August 07, 2020
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Not Un Certain Regard

Sunny Leone’s journey: from a fleshly diva to a more rounded repertoire

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Not Un Certain Regard
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Not Un Certain Regard

Sunny Notes

  • Born in Sarnia, Ontario, to Sikh parents. Called Karenjit Kaur Vohra.
  • Worked in a bakery and a tax firm and was studying to be a paediatric nurse when she signed on with Penthouse
  • Chosen Penthouse Pet in 2003
  • Signed with Vivid Entertainment in 2003 to begin her eventful innings in “adult entertainment”
  • Features among Maxim’s Top 12 porn stars of 2010
  • In September 2009, an app featuring her (the first officially sanctioned one with a porn star) was approved for sale in the iTunes store. By February 2010, the app had been removed.
  • Made an appearance on Big Boss 5 in 2011; Mahesh Bhatt casts her in Jism 2


Sunny Leone admits to being in a state of shock. “It will take a week for it to settle down in my mind and heart,” she says. We catch up with her just when she has delivered some unexpected numbers. Sunny’s latest Bollywood film, Ragini MMS2, has had an amazing weekend box office collection of Rs 23.3 crore. In between giggles of obvious happiness and the constant assertion—“God alone knows what the future will bring to me”—Sunny can’t help not revealing her ultimate aspiration: of gliding smooth as silk into the mainstream. After reigning on the fringes, the ex-porn-star of international repute (see box) is seeking the respectability of the conventional. “I always wanted to be in the mainstr­eam, to do good films with good filmmakers,” she says. But the question that comes kno­cking on everyone’s mind is if she will ever be adm­itted into our traditional pantheon of heroines? The answer hovers between a yes and a no.

Vivek Pareek, editor, Maxim India, is optimistic: “It will probably take extensive training and developing a new skill set, but the new moviegoer is not straitjacketed. I guess there’s room for someone with her particular appeal.” Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has a contrarian view. “There are no second chances when it comes to first impressions,” he says. For him, Sunny’s films have been about ‘gratifying’, not ‘edifying’. “If a film of hers doesn’t communicate that brand, it will only confuse the viewers,” he says. “Hers has been the erotic route to acceptability, and converting to another constituency doesn’t happen easily. She can’t delink herself from Brand Jism,” he says. Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, also points out that she has a ‘specific equity’ that she may lose in a ‘normal’ movie. “She would become one of those Jacqueline kind of heroines—replaceable, with no app­eal of her own.”

Even Sunny is aware of it. More than taking on the encrusted biases of the con­servative industry and audience, she knows that it’s her own reinvention that will be difficult. She is setting out at it one film at a time. The strategy is simple: to carry forward the persona of a porn star, but try and be more. “Each of my roles will be defined by who I have been but with every new film I will try to be taken more seriously as an actor,” she says.

Ragini MMS2 channels Sunny’s porn star appeal; at the same time, it tries to legitimse her in the conventional space.

But times are propitious for Sunny, for it’s the season of the heroine (not the hero) in Bollywood, be it a Queen or a Ragini. But Sunny is queen of a different kind—one who has no qualms in parlaying her ample sexual charms to a gleeful ringing of the cash register. As she strides on the screen, few care about the unk­nown hero opposite her, some odd bloke called Saahil Prem. It’s interesting how Ragini MMS2 channels her down-n-dirty porn star appeal and simultaneously makes a bid to legitimise her in the conventional Hindi cinema space. Sunny plays a porn star in the film, just as she did in her debut film, Jism 2. Here, she is even called Sunny, further blurring the real-reel divide. The expected, suggestive elements, are plentiful—the pixellated nudity and sex, the titillating shower scene, teasing camera angles, even a nod to her early lesbian porn days. But notably, there are other unequivocal assertions: that a porn star need not be a whore and that she could be well-read and intelligent. So the onscreen Sunny speaks on global-warming and the real Sunny, we now know, just adores the Discovery channel and The Simpsons.

Also, Ragini’s Sunny seems to be at a real-life juncture: trying hard to showcase herself as an actor. But her entry into Big Boss 5 could well have been that first step towards this much desired reinvention, though Sunny now looks back at it as “whim, hunch, intuition” rather than a conscious decision. “I had no idea about the Indian TV and film industry. Big Boss just happened, but in hindsight, it’s the best decision I have ever taken; otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the position where I am now,” she says. Her entry came at a fortuitous time, when ‘adult’ cinema was being treated adult-like, rather than being swept under the carpet, confined to morning shows in seedy halls. “It wasn’t as though I was reinventing the wheel, doing things that someone else hadn’t done before,” she says. Bip­asha and Mallika had trod her territory, albeit a lot more softly. “Many have tried and worked towards being associated with ‘provocative’, but it has proved to be a natural extension of Sunny’s previous work profile,” says Pareek. She is also different from other sleaze dolls like Poonam Pandey or Sherlyn Chopra. Per­haps because Sunny doesn’t have to try so hard (or play/act the sexual rebel), and is easygoing with who she is and what she does. “I am comfortable with myself and I regret no decisions,” she says. “Her international status creates value. She is classy, not tacky,” says Kapoor.

It’s truly an out-of-body experience to watch her on screen in a hall filled with hormonal young men, their collective, orgiastic wolf-whistles scarier than the ghosts and the witch in the film. Like any other porn star, Sunny effortlessly brings out the silly boy in any grown-up man. Even the sombre Outlook office gets col­l­ectively keyed up about which pictures of hers to use in the magazine. The words I write on her, obviously, don’t matter. Why would they? As expected, her life is spread out like a salacious book on the internet. This profile, certainly, wouldn’t add much to the information pool that brimmeth over. Her intimate details are all in the public realm: from her relationship with standup comic Russell Peters and her Audi 5 to when she kissed for the first time and the infamous breast augmentation.

Sunny is too busy to care. “The most that I have ever worked has been in 2013,  and 2014 seems to be shaping up even better,” she says. Coming up next is Tina and Lolo—about two women on the run. “You won’t miss the usual me,” she tantalises. “There are bold scenes in the film, but it’s in a lighter vein. It’s a cute film, where I have done comedy for the first time.” Meanwhile, as we go to press, Ragini MMS2 seems to have made Rs 31.3 crore in five days. It has also led the little-known Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, in its memorandum to the Central Board of Film Certification, to demand a ban on it, as well as Sunny’s deportation from India. The journey from porn to adult to universal acceptance has only just begun for Sunny, but her filmography ahead is bound to chart a transitory course.

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