Dressed in a sleek all-black ensemble, Sunny Leone arrives to our interview already engrossed in conversation. She’s talking to her manager, Sunny Rajani, about Bikram yoga. Her eyes glint as she says, with palpable delight, “Daniel died.” She’s referring to husband Daniel Weber, of course. It’s a hyperbolic statement, but it points to something true — Bikram is not for the faint of heart.
The intense form of hot yoga pushes participants past their limits in a room heated to 35–42 C, with a humidity of 40 per cent. It’s challenging. And it’s just like Leone to be excited by a challenge.
The actress and entrepreneur, under the scrutiny of the public eye, has created an art out of reinventing herself. Her advice to anyone who feels pigeonholed by the entertainment industry? Replace the people around you, work hard, stay professional and be persistent.
“You have to think about what you’re going to do when you’re off-screen. How are you going to provide for your family when it’s all over? What are you going to do?”
Leone’s many transformations will be witnessed in an upcoming biographical web series titled Karenjit Kaur - The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, which is set to release on Zee5, a new streaming service from Zee Entertainment.
Born Karenjit Kaur to a Sikh family in Canada, Leone went from being an adult star, to a participant on Indian reality show Bigg Boss, to a Bollywood figure. More recently, she’s juggled acting, running her make-up line StarStruck, and being a mother.
Within the span of eight months, Weber and Leone went from having no children to having three — Nisha by adoption, and Noah and Asher by surrogacy. The twins arrived last month, just a tad ahead of schedule.
“I had to finish up two days of the biopic that were pending. My boys could not wait two days, and then they were born. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’ I keep just saying, ‘God’s plan, God’s plan, God’s plan,’” says Leone.
TEARS AND LAUGHTER
Sitting for an interview in Dubai in early April, Leone is away from home to walk the ramp for designer Sravan Kummar, as part of Fashion League Series 2018 Season 2.
During her UAE visit, she carved out enough time for a Bikram yoga session in Business Bay.
“Yoga has become my religion,” she admits. “At the end, when you’re lying there, I just pray and I’m like, ‘God, give me the strength to be patient. Let me love my family.’ This is the only place where I can collect my thