Sunny Leone On Tackling Prejudices, Motherhood And Why She's Quite Proud Of Her Past

The actor opens up about navigating a conservative industry and an even more conservative society after having been a porn star.
A file photo of Sunny Leone.
A file photo of Sunny Leone.

It's always a delight to interview Sunny Leone. The actor, the most Googled celebrity in India, generates enormous amounts of curiosity and she's aware of that. However, despite her decision to quit the porn industry and join Bollywood, the prejudices attached to her past continue to show up in different forms, whether it's in a conversation with a filmmaker or with a journalist. In this interview, Leone explains how she navigates that road, how motherhood has changed her, and why she'll always be proud of her past.

After the documentary Mostly Sunny, you appear in a docu-drama called Karenjit Kaur for Zee5. It appears that this show gives you more control over your narrative as you get to tell your story the way you want to. Has it been cathartic to do the show?

Absolutely not. People think it must have been therapeutic and cathartic and nice to get everything out but I want to say, no, it was not what you think at all.

See, when life-altering events happen, it's not like your friend and you are having a dramatic fallout so you keep fuelling that drama. There's a lot of things that happen that are traumatising, permanently life-altering things that you have no control over.

As human beings, it is very natural for our mind or body to get over trauma or suppress it and block it all out. But when you shoot it all over again, so many years into finite episodes, it's not at all cathartic. I have to relive parts of the stories, they weren't characters in a fictional movie but something I had to deal with.

When I do a scene where a character asks me, "Were your parents upset about your choices?" and I say yes, they were upset. To see it again, it hits you and it's tough.

Does it give you an outside perspective also?

Yes, when you are making all these choices, you aren't looking at the other side at that moment. When you look at it later in life or when you look at it after you have healed, you realise how they must have felt. But not at that moment.

When I do a scene where a character asks me, "Were your parents upset about your choices?" and I say yes, they were upset. To see it again, it hits you and it's tough.

Would you say that this makes you empathetic towards your parents' perspective or their initial resistance?

I always knew that my decisions were not the decisions that they wanted. Also, they are not alive anymore so watching it I can't even go back and say, "I am sorry" or " Is this how you felt?" or is this what happened or so many little questions. I can't do that and that's how it is.

The phase between teenage and youth is such a weird phase. There's rebellion but there is also the desire for parental approval. How did you reconcile those two contradictory feelings?

Well, I think that at the end of the day, if you are not hurting someone physically or abusing somebody or trying to steal or cheat, of course, you want your parent's approval. That is just a natural thing we have been doing since we were born. I have a two-year-old who looks at me and I simply nod. She is looking for my approval. The very question, "Can I do this?", is asking for approval.

I am not saying everybody should follow my path but for me, I needed to live my own life, I needed to do my own things and I made those decisions on my own whether it was right or wrong. It came from a place where I wanted to break free, make my own money and be independent.

Was there a desire to challenge notions of societal conformism?

I think for anybody who is successful out there, it is virtually impossible not to challenge a certain established idea. You do affect people as you go along.

I am not saying everybody should follow my path but for me, I needed to live my own life, I needed to do my own things and I made those decisions on my own whether it was right or wrong.

In hindsight, when you reflect on your past, do you think you could have done anything differently or you are still very proud of the decisions you made?

At that age when I made the decision, it was an appropriate one for that time. Now if I look back, would there be something I might change? I am not sure because I love my life now and those were the means to reach here. I would never want to hurt anybody and I know that I did. It wasn't intentional. It wasn't like I woke up that morning and said I want to totally piss my parents off and this is going to be my decision. It was never like that. It (porn) was just something that happened. Whether it was right or wrong for the people around me, I don't know. It was right for me at that time.

Your interview with Bhupendra Chaubey went viral after he said things like 'Am I being morally corrupted because I'm interviewing you?" Were you always prepared to tackle these kinds of prejudices and condescension?

I don't know if it is something that you can be fully ready for. I think everybody reacts to different situations differently. In my head, I have always been clear on my path and what I wanted and what I want to do since a young age, so I guess it groomed me in how to answer tough questions and how to answer questions that are a little shady. It is not like he had asked me something that someone else hadn't asked me before. It was the manner in which he asked. One second you want me to sit here but then another second you tell me you are being 'corrupted', what!

It is not like he (Bhupendra Chaubey) had asked me something that someone else hadn't asked me before. It was the manner in which he asked.

It was hilarious. A lot of people just laughed at how he sounded and you didn't even have to do anything because everyone just jumped to your defence.

After the interview, I told him, "sir, you are going to go back to your family and your show and everything and but I am scared of what I am going to have to deal with once this comes out. Can I send somebody from my team to just watch it and then have them tell me if it is okay?" He said that they are going to air the show and that I could send someone from my team to transcribe it. He was so nasty to me and still nasty off camera but people could see through it all.

It was quite admirable, especially the dignity and grace in which you handled it.

Well, about halfway through, I was thinking about another situation. I kept going and i am not going to let this person get the best of me. If I walk out right now, everything he is saying is going to become true. So, I was thinking, I am going to sit here and go through this and maybe someone will arrive. For some reason on that day, there was nobody around from PR or from my team. And I am wondering, how come nobody interrupted? It was a very interesting day.

Do you still encounter such prejudiced, condescending behaviour?

Yes. Actually, I just went through an interview a few weeks ago and it was a female journalist and I swear it was like she was addicted to porn or talking about it and I am like "dude what is wrong with you". Halfway through, I asked her if she was addicted to porn and can we maybe move on to something else. If you want certain questions answered for your own personal self, I will answer them as soon as we are done with the interview. I have no issues with it.

One thing that happens with an interview like that (Chaubey's) is when some other journalists see it, they feel it's a chance. He did it, now I am going to do it. I think there is a certain way of asking things and a certain way of doing things and people just forget that...

Probably it comes from a false sense of moral superiority. It's condescending and humiliating...

But the thing is it doesn't make me feel bad, it's just annoying but it's only going to make them look weird. Because you can see how uncomfortable that is. It's one thing if you are really comfortable talking about sex and you think that is what you are going to talk about and it's not a big deal. You are so squirmy and uncomfortable and stressed out and you are asking—you can't even say the words that you want to in your question because you are so uncomfortable.

Do you realise the role you've played in normalising porn in a country that's highly conservative?

(Laughs) I don't know about that.

It might be completely unintentional but that's the consequence of what you are doing now.

I don't see it like that. I don't see myself the way people see me.

Do I look at myself the way the world does? Nope.

So how does Sunny Leone see herself?

I just see myself as a normal person who just wants to work. It's really as simple as that in my head. I think, "hey, I am working today, I am earning for my family, I feel great, we are doing this great shoot today, it's amazing, these people are flying me to wherever it is in the world to shoot a film or a song or for an appearance and I think this is the best job in the world". Do I look at myself the way the world does? Nope.

Do you also sense some sort of exploitative behaviour within the industry where they just want to use you as a prop to sell movies?

I think the word 'exploitation' in the entertainment industry is used incorrectly. I think that it is used in a negative connotation, especially when everybody is using each other.

I mean it in the context of how women are treated in the industry.

I think you are treated based on how you put yourself out there. I really believe that. I think that with all the stuff that we do I created the persona of who I am. So why am I going to get mad at somebody who wants the same thing that I created? It's my choice whether I want to say 'yes' or 'no' to that job. Whether they send me the creatives of what they want me to do. My perspective is that whatever I want to do, I do. Whatever I don't want to do, I am not going to do. I don't care. I am not going to do it. You want your money back? Please have it. it. For me, that's the way it works. Everything is in black and white in my world.

How has being a parent changed you and your worldview?

They have changed my view and my life completely, but for the better. They are just the most amazing and the most precious little kids. I had three all at once, which wasn't planned at all. I keep saying to myself, it's God's plan, it's God's plan. I don't know what his plan exactly is but I know he has given me three on the same day and I am ok with it.

But what is it like, as a new routine?

It's totally crazy. Like, it's a full-time job! Who does that? It's not like we planned. But I wouldn't have it any other way than how it's been. It's been crazy, it's been hectic, it's been absolutely amazing. The other day I was sitting with one of my boys. Both of them are totally different and one of them just started staring at me, like he was studying my face. He wasn't blinking, he was just staring and I was crying because I was like, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. At that moment, you forget all the hardships of parenting, it's so pure and beautiful.

Do you at times wonder about a complicated conversation you might have to have with them when they grow older?

Hmmm. I don't know the answer to that. I am just going to be as honest as possible because that's the best choice I can make. There's no point in lying or hiding it. They will be much more in tune with what's going on in the world.

We are a much more inclusive generation and it will just be better 10 years down the line...

Yeah, and 10 years down the line, I won't even look like this. Everything will go south. My husband has the best line, he's like, "When they're 5, 7, 8 or 9, they might be upset that they don't have cool parents. But when they turn 18 and they find out what we were up to, they'll realise they have the coolest parents in the whole world".