Shedding inhibitions (and clothes) may come easy to adult film star Sunny Leone. But these days as she prepares to join India's mainstream movie industry, it's during her gym sessions — where she practises her Hindi with an audio language learning tape — when she feels most vulnerable.
"Everybody's looking at me as if I have gone crazy," said Leone in an exclusive interview with tabloid! over the phone from Canada.
It’s actually not
as crazy as it’s
made out to be.
Jism 2 has an
— there’s a love
story — and it’s
not going as far as
people think it’s
going to go.
"At this point I don't care, because if you are not comfortable speaking Hindi in front of strangers there's no way I am going to be comfortable speaking in India."
There's a lot riding on her shapely hips. In a shock casting decision, veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt snapped Leone up for Jism 2 after he met her in the Bigg Boss 5 house — India's version of Celebrity Big Brother — in December. Leone was the controversial but sweet Bigg Boss inmate who had audiences hooked from the beginning. "I had no idea who he was when he walked into the house. But Juhi [a Bigg Boss inmate] told me about how huge a filmmaker he is after he stepped out. And honestly, I realised the gravity and what a huge thing it was to get a film offer on national television much later. It's amazing how it works in India — they say it verbally and they stick by it."
For the last two months, Leone, who began her adult film career at 19, has been preparing herself for her Bollywood debut.
"Acting is not something that I thought I will ever do. Bollywood acting is very different from American television — so I am watching Hindi films all day, cooking Indian food and getting in sync with the Indian culture. I want to submerge myself in the Indian way of life, right now, I feel as if Bollywood is my research project and I have to get an A+ on it."
She is also busy hunting for a coach to teach her Hindi before she jets off to India in next month to shoot for Jism 2. The original, starring Bipasha Basu and John Abraham, was a racy deception drama. The sequel will be directed by Mahesh Bhatt's daughter, Pooja, who has nabbed actors Arunoday Singh and Randeep Hooda to star opposite Leone. Understandably, Leone's background made many established actors in Bollywood shy away from the project.
"It was very difficult … I find it amazing that people have no problem working with wife beaters, child molesters and rapists. But those very same people have a problem working with a woman who decides to live her life on her own terms in her own nation," said Bhatt in a separate interview. She defines Jism 2 as a contemporary tale. "It's about a woman who uses her body as a tool and is ruthless about giving her body away to the highest bidder. But by the end of it, it's how she goes beyond the flesh and does something larger than what's expected of her. It goes from sex to spirituality at one point," she said.
Though her declarations sounds like a film buff branding Dumb & Dumber as a Oscar contender, Bhatt is convinced that her gamble will pay rich dividends.
"I didn't want to go for the obvious choice … And today, heroines are doing what vamps used to earlier. The lines are blurring."
The controversy about three Indian ministers in the South Indian state of Karnataka caught watching pornography on their phones during an assembly session only validates her belief.
"I don't fear any backlash. India is going through a strange situation at the moment, Right now, I have this newspaper in front of me talking about these ministers watching pornography — I don't think there should be any moralists rearing their heads now," she added.
Meanwhile, Leone prefers to play down the controversy with humour. "Those ministers cleared the path for me… it might not be as big a problem now," she said breaking into loud laughter but adds that her intention is not to titillate or shock Indian viewers.
"America is open to everything and, obviously, with my background, I am very comfortable with my body and who I am," says Leone. "But you can go only so far because of Indian regulations on making movies. Even if they wanted me to do something that was clearly over the top, there's a certain limit. Even if I am extremely sexy — that line cannot be crossed." She dubbed the latest poster of Jism 2 — where a nude woman is swathed in a wet white sheet on a table — as "pretty sexy".
"It's very suggestive — but I don't think it odd. Because I work in America and in America... every single magazine has very suggestive clothing, the word sex is used in every TV show and even in some cartoons they use adult language," she explains.
Born to Indian parents (her mother is from Himachal Pradesh and her father from Chandigarh) in Ontario, Leone — aka Karen Malhotra — was raised in a typical Punjabi household.
"When I was growing up, I didn't travel to India much. Over the last 30 years, I have been to India twice and when you are young it's difficult to understand a country so dynamic — all you want to do is buy bubblegum. I feel lucky to have been there as an adult and work in that country."
