Where fantasy meets fiction, Sunny Leone is the new star7 min read . Updated: 23 Apr 2016, 12:31 AM IST
For the 34-year-old, taking on the mantle of an author, if only of short stories, was yet another way of pushing Brand Sunny Leone
Sunny Leone’s professional resume is quite eclectic—adult-movie star, Bollywood actor and dancer, reality TV host, the most googled person in India for four years in a row...
On Friday, the Canadian-Indian added one more role to that list—short-story writer—when the mobile-first digital publishing house Juggernaut went live with its first book titles.
At 10 every night until 2 May, Juggernaut will release a “sexy short story" from a collection written by Leone titled Sweet Dreams. The stories, as defined by Juggernaut, are “fictional stories of power... emotions... desires".
For the 34-year-old, taking on the mantle of an author, if only of short stories, written in what can only be described as a straight-forward, non-literary style, was yet another way of pushing Brand Sunny Leone.
“Juggernaut came to us (Leone and her husband Daniel Weber) with this concept and asked us if we’d be interested. It sounded very interesting because it was a space which I haven’t explored at all," Leone, who was born Karenjit Kaur Vohra, said in an interview.
When she was writing the stories, Leone said, she was mainly thinking about the women who would read them.
“Women, including myself, like to know different types of details when they think about a man," she said.
“I don’t need explicit words to paint the picture for me, whereas for most guys it’s just about the explicit side. If a woman was reading this, I wouldn’t want her to be turned off, close the app, say this is too much."
In one way, by turning author, Leone is taking one more step towards the mainstream, away from her past professional life as an adult-movie star—a past that until recently had never quite left her.
Most interviewers insisted on bringing up her past, seeming to insinuate that it was something to be ashamed of or at least embarrassed about. She has been accused of “corrupting" the young and PornHub’s 2015 review, which placed India third on the list of porn consumers, did not help matters.
Then something happened.
Sometime in the second week of January, Leone sat down for a TV interview to promote sex comedy Mastizaade in which she starred as the female lead.
It would’ve been just another promo but for the sexist nature of questioning and obvious air of superiority adopted by the interviewer, and the dignified way in which Leone carried herself. When the interviewer at one point wondered whether he would become “morally corrupt by speaking to her", she replied that she could leave if he thought so.
The interview gave her image a massive boost and proved to be a turning point in Leone’s career.
After the interview aired, Bollywood stars who days ago wouldn’t even have cared to share the same stage with her were tweeting their support for her; feminist e-zines were writing editorials; and marketing managers were re-evaluating her potential as a brand endorser.
Five years after she made her debut on Indian television, arriving in a wedding palanquin on the sets of reality show Bigg Boss, and a handful of films later, Leone had finally started to make her way from the periphery of the entertainment industry to the mainstream.
“I am just a girl who wants to work," Leone said at one point in the now infamous interview.
And worked she has, very hard, to create a niche for herself. Marketing managers credit her for the shedding of sexual inhibitions in India, film critics see her as sexy and funny, yet let down by the kind of roles she is offered.
For Chiki Sarkar, co-founder and publisher of Juggernaut, Leone stands for “unabashed sex appeal and oomph" that made her a star.
All this combined with a very strong social media presence—Leone has 1.41 million followers on Twitter and 4 million on Instagram—have combined to make her a star in spite of her past as an adult-entertainment performer.
“I felt short, sexy fiction delivered to your phone each night at 10pm was perfect for Sunny. The idea came together. No one else could have pulled it off," said Sarkar when asked what came first—the idea or the author.
Sarkar said Leone and her fans, several of whom are women, stand for “girl power".
For Leone, taking on the writing assignment was “a great way to branch out in a different market".
It’s an approach that she and her team, including her husband who doubles up as her manager, bring to every offer that comes her way, be it a perfume line or cosmetic brand.
“He (Weber) really is the largest asset or the biggest strength as far as me being able to be who I want to be. So if I have an idea, say I really want to have my own perfume line, he makes that happen, with the business and all the contacts that we have," Leone said.
Apart from her current perfume line, Lust by Sunny Leone, she has two more fragrances in the pipeline, to be launched over the next couple of months.
Leone made her Bollywood debut with Jism 2, a 2012 erotic thriller directed by Pooja Bhatt, which did average business at the box office.
Most of the eight films she has starred in have portrayed her as a sex object, although she did have a moment of success with the popular song Baby Doll in the 2014 film Ragini MMS 2, a horror-cum-erotic thriller.
No one can deny that there is a certain quality to her. Shubhra Gupta, film critic for The Indian Express, admits to being “intrigued" by Leone.
“Because it is clear she has the capacity of being very sexy and intelligent and aware, and yet hasn’t been able to do much with her attributes because of the way roles are being written," Gupta said.
Leone has another release lined up, titled One Night Stand, but what is really big in her life right now is the song she has filmed for Raees, a movie starring top Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.
“…you just don’t know what’s going to happen. One second, I was sitting in my car, thinking life is great and then I got a call to do a song with Shah Rukh Khan. I wished for it, prayed for it, but these are not things that you can say these are my plans and this is how I want to set up my career…opportunities are presented to you. You either take them or you don’t," Leone said.
Whether the song will be the launchpad for bigger and better roles that don’t focus on her physical attributes remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Leone has enough to keep herself busy. Two years ago she launched her own Sunny Leone app and signed on a clutch of endorsements, all playing to her strength as a woman in complete control of her sexuality. She is the face of adult website IMbesharam that retails adult toys and lingerie, among other things.
“Her story has become relevant to the times we are living in, in this country. We, as a society, are going through a sexual renaissance. We are coming to terms with certain things in our society…that it is your body and your look-out. Your desires… these are individual things…the sexual taboo is going away and somewhere Sunny Leone is becoming symbolic of that," said Prabhat Choudhary of Spice Entertainment, a public relations agency focused on entertainment. The agency does not represent Leone.
All the roles Leone has played have been extensions of her glamorous, sexy self, including the writing, centered on erotica. Doesn’t she want to move beyond that?
“…you can only work with what’s on the table," she said. “As far as this moment goes, I am very happy with everything that’s going on."
To her credit, Leone has never been even slightly apologetic about what first brought her fame. And that perhaps also explains the reason for her fan following.
“Kim Kardashian doesn’t care about the haters and the people saying bad things. She takes adult, nude pictures all the time and they’re all beautifully shot and she looks amazing in everything that she releases...from that one adult movie she created a multimillion dollar empire and the brand. I think it’s quite commendable. I think a lot of young people out there would probably want to follow her business model, including myself," she said.
For Leone, there is no one big “grand plan" when it comes to her career but “several mini-plans".
For the actor who came from Los Angeles expecting to be in India only for a few weeks, things have taken quite a turn.
“Did I ever think I would write 12 short stories? No way…I believe in business, opportunities present themselves and it’s your job…to recognize those… and see where it goes."