Why are only men asking questions to Sunny Leone? Why not a woman? Why is everyone tossing the same old cliches at her? What do you get when a feminist is in conversation with Sunny?
In the first episode of a new interview series on Firstpost, Contributing Editor Anna MM Vetticad – journalist, author and women’s rights commentator – speaks to the former porn star, Penthouse model and now Hindi film actress about political correctness, objectification and why Karenjit Kaur Vohra had to change her name to enter the glamour business in the West.
Find the transcription of the interview below:
Sunny - Definitely it wasn’t something that I planned. I got offered to be on a show called Bigg Boss and I actually dint even think that I was ever going to be in a movie. I just thought I was going to be on this show for a couple of weeks and I then was going to come back to Los Angeles and go about my life. But whatever I planned or whatever I thought in my head, the actual opposite happened.
Anna - So while you were here for the show or planning for the show, the film offer happened?
Sunny - Yes, the film offer happened while I was actually in the house. So, I dint know if it was just something that the show was doing just to get reactions or whether it’s real, whether it’s fake, I had no idea. But when I got out of the house I found out that it was very real and the offer was very real so it was something that I always wanted to do and I believe that there are moments in your life where you just go for it and you kind of just, do you know like a fork in the road for you and Bigg Boss was definitely one of those moments for me and also saying yes to do film.
Anna - So Los Angeles was home at that point in time and now Mumbai is home?
Sunny - I spent about 80-90% of the year here in Mumbai and Los Angeles has become the vacation home now.
Anna - So sunny, first of all can I just take you back to your childhood and your life in the west.. Why did a Karanjeet Kaur Vohra need to turn into Sunny Leone? Would it not have been possible for you to have a career with that name? What is the reason of your decision?
Sunny - It just kind of happened. You know when you work in the adult entertainment industry, they always say okay what’s your name going to be? And it was just something that I thought about and it wasn’t something that I put so much thought into like okay am I going to keep my name or not. It just kind of happened and I chose Sunny randomly and I said you guys pick the last name, whatever you guys feel like you just pick it. And there wasn’t lot of thought behind it. It wasn’t necessarily a need; it was how life just happens.
Anna - Because we see a lot of radio jockeys, DJs and these are people who change their names; so an Aditya becomes an Adi, a Sandeep becomes a Sunny; so I was just wondering whether it would have been possible for a Karanjeet Kaur Vohra to have a career in the adult entertainment industry?
Sunny - I don’t know, it just doesn’t sound as fun as Sunny does. So you know I came up with this name which happens to be my brother’s nickname which you just said his name is Sandeep and you know if I knew what I did back then I would never have picked the name sunny, ever. Because I had no idea who I was to become at that moment.
Anna- Oh! This was this was before your careers started off? Just for fun you changed your name?
Sunny- No no, when I pose for the magazine, Penthouse magazine that’s when they said what do you want your name to be? So I just picked it I didn’t think you know that I would later on in life say why would I pick this name? But then it just stuck, it fit and you know it is what it is!
Anna- Okay, I noticed you said –the adult entertainment industry and I remember I had done an email interview with you a few years back; again you know we tend to use words like porn, pornography and I remember you were very particular and you used adult entertainment each time. I don’t want to be politically incorrect or insensitive, so educate me here - why are you particular about the terminology?
Sunny- Because it is adult entertainment, people have come up with different slang terms, different slang words. That works for them I guess. For me, when I even hear it I think what’s wrong. I want to correct people and say adult entertainment because that’s exactly what it is. Adult entertainment. But you know I don’t get offended by what people say as far as if somebody says one or the other I don’t say you know you are incorrect its actually this. I don’t say any of that because what’s the point.
Anna- Is it just in like the politically correct lexicon in the west is adult entertainment the correct term to use? I am asking you this specifically, because in India we don’t have these discussions very often or very openly so I honestly do not know.
Sunny- For me, yes for a lot of producers, lot of film makers , lot of entertainers that are in the US or even all over the world, they do say adult entertainment, and there are a group of people they don’t say adult entertainment. That say you know porn or pornography or whatever they want to say so I guess it’s to each’s own. For me, the correct word is adult entertainment.
Anna- Okay, I’ve mentioned of course that in the recent weeks you’ve earned the spotlight and a lot of support, media support, industry support, but people consider grace under fire because of the interview with Bhupendra Chaubey. First of all, congratulations on the dignity that you conducted yourself with. But there are people who walk out of interviews, what made you not do that?
