If you wanted to call someone a game changer, Sunny Leone definitely fits the bill. She caused an unthinkable stir in a film industry that, hypocritically, has been a sucker for the sati savitri, and changed the rules of the game. Today, Leone is a success story, has had an incredible journey, and is striking a fine work-life Bollywood balance.

We are always curious about Sunny Leone. We all remember the buzz around her, adult film star Sunny Leone, aka Indian-origin Karenjit Kaur Vohra, when she entered the hugely popular fifth season of Bigg Boss. Men recognised her, and the Indian middle class, voracious consumers of trashy reality TV, was shook. Could they really sit down in their living rooms and watch a porn star go about the various activities of the show? Did she suddenly become a real woman — humane, with real feelings and emotions, and most importantly, demanded respect? Was the Indian audience confused because they, suddenly, didn’t know how to define her?

Leone is the first instance in India of an adult film star foraying into mainstream cinema. And she has been a smart cookie about it. With Vishesh Films backing her, she found a debut, Jism 2, that seduced a horny audience expecting no-holds barred sex, but left the theatre quite impressed by her effervescence and screen presence, and the ability to hold her ground around hefty talents like Randeep Hooda and Arunoday Singh. The OST was a hit too. “I had no idea in 2011 that I would accomplish this much.” Leone truly has a sunny disposition, her voice beaming with happiness as she reminisces. “At that time, just to be able to come here for work, you know, and now to have finally achieved what I had envisioned, that has been the biggest accomplishment. Also, it is not just one thing that results in a ‘yes’ for a project. It’s not just the story, it’s also the producer, director, who’s going to be working on it, promoting it, all these aspects matter. It is also about whether they are going to live up to what they have said they will do regarding the film concerning budgets, editing, and several other things. I have worked on films where they promise the world, and we have all seen how they come out. They are not very good. And I can’t do anything at that point.”

The astute entrepreneur shines through, and effectively, it is her business acumen and a smart understanding of her target audience that has made her who she is in India. Whether it is the films she has chosen, the item number appearances, the web series, or the brand endorsements, Leone has always had a focused approach — maximum visibility. But, she has been able to show the industry how to be covetable without being attention-seeking. Leone might do item numbers, but she is not an item girl. Her public appearances are poised and graceful, her interviews measured, and she is respectfully private about her personal life. On Instagram, you see a perfect family with her loving husband, Daniel, and three kids. Leone says that while it looks smooth, the work-family balance is not an easy one to strike, but she is trying to figure it all out every second of the day. “I do believe that we have created a healthy balance for all of us. Time off means time off, and those days that are promised for something, they don’t change. We work on having a lot of quality time together, so, either Daniel’s home or I am home at any given time, and we are always trying to figure out what’s best for the children. I don’t think the children also want to see us 24 hours a day anyway. So, we figure out amazing things we can do together, and really cherish the time we spend.”

Leone adopted her first child, Nisha, in 2017, and encouraged others also to consider adoption. “Adopting a child is a very personal choice. It has to work for that family, and it has to work for the mother, the father, the couple. There are plenty of children out there who need happy and healthy homes, and if we can take one more child off the streets or out of the system, we should definitely make it happen.”

We come back to talking about her work, and how Baby Doll and Laila really cemented her place in Bollywood, making everyone sit up and notice her presence and appeal. But it exasperates Leone that there is still a conversation around “item numbers” and the sleazy connotations attached to them. According to her, songs and performances can just be about emotions, and they don’t have to be seen as something provocative, something bad. Her dance appearance in Raees in Laila, is definitely an example of how an “item number” — although used as a tool to draw male audiences and be a breather in the screenplay — can also be seamlessly woven into the scene. But yes, of course, all of her “item numbers” are not necessarily as astutely done as Raees, which surely is a shame.

We change track to talk about things other than work. Always unabashed, that adorable Hindi word used for a straight-shooter — moofat, where did she find that steel? Leone laughs. “I learned a long time ago that being honest while giving interviews or talking about certain subjects is the best way to be. I think that lying or making stories up or being someone that you are not, is just going to get you into trouble later. Of course, your opinions change over time, things change, but the core of who you are doesn’t, and I have always tried to maintain that,” she explains. But funnily, although you might want to call her a feminist poster girl, who, along with two other women who refuse to walk the road always travelled — Pooja Bhatt and Ekta Kapoor — made some healthy noise in a male-driven industry, Leone hates the F-word. “My perspective of feminism has not changed. I just think that we should be good people and do things for nice people. We should stand up for things that help our community, and be the best person that we could be. And so, I try to be the best me that I can be at all times — to men, women, children, animals, all of them.” Before “nepotism” became Bollywood’s favourite buzzword, it was feminism. And true to form, the true meaning of the word has been so convoluted, that feminists don’t know if they actually are real feminists.

But speaking of women, and especially women in the industry, does she think that women across the board are being duly represented? “I don’t understand about dues in Bollywood. It’s an unfair world, it is always going to be like that. It is dog-eat-dog. Some people are going to get more money and some people are not going to make as much. All I know is that I work hard, and I actually work in every single facet of the entertainment industry to make sure that I am doing what I need to as an entertainer,” she says. There’s a hint of cynicism and hardcore realism in that statement, and it’s difficult to argue with that. And while Leone might be constantly lauded for her intrepid choices, she is simply living her life on her own terms. “I will continue to make choices that are best for my family, my children, and what’s good for me at that moment. Whether it is a good choice or a bad one, I won’t know until later, but that’s what life is. So, live life by your terms and your terms only,” she firmly states.

Again, that’s solid, real advice. And, that is great advice for the LGBTQ+ community too, whose rights Leone very vocally champions for as a social activist. “I think you should speak about who you are, and be proud of it at all times. We live in a time and place where it is time for everybody to be okay, to be accepted the way they are, the way they are born, and the way they feel. I think the more we talk about it, the easier it will become for people in the LGBTQ+ community to be able to be free. It is something we all have to keep repeating. We should love everybody just the way they are. We should judge people based on who they are as human beings and not by gender, colour, age, or anything else,” she affirms.

2021 has been a very busy year for Leone, with back-toback shoots for various upcoming projects, and family time’s the only thing that keeps her sane these days. “I am trying to always balance my family and my work, which always makes things interesting. If I am not working, then I am worried about that, and if I am working too much, I think that I am not seeing my kids enough. But, I love my job, I love my life, and everything that I’ve been able to accomplish in all the different things that I do,” she signs off. That’s self-confidence 101, and it is inspiring and infectious in equal measure.