She has no regrets about making money from adult entertainment either. In 2010, fashion magazine Maxim voted her one of the world's top 12 adult stars. "I started while I was 19. It just happened. I met an agent from that industry and all those amazing things happened in my life. I was travelling around the world and meeting different people from various cultures. When you are that young, it's difficult to give that life up. It's hard to give up that American dream of being able to be your own boss, travel the world and get good money as well for it."
Now, she is now gearing up to wow Bollywood. "In America, television and film industry just doesn't mix. This never happens. I never thought Bigg Boss would get me a film offer. There's always going to be people who have an issue with who I am and what I do. But my fans in India have been so amazingly nice and accepting. All I care is that fans love me, the press like me and the rest is all gravy."
Bigg Boss stint: "I enjoyed the experience. I don't really fight or like yelling matches. So when my friends got into a fight, I had to step back and let them do their thing. First of all, they were all speaking so fast that responding or retorting to them was not possible for me. That worked to my benefit. And every week, I expected to be kicked out."
Meeting Bigg Boss hosts Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt: "I watched their films while growing up. It was nice to meet them in person."
In terms of recall value, the original Jism nailed it. Nearly a decade after its release in 2003, the scene in which Bipasha Basu straddles her hunky lover, played by John Abraham, on a beach is etched in every Bollywood buff's memory. The film strengthened Basu's stronghold as a seductress who convinces her lover to kill her rich husband.
So the bar is already set high. But Sunny Leone, star of Jism 2, is not worried. "Everything that I saw in Jism and other Bollywood films is something that I have already seen in American TV programmes rated PG13. I am not worried," said Leone.
tabloid! checks out Leone's predecessor and the challenges ahead of her.
Basu was a hit on the catwalk before she began her acting career. She made her Bollywood debut in 2001 with thriller Ajnabee. Blockbuster Jism consolidated her position as a Bollywood bombshell. Leone started her adult film career at 19 and has titles including Penthouse Pet Of The Year under her belt. "I am not ashamed of my body," she said.
Unlike sweet angelic heroines, Basu in Jism had risqué dialogues such as "the body knows only lust and not love" in Hindi. It will be interesting to hear shocking truths about a woman's sensuality in accented Hindi from Leone.
Basu wore a swimsuit in Jism, while rumours are running wild that Sunny Leone won't just stop at bikinis.
While Basu had to whip up chemistry with just one man — Abraham — the Jism 2 star will have two men — Arunoday Singh and Randeep Hooda. And if Pooja Bhatt has her way, it takes Leone a string of men to discover herself.
'I want my actors to be believable'
It's difficult not to question director Pooja Bhatt's decision to rope in an adult star for a Bollywood film. But she says her intention was not to spark controversy.
"I didn't want to go for the obvious choice," said Bhatt, who runs the production house Fisheye Network, which is producing Jism 2.
"We cast Sunny because the character in my film is a new-age Helen [the '60s dancing queen of Bollywood]. She is kind of an item girl, does photo shoots that border on the sexual and she has that perfect persona," says Bhatt, who has enjoyed her share of success as an actress and director.
"I want my actors to be believable. Nothing lasting is achieved without sticking your neck out and taking risks. People keep talking about out-of-the-box casting, but nobody really does it — everybody wondered who would bell the cat with Sunny and we did," Bhatt.
The daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, her films rarely toe the conventional line. She made her Bollywood debut with Daddy as the angst-ridden teenager in search of her father, while her production debut Tamanna — about female infanticide — was an unexpected choice at the peak of her acting career.
"People asked me if I had lost my mind producing a film at 23 but my heart told me to back stories that would otherwise be ignored," she said.
"Bollywood has achieved the surface dazzle. But then again it still resorts to old clichés somewhere down the line. Movies are based in London, New York, but they still resort to the regressive stuff."
Cynics may scoff at her attempts at making a flesh-fuelled film, but Bhatt is confident.
"Right now, the noise and fascination is about Sunny Leone. But once they see Jism 2, people will be taken aback and say "arree isme story bhi hai [Wow, there's a story too]."