The accuweather app on everybody’s smartphone at Samode Palace, Samode, Rajasthan, shows 43 degrees Celsius. The air is heavy with the promise of rain as the contestants of Splitsvilla 7, a reality television show on MTV India, take their places, their brows beaded with sweat. The production crew takes its position, cameras are switched on in every corner of the courtyard and then Sunny Leone walks in, wearing a red body-con dress, leopard print heels and a big smile. There is no way anybody is looking away from her, no way anybody can. If there is a heat wave in town, she is it.
A few hours later, at a press conference to promote the show, Leone flashes a mega-watt smile at the assembled media and says, “People think they know me. They know the actor, but on this show, they will get to see me as I am. They will get to know me.”
Who is Sunny Leone? Is she the Canadian-American porn star who caused a stir when she entered Indian television screens on Bigg Boss in 2011? The body in 2012’s Jism 2, never mind the plot? The item girl in 2013’s Shootout at Wadala? Or is she “Babydoll” from the song that is on every television channel in the country, and is still playing on every radio station with a vengeance? “I don’t know how to describe the ‘real’ Sunny Leone.
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People don’t know that I’m goofy and nerdy, and I might be in this body, but I’m completely different from what people think I am,” says Leone, later during the course of an exclusive interview. But she’s quick to add that the performer that people know and lust after, or shun, is her own creation. “I created that persona. I can’t get away from it, nor do I want to,” she says.
Leone’s entry into Bollywood is rather late by industry standards — at 33, she is only a handful of films old, and clutching a host of item numbers. But Karanjit Kaur Vohra has come a long way from Sarnia, a sleepy town in eastern Canada, where she was born in 1981. Much has been written about her life, beginning from her first kiss at 13, to being awarded Penthouse Pet of the Month in March 2001, to starring in porn films since 2005.
“I think there is risk in every form of self expression. You are putting yourself out for the world to judge, even more so in the adult entertainment industry. The biggest risk I took was in facing the backlash from my community, family, and friends,” she says. Her parents only found out about her profession when she won the Penthouse award and it was a while before they accepted her decision. “Both my parents have passed away. I wish they could have seen the work I am doing today,” she says. Her brother, who lives in the US, does not keep up with her releases unless she prods him to watch a project. “I love him, but he doesn’t know what’s going on with my career,” she says.
In an industry that is perceived to be exploitative, Leone has categorically stated that she joined the adult entertainment business of her own accord. She is also an astute businesswoman who has been directing and producing her own adult content under her company SunLust Pictures, maintaining complete control over how she wants to market herself. “I choose to own a production house so I can produce, own, direct and distribute my own content and of others. It was the logical step to take to be successful in the business,” she says.
A Google search in 2011 turned the course of her career. That year, the production team at Viacom in Mumbai was scouting for an adult film actor to feature in the fifth season of Bigg Boss, India’s version of the Big Brother franchise. “From the beginning, the makers of the show wanted an adult film actress in the house. But they knew that the audience may not be ready as yet. By the time we were prepping for season five, it was time,” says Ujjwala Dutt, one of the producers of the show. When they found Leone online, her Indian ethnicity tipped the scales in her favour. While she was unsure about joining the show, there was no denying the opportunity it presented to be introduced to a whole new audience. “My husband and manager Daniel Weber and I talked it through and decided it would be a great chance to explore a new entertainment market,” she says.
“When she came into the house, none of us knew her profession. But Akash Deep Saigal, Pooja Bedi and I took an instant liking to her. Earlier, she’d told us that she was a model, but within a week she confided in us and told us that since we are friends now, she didn’t want to hide anything from us,” says Juhi Parmar, winner, Big Boss 5, and one of Leone’s few friends in Mumbai. “We didn’t get scandalised, we respected her choice of profession and I think, on camera at least, everyone else did too,” she says. Leone’s entry into the show was nothing short of a masterstroke, for her as well as for the producers. And once she disclosed her true identity to the participants, the producers knew they had a cracker of a show on their hands; overnight, thousands of viewers found themselves charmed by Leone’s beauty and equally unsettled by her background.
Before Leone entered the Bigg Boss house, Dutt was assigned to help her get used to India. “She is intelligent and confident and had done her homework. She was never embarrassed of her profession, but said she was done with it and needed a change,” she says. Leone did not have to wait long; Mahesh Bhatt stepped into the Bigg Boss house to offer her Jism 2.
“When I approached Sunny for the film, the who’s who in Bollywood told me that I was committing hara-kiri because India is a ‘traditional’ country and the audience would never accept her. But she was already on the show and viewers didn’t seem to have a problem,” says Bhatt. “Sunny’s success is a marketing coup. She made a smart choice to be a part of successful franchise films like Jism 2 and Ragini MMS 2. She’s not fighting for the traditional Indian heroine’s space,” he says.
