Sunny Leone on sexual harassment: 'It takes one woman to speak up, and then many others follow'
In an interview with Firstpost, Sunny Leone talks about the fight against sexual predators, her own experiences in Bollywood so far, and how motherhood has changed her life
The Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal opened up a can of worms in Hollywood; it also led to a tidal wave of women coming forward to name and shame sexual predators in the industry. In Bollywood, however, while some women did speak out about their experiences, no one was willing to reveal the names of serial offenders.
Sunny Leone, however, thinks it's only a matter of time before Bollywood follows Hollywood's suit. “It takes one woman to talk, and then many others follow," the actress told us in a recent conversation. "I haven’t been privy to this situation because I have my husband (Daniel Weber) and my team with me, although people have been cheeky. But what has been happening now is insane. I read a lot on psychology and have been tryign to understand the emotions in a woman's mind (when she's subjected to harassment). A woman may feel, ‘This happened to me and it is wrong but I don’t know how to say that aloud. I am embarrassed, I'm scared — what if they come after me, what if something happens to me?’.”
One of the fears of course is that they won't get more work in the industry if they speak up about powerful predators, but Sunny thinks staying silent about sexual harassment goes beyond that. "It’s beyond work," she says. "As a woman, you either stand up for yourself, or maybe you haven’t quite mustered the confidence to do that as yet, or after hearing all these stories which are in the news, maybe now it feels okay to women to say 'This is wrong. I don’t want this. S***w your job, go find somebody else'. But the problem is that they don’t yet have that courage here. Now because everybody is speaking out, we will have a lot of young women having the courage to do so as well. I’m proud of all the women who have taken a stand.”
Leone, who is currently promoting her upcoming supernatural thriller Tera Intezaar (in which she stars opposite Arbaaz Khan), pointed out that one of the reasons she has survived in this largely male-dominated industry is due to her "fearless" nature. "I have done everything that I wanted to do and not what everybody else wanted me to do, and the best part is that I can say yes or no to whoever without having any fear,” she said.
If not sexual predators, the adult movie star-turned-Bollywood actor faced hurdles in the past — especially from the moral police when she stepped into the industry. It took courage to hold her ground amid a highly judgmental society even as she remained one of the most Googled Indians. Sunny was once quoted saying, "Yes, I do feel like an outsider in the film fraternity. But I feel I've been accepted by my fans." Sunny tells us: "Yes, when I came here, everybody said, ‘Oh no, you need to go’. That was expected considering I was from the 'outside' and from a completely different background than anybody in this industry. But the perception kept changing and I have seen lot of changes from the time nobody wanted to talk to me, then a couple of people started, then a few more, then someone started calling, sending gifts... so it has completely changed with time and that acceptance is obviously there. If I hang around long enough, they will feel I’m not going anywhere, and they will be like, ‘Okay fine, now we have to accept her' [laughs out loud].”
The industry may have accepted her, but Sunny still gets threats to her life. “If I send you the crazy messages I received in just the last two days, you will be shocked," she says wryly. "I get death threats...all sorts of weird threats. People have been doing these crazy things for the last six years but it didn't bother me. I’m happy. I’m fine. I am working. I’m safe. If somebody abuses me, and I react with: ‘What are you talking about, how can you call me that?' then all of a sudden everybody's attention gets drawn to that. Now why would I want others to hear what somebody has said on social media? That means absolutely nothing to me. Why would I give that person any attention? When people, who are in the limelight acknowledge somebody who is this horrible, then you just give them a voice.” Sunny admits this may not be the best solution, especially if there's a threat of physical harm. "If someone threatens your physical being and you feel scared, then you should speak up. I have done that. I have contacted the police, I have called Twitter to shut down people’s accounts — I have done all sorts of things to protect myself,” she say.
Sunny was recently seen in special dance numbers in Ajay Devgn's Baadshaho and Shah Rukh Khan's Raees. She loves action, horror, psychological thrillers and some of these genres are ones she's already tried. She'd love to do a comedy, or a superhero film. “I have no inhibitions and I don’t really care if that means falling on my face or running into people. I do that on a daily basis!” she says, laughing out loud. And even though she has found a place for herself in the industry, she doesn’t believe in calling anybody for work. It may be recalled that Aamir Khan had supported Sunny when she was at the receiving end of harsh questions about her professional choices in a TV interview. When she was asked if Aamir Khan would want to work with her, the superstar had immediately tweeted that he'd be happy to. “I don’t want to put pressure on people. They are doing amazing projects and that’s the last thing I want to do that call them and say – ‘Hey you said that you would like to work with me and I am still waiting [laughs]," says Sunny. "I am not like that, I am happy in my space. If that happens in life, then it's amazing. If that doesn’t, I can still call them...If they give me special numbers in their movies that is fine, and if they say, 'I just need you passing by', it is still okay. Until this moment, I have done everything what I wanted to do.”
Not just films, motherhood has changed Sunny's life too. The actress and her husband adopted a 21-month-old baby girl from an orphanage in Latur (Maharashtra) in July 2017. “It has changed my life completely. I am so excited every single day when she wakes up...feeding her, changing her clothes, taking her for a walk, going to the park, dropping her to school, cleaning up and doing everything she loves to do," Sunny says. "Daniel and I had been wanting a baby for so long and we were ready for it. Every single day is a joy.”
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