Sunny- I don’t think I’ll ever walk out you know let somebody get the satisfaction of feeling like a) broke me down b)we are getting the better or me, trying to prove a point and saying see I knew it. You know so for me that not something that I can do or let something happens. Just as a person doesn’t know if it’s as a woman or as a man however anybody wants to see it I just don’t believe in letting somebody get the better of me. I am bigger, I am better you know from the inside and I can rise above this sort of I don’t know if its fate or somebody’s ill will against me or their own personal opinions about who they think I am. So I just don’t want them to have that, that’s mine!
Anna- Have you encountered a lot of people who are judgmental about you because of the work you have done in the adult entertainment industry before you entered Bollywood?
Sunny- yeah, you meet judgmental people all the time.
Anna- Socially? Work wise? Media? Oh, social media did you say?
Sunny- You meet them on social media for sure. You meet people that think you are going to be a certain way and then find out that nope, she’s not that way. I think when people think of the word adult entertainment or somebody coming from that industry they just automatically assume that oh, she’s going to jump on the table right now and start dancing and doing all these crazy things .
Anna- Maybe that’s there fantasy, that you will do it
Sunny- I have no idea, nor do I want to know. I think that’s there’s this thing that goes on in each person’s mind that what that world is and they think that every person’s the same. In my case, it’s not.
Anna- Do you also come across this notion of people thinking that because she has worked in such films therefore we can do anything with her, say anything to her or demand anything of her?
Sunny- Yeah, sometimes it does happen. But I am pretty clear with my scripts and I am pretty clear on all those things that are supposed to be shot on sets before I even get there. That is something that I am absolutely clear about that way that there is say you are the director and you come to me and say-ok so well we did this so let’s try this now. They know that’s not going to happen, but that’s all set before I even get there.
Anna- you know sunny because I’ve been speaking to producers, people in the film industry, and you know I know that many of them find you more conservative than they expected and there were certain people who thought that because of the work you’ve done in the past they could demand anything of you and they find that you have very strict no no’s . Did you ever expect anyone to describe you as conservative? Because that’s a word that has been used for you by producers to me? Did you ever expected to be deemed conservative?
Sunny- Myself and my husband have mentioned many times, that we are a conservative couple, a monogamist couple, we do probably do the same thing which you do when you go home, when you are with your family and cook and sit and eat together so yeah, I think in my real life I am a little bit more conservative than you know people see in that big screen.
Anna- No, I am talking about in terms of work, did you ever think that producers would consider you conservative?
Sunny-I don’t know if they are saying that if they want to get more and more but obviously and based on the history and everything that I have done, my views are a lot more liberal than most people.
Anna-But it is a bit of dichotomous existence because you know there are scenes and there are outfits which you’ve been wearing in your films that many of our leading ladies would not wear at least at this time you know the Priyanka’s and the Deepika’s. but on the other hand there are people looking at that and saying that’s she’s so forward and yet on the other hand those who expected you to do a lot more and then are disappointed ,it’s a bit of a dichotomous existence isn’t it?
Sunny- it sucks for them that they are disappointed.
Anna- what are you looking for now? What are you looking in the future?
Sunny- Well, lot of people have been asking when are you going to shoot something serious? Or what they consider performance based roles, which just flies over my head because everything to me is a performance based role and I am not just at my bed and acting like Sunny or Karan. So, I am a character, there is a script there are certain requirements of acting in all this that goes on with this, so I don’t quite understand the “performance based roles” but there are a couple of roles that are more serious and they are in a completely different zone than what people have seen me. We’ll see that if that works.
Anna- Sunny, you’ve got a lot of support from the public, sections of the media and even the film industry; when you did that interview with Bhupendra Chaubey, firstly, was that unexpected?
Sunny-It was completely unexpected! Like I am sitting in front of you, so every single word I don’t remember what I say, we are having a conversation or you are asking a question and I am trying to answer to the best of my ability. So when I was finished I was actually quite scared thinking what did I say? What were the words I used, did I use the right words? Did I answer properly? Because I know how I felt sitting there. I just dint know how people were going to see that. I felt like I was the only person in that room. I felt very alone and that was a horrible feeling.
Anna- Your discomfort although as I said you were very dignified about it, your discomfort was evident, but I must ask you because I remember looking at your producers timeline, and he had tweeted a link to that interview, somebody had praised the interview and said Bhupendra Chaubey was great and he had tweeted a link to that interview. I was wondering that did the producers not realize that you felt I don’t know what would that word be- alone/offended by that interview. Did they not realize it until you spoke to them? Or you got public support?
Sunny- I dint see that particular tweet or social media message. So I do know that my producers were on my side because I did have a conversation with them and they were very supportive. You know they did everything in their power to try and make sure that when that interview came out, it was going to come out well although it was completely out of their hands actually. I dint see that particular comment that you are saying.
