The room at the Grand Hyatt in Andheri, where Sunny Leone has agreed to give interviews ahead of the release of her first Bollywood film, Jism 2, is packed with journalists — about 30, more men than women, have turned up to talk to her and, more important, get darshan of her. It is, after all, not every day that you get to meet an Indo-Canadian adult-film star. Those who have already interviewed her hang around to catch more bytes. The ogling is obvious and I look at them in disgust, hoping they will be shamed into leaving. It’s a wasted effort — they have eyes only for the 31-year-old celebrity.
None of it bothers Leone (pronounced leo-nee). She is dressed in a royal blue, low-cut, figure-hugging dress. She composes a director’s frame with her hands, moves her chair close to mine and says: “OK, now don’t blink for five minutes. Say your lines and don’t blink!” I get terribly self-conscious. Worse, I start blinking rapidly. “I couldn’t do it either on the first few days of shooting for Jism 2,” says Leone. “In adult movies you close your eyes and no one’s going to care.” This, she says, is one of the acting tricks she learnt while doing Jism 2.
Leone will have to learn other tricks of Bollywood as well. She begins shooting for her second Hindi movie, Ekta Kapoor’s Ragini MMS 2, at the end of the year. Besides movies, she is busy endorsing Manforce condoms, Chaze mobile phones, PETA India, and the soon-to-be launched Besharam (an adult store online). She has done one reality show (Bigg Boss on Colors) and there’s talk she might do another, this time as a judge.
All this must mean big money. It’s not clear how much filmmaker Pooja Bhatt has paid Leone for Jism 2. Ten years ago, it is said, a director who approached her for a “sexy” suspense thriller backed out when she demanded $1 million.
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In deeply conservative India, drawing-room discussions are calling Leone an agent of social change. There hasn’t been a murmur of protest against her, neither from feminist groups nor from the right-wing moral police and cyber-warriors. Perhaps that is because she has been honest about her profession and made no attempt to hide it. Honesty is highly valued, deep down in the Indian psyche. That is the attribute that advertisers see in her. The posters of Jism 2 were splashed across Mumbai’s BEST buses until this week when a legislator asked the mayor to have them removed.
While meeting Leone, one could make the mistake of imagining her as a rabbit caught in a gin. Watching from the sidelines, I notice every interviewer come away with the urge to save her from the “dirty” and “degenerate” culture in which she functions. “She doesn’t belong there,” one of them mutters.
Vulnerable she might look, but dumb she is not. While waiting four hours for my chance, I don’t hear her give one slack answer. She is always witty and always entertaining.
Leone may not be as Indian as samosa, but is here for good. “I don’t know about moving here,” says Leone when I ask her whether she wants to shift from Los Angeles to Mumbai and leave the adult-film world behind. “I want to keep going back and forth, like, do bicoastal living, as it’s called in America.”
Leone was born Karenjit Kaur Vohra in Samia, Ontario, to Sikh parents. Her father was from Chandigarh and mother from Himachal Pradesh. They migrated to Canada in the late 1970s where Leone’s father, a mechanical engineer, found a job. Growing up, Leone rebelled against her parents by playing all sorts of sports including street hockey with boys and ice-skating, so that she didn’t have to be home. While in college, a friend in her English class introduced Leone to an agent who shot her portfolio that eventually found its way to Penthouse, an adult magazine. At 22, when she won the 2003 Penthouse Pet of the Year, she knew she had to break the news to her parents because she didn’t want them to know through secondary sources. “I sat them down before a Sunday dinner. I told them I won the Penthouse competition and $100,000,” says Leone with a nervous giggle. A hush descended upon the house but only for a few moments before “we moved on to eating aloo ka parantha and daal-rice”. “That was pretty much how that night turned out. Yes, it was a little quiet but they realised over time that I didn’t change as a person and that I was still their daughter,” says Leone.
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Daniel Weber, Leone’s husband, regrets the fact that his conservative Jewish-Israelite parents came to know of his porn career via radio. In 2008, Weber entered the adult industry by starring opposite Leone in a movie. Weber’s parents were listening to the show where Weber and Leone were discussing their movie. His mother, he says, was “mortified”. What was hard for her to understand was why her son would choose to get into the adult industry after being successful in his business — Weber’s business in New York of steel and fabrication factory was thriving at that time. “It took her months to get it. I don’t think she gets it yet,” says Weber. While Weber was uncomfortable doing the film, Leone says it is the best decision they have taken because “we have such an amazing relationship now”. Leone and Weber share a “conservative, monogamous relationship”. Together they run a production house called Sunlust Pictures for adult films.
When the couple landed at the Mumbai airport last Saturday, there were hundreds of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of Leone. She is “surprised in a good way” with the response she has been getting in India. “When I first got an offer to do Bigg Boss I said absolutely not because they are going to hate me [for my association with the adult industry],” she says. Weber, who also fronts the rock band The Disparrows, wasn’t surprised. He says, as the first Indian adult star, the whole world has known of Leone for more than 10 years. It’s only now that it is acceptable to say “I love Sunny Leone and I want to see more of her”.
But to get her to mainstream Bollywood was still a challenge. Indians take their cinema seriously: they like to see their heroes as alpha males and heroines demure and coy. Leone didn’t fit the image at all. In-your-face promotion could invite trouble from the moral police. The situation called for some smart environment management. So, the publicists of Jism 2 avoided putting hoardings near educational institutions. They have made most of the trailers, songs and scenes available online, not on television. This contained parental outrage without compromising visibility. This way they have managed to stave off protests from political parties and the moral police. Also, the publicists claim, they sat down to talk to people who they knew might create trouble for the actress before the movie release.
With assignments pouring in, Leone has decided to give her adult movie career a break. “As long as she is in Bollywood, she won’t be shooting adult films,” says Weber. One audience’s loss is another’s gain.