In February 2016, Malayalam actor Jayasurya wrote on Facebook about his maiden meeting with Sunny Leone, at an award function held in Kerala. He didn’t hide his excitement before meeting her and, how, upon talking to her for just two minutes, his assumptions about her changed entirely. “Her personality is positive and pleasing; she spoke to us respectfully. If she erased the depravity in our minds within a minute, I would say she has great quality as a person..”
This instance is testimonial to how Sunny Leone has established herself in India. In India’s conservative society, where even mention of sex raise eyebrows, porn stars would not even be considered as human beings worthy of respect. But Sunny Leone changed this. Beyond the image of a (former) porn star and a Bollywood item girl, she is very – there is no other word for it – human, and a relatable and respectable one at that.
Making it in India
Sunny Leone’s foray in the Indian entertainment space in 2011 was as a participant in the popular reality show Bigg Boss. A porn actor with Sikh Punjabi roots, her participation spiked the TRP ratings, but also provoked the country’s moral policing brigade. The BJP youth wing and the Indian Artistes and Actors Forum complained to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry expressing fears that “curious viewers including children” could be led to adult entertainment sites and possibly undermine Indian culture and ethos.
But Sunny became an overnight sensation in India and the most searched celebrity on Google India (and stayed so for five years). Cinema came calling when film-maker Mahesh Bhatt approached her for the lead role in Jism 2 during her stay in the Bigg Boss house.
To Sunny’s credit, she has had more memorable item songs than acting performances. Although she has not had box-office blockbusters with films where she played the lead, she has been a darling of the masses. In 2017, her item-song “Laila main Laila” was with none other Shah Rukh Khan himself.
There is no denying that her acting skills and dance moves are mediocre at the best; and despite her undeniable good looks, it’s not her face that pulls the audience to her films. As film critic Baradwaj Rangan puts it,
“Sunny Leone is being hired for her unswerving obedience to the directors of her films when they put her in the scantiest of tops and yell into their megaphones: “Now bend down and show us that W.” She’s a sport. She makes that W.” As he adds, “this isn’t some poor girl who came to Bollywood with stars in her eyes and ended up being exploited by lecherous men. In a way, she’s the one doing the exploiting. She’s a canny entrepreneur who knows what the market wants, and she’s exploiting that want.”
Sunny’s success in Bollywood was a revelation for Indian audiences: that porn stars can attract audience even on mainstream cinema, have excellent business acumen, support social causes, and most importantly, be role models.
From being Karenjit Kaur Vohra to Sunny Leone
Born in a conservative Sikh Indian family in Canada as Karenjit Kaur Vohra, Sunny was introduced to an adult film agent while studying to be a pediatric nurse. She has later said that she was offered more money for one week of working in adult films than she could have earned in the entire year. In 2003, at the age of 22, she was named the Penthouse Pet of the Year, a major validation for models in the world of pornography in America.
Unsurprisingly, her parents were unhappy about her choices; but her brother Sundeep Vohra – whose nickname was adapted as Sunny’s screen name – was supportive of her decisions. However, Sunny has said that her members of her extended family severed ties with her due to her career – an irony, she has called it, as the Indian diaspora rejected her for the exact reason why 1.2 billion of Indians welcomed her. As fate would have it, both her parents passed away before Sunny uprooted herself to India and became a star.
Although her popularity had skyrocketed and she won awards in the adult video industry, Sunny was not planning to be a porn actor for life. In 2009, she launched her own studio, Sunlust Pictures, with Daniel Weber, whom she married later. She started writing, producing and directing her own brand of adult movies under SunLust.
Marketing aficionado and actor-writer Suhel Seth has pointed out Sunny’s marriage to Weber as a significant part of the image she has created for herself. “She always talks about her past but she is not the available porn star. She has cleverly built for herself social acceptance through marriage. You have a woman who says, “Look this is my past; but if Daniel Weber is willing to accept me as his wife, who the hell are you?” he has stated in Mostly Sunny, a biographical documentary on Sunny Leone by Dilip Mehta.
Whether consciously building her brand or not, Sunny and Daniel seem like any other married couple – their days busy with their three children, now settled in Mumbai.
Honesty to herself
Sunny has been anything but apologetic about her success and popularity, regardless of naysayers and online trolls. Her restraint and grace were evident even during the infamous interview conducted by a senior journalist who subjected her to condescending questions like, “Am I becoming morally corrupted because I am interviewing you?” Sunny was not only calm and dignified in her response, but also won applause from many of her industry peers too for handling the situation well.
Doing her part for charity, she has been vocal about animal rights and awareness on breast cancer. Chosen among BBC’s 100 Women in 2016, Sunny has nothing to prove anymore – she loves her life, and whatever the world may say, nothing has added to her brand like her personal charisma.
While her career choices may always be a subject of debate, what remains undebatable is that Sunny chose to live her life her way, and in choosing to stand up for herself, she became an inspiring, honest person to look up to.