Anna- Okay, I am talking about Preet Ishnandis timeline, where somebody has praised Bhupendra and he re-tweeted it. So I was quiet surprised because I went back after the interview and the public saw this.
Sunny- I’ll have to go and check it out!
Anna- Do check it out, have a word with him and find out why .Now you know on the one hand there is been all the support and people have spoken up for you but then you are working in a very male dominated industry that can be extremely misogynistic. Do you think first of all there has been a change in your stature in the industry in just what’s happened in the past 2-3 weeks?
Sunny- I am not sure about that, but what I am sure about is that a lot of people came out to support, a lot of people should support in their own ways. I got many phone calls; I got many messages from the different people in the industry. Not just social media but on my phone which is very nice and even just last night at an award show Mr.Ranveer Singh gave me a shout out for that inner view which was very very sweet so I do see a switch over in some way. I think people finally are seeing me versus before I was just being in the industry making movies and trying to figure who is this Sunny character? What is she doing? Let me see what’s her next movie? What’s her next project? Let me see how well it does? But I think people saw me as a person for the first time.
Anna- One of the question you were asked in the interview - do you think Aamir would work with you? And then of course Aamir tweeted saying Sunny I would love to work with you. Now I was just wondering that why is it important that Aamir should work with you? Because this is something when seen in the past with the heroines in the industry very often being defined by oh the three Khans have worked with them whereas we never see the reverse with men saying that oh Madhuri and so and so have worked with them.
Sunny- I think that might have been his favourite actor, I have no idea. You’ll have to ask him why he used that name.
Anna-No, I am asking you that why is it important to you that Aamir should work with you.
Sunny-Well, my thing is that I want to work with people who want to work with me and when you think of growth or think of moving to the next level or wanting to work with people that are better than you bigger than you then of course all these names come up. You want to work with people that are experienced. First of all that Aamir Khan is one of the greatest actors in India so who wouldn’t want to work with him? Even if I was passing behind him I would say yes sign me up, I am there! It’s about just moving up, moving forward in life. If he told me if he used the name Madhuri Dixit,I would have said the same thing and I would be elated if she ever said yeah, I would love to work with Sunny. I would be the happiest person in the world. I just want to work with people that want to work with me and I think maybe he used that name because that’s his favourite. I don’t know.
Anna- Okay fine. But again, like I said that you know Hindi film industry is very male dominated industry and there is a tendency to be very reductive in the imagery of women and Mastizaade was no different. I think there is acting in you that I would like to see and yet it seemed like that the producer was looking at you more from the point of you of your physique as someone who was upset about that interview, I find that a little disappointing
Sunny-But I am not being taken advantage of, when I think that’s what people are trying to I don’t know feel for themselves because that’s how maybe they would feel, that’s how they see it , but I signed the line on that contract, I said yes to that script, I said yes to every single scene that I was In that movie, every single dialogue. So I am not feeling sorry for myself. Why is everybody else feeling sorry for me? I have no idea, its quiet mind-boggling actually. I sign the paper, I said yes to do it, no one force me to do anything it was a quite opposite with them. They said if there’s anything that you are uncomfortable with, if there’s anything you want to change we will change it and you know we work together and things that I was comfortable with and what I wasn’t comfortable with. Who iam in real life and what you see in screen as I character in movie a fictional story is completely different than the women that’s sitting in front of you, that’s just the way that life is when you make movies, they are all fictional stories unless it’s an auto biopic but even then some parts are fictionalised and they are glamourised to make amazing for the screen. I am not objectified unless I want to be and now it’s unfortunate that the word objectification is used in a negative tone. We are objectifying this cup right now .its displayed for your camera, are you not objectifying it? It’s the same thing. It’s a product if you’re shooting a movie or you are shooting for the cup or whatever it is. It’s all just the process the way entertainment works.
Anna-Because you used the word objectification, I think that the reason is that you know of course objectification takes place and some of it can be really beautiful except that it’s not equitable, the objectification is primarily women and much less of men in main stream cinema.
Sunny- When Hrithik Roshan takes his shirt off , when Aamir Khan takes his shirt off, when Salman Khan does you know his little jig.
Anna- Like I said it happens to men also, but it’s much less and I am sure you know that.
Sunny- But that’s a personal opinion, I think that anybody who works in entertainment whether they are male, whether they are female , whether you have changed to the other side, from one side to the other; whichever way you want to go in life. You are putting yourself out there to be seen by the entire world. So when in every single amazing Khan movie, they stand there and they have their and all of a sudden their shirt flies open and they got that 8 pack-6-pack going on, every single movie in that screen who is watching it is objectifying him at that very second and maybe all men are doing the same. So what’s the different if a woman does it.