In spite of her sex appeal and its commercial success, Jism 2 received lukewarm reviews from critics. There was that successful item number in Shootout at Wadala, but Leone needed something that would give her a chance to really act. Balaji Motion Pictures were looking for an actor who could titillate and scare viewers in equal measure in a sequel to their horror-sex hit Ragini MMS. “Sunny Leone is the opiate of the masses, why not get her, we thought,” says Tanuj Garg, CEO, Balaji Motion Pictures. “She told us that she was scared of horror films. We sent her the DVD of the first film and she was really spooked out. But she loved it and signed up for the sequel,” he says.
Before the release of Ragini MMS 2, Balaji launched a publicity blitzkrieg across several mediums. Leone’s face was on posters everywhere, at the back of autorickshaws, on billboards. In both metros and smaller cities, Leone was a one-woman army who carried the publicity of the film on her shoulders. “No matter where we took her, swarms of people would turn up to see her. Not only is she a pretty face, she has a friendly and charming personality and isn’t stressed out in front of crowds,” says Garg, who compares the crowds to see Leone to be at par with A-list actors.
While the closed-door shoot at Splitsvilla does not accommodate fans, Leone has worked her charms on both the contestants and the crew. “I’ve met a lot of celebrities, they come with an attitude, but Sunny is very down to earth. She’s one of my role models,” says Scarlett Rose, 22, runner-up of Miss Goa 2012 and a bikini model based in Mumbai. “It’s not easy to be a bikini model; people think you’re a porn artist. When I heard that Sunny was hosting the show, I felt that here was somebody who would understand my line of work,” she says.
Parmar feels that Leone’s sexy image is not her only asset. “Sunny is glamorous, beautiful, confident, and dances well. Aren’t these the qualities most A-list stars demonstrated when they first came into the industry? Many learned acting along the way. I’d say it’s the same for Sunny. She’ll get there,” she says. Bhatt remembers her as a dedicated learner who did not leave things to chance and came to the sets with her lines prepared.
In the same vein, Leone has steeled herself against every kind of righteous backlash, whether it was a political party’s opposition to her promotional visit to Indore earlier this year or having her topless pictures at a private party splashed all over the internet. As her fan base grows, there is no room for Leone to be wary of her detractors. “If I cared about what other people thought of me, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.” Did she ever want to bolt? “Yes, of course. Every time I think I’m taking one or two steps forward in the industry, somebody writes the craziest of things. I wouldn’t mind it if they were true, but certain articles make me feel like I’ve moved two steps back,” says Leone.
Industry insiders say Leone mostly keeps to herself without going out of her way to network. She attends very few parties — Ekta Kapoor’s Diwali bash is an exception — and chooses instead to let her American husband negotiate deals on her behalf. He is the front line for all directors, productions and press who want to get in touch with Leone. It’ll still be a while before Leone can command top rates in Bollywood — she makes up to Rs 50 lakh for solo projects like Ragini MMS 2, while endorsements bring home about Rs 30-40 lakh — but the two have a definite idea about how to build brand Leone.
Together, they make calculated efforts to straddle new opportunities in a way that does not alienate her existing fan base. “We discuss what is best for brand Sunny, so we can find a medium that satisfies both her fans and her,” says Weber, a musician and actor himself. Weber and Leone had a fairytale romance, with the former courting Leone for months for a first date. Now, Weber, who has a rock band, The Disparrows, jets between Los Angeles and Mumbai to accommodate their career plans.
It’s after midnight and Leone has been shooting for one of the elimination rounds at Splitsvilla 7 for the past four hours. Copious tears are shed, words are exchanged, farewell speeches end reluctantly. Under the harsh lights of the set, Leone appears subdued. Gone is the coquette from the previous afternoon as she attempts to lighten the mood on the set by pulling faces and offering her dinner to anybody who likes risotto. But there is little time to waste. The next shoot is scheduled to start in four hours and Leone wants to brush up on her pop-psychology before that. “Since I began shooting for this show, I’ve been reading a book about the science behind peoples’ minds so I can figure out why the contestants do weird things,” she says.
When the schedule ends, Leone will return to Mumbai to shoot for the final scenes of Tina and Lolo, an action film with Karishma Tanna. “I think exploring different avenues is important than staying in one genre,” she says, whipping out her iPhone to show a picture of herself as Leela, a modern-day tribal princess. “Leela is the first movie I’m doing in an Indian avatar. Then, I have Mastizaade, an adult comedy by Milap Zaveri, and Patel Rap, a comedy with Ram Kapoor. I know people are going to wonder what Ram and I are doing in a film together but I’m really excited about it,” says Leone.
In spite of her recent success, Leone has confessed to feeling judged by Indian viewers but considers it a hazard that showbiz poses: “Over time, I think the Indian audience will understand that I am a person with emotions. I am here to be creative and entertain, and that is what I am doing. Like me or hate me, the choice will always be theirs.”