explaining and being apologetic about Sunny’s choices, settles in to a comfortable groove as a dysfunctional family drama. The most remarkable thing about the 6 episode season is how little of it is about Sunny’s career.
Season 2 is framed around Karenjit’s mother Balwant Kaur’s battle with alcoholism and eventual death. That decision alone makes it a deeper and richer story. The show really benefits from the newfound focus on the relationship between Karenjit and Balwant.
That gambit wouldn’t work if Grusha Kapoor as Balwant wasn’t giving the performance of her life. She is the heart and soul of this season and it would all fall apart without her. Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone clearly doesn’t have the best production values, and that often comes across in its actors as well. But the central family including Bijay J Anand as dad Jaspal and Karamvir Lamba as younger brother Sundeep make it work.
Season 2 starts off where we left off with the Vohras, and Balwant is still upset with Karen after finding out about her being a adult film actor. It’s 2004 and the US presidential campaign is in full swing. Balwant learns that George W Bush has promised to ban porn if elected, and feels like this could be the key to saving her family. So she begins campaigning for Bush full time. It’s a hilarious premise and also establishes that it’s just mom who has an issue with Karenjit doing porn.
Meanwhile, Sundeep is having his own sexual awakening, almost as if he is liberated by his sister’s coming out. His scenes with new girlfriend Tanya (a white girl who was born in Bangalore and speaks Hindi) are sweet and funny. It takes a while but Karamvir’s awkward delivery grows on you.
A show like Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone wouldn’t be worth talking about if it isn’t subversive. What’s subversive here is how casually it treats Sunny’s porn career and sex in general.
One of the most amazing things I will see this year in a mainstream Indian show is when Karen’s boyfriend chides her for calling a mother-daughter pair who do porn together “gross.” “Doesn’t your mother think what you do is gross?” he asks. Karen simply nods in understanding. That’s a damn radical point to make!
There are a few narrative curiosities in this season too. Take for instance, the episode that is framed as a standup comedian doing a bit on stage about how he blew his chance with a pornstar. That pornstar, as we see in a flashback, is Sunny Leone of course. Then there’s the time-hopping structure of the show, going from Karen’s childhood to 2004 to 2008 to present day, often within one episode.
But once again, this season belongs to Grusha Kapoor. Her performance as Balwant holds through so well. Watch the scene when she’s confronted by Sunny about her alcoholism and asked what happened in her life that made her this way. Balwant’s eyes flame up as she responds “What happened to you that you decided to take off your clothes in front of the world?” Or the scenes with Balwant in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she slips into a Punjabi monologue in the middle of sharing her experience. Or the scene towards the end when Sunny apologises to her. These scenes are written (by Karan Shrikant Sharma) and performed with surprising intensity and sensitivity.
A huge star telling their story the way they want to does elicit cynicism; but what Sunny Leone has done with Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, particularly Season 2, is reclaim her narrative. It’s remarkable how little season 2 is trying to pander to audiences with respect to titillation and exploitation. (Seriously, there is more male nudity than female.) Karenjit Kaur Season 2 makes Karenjit and by extension Sunny Leone feel more human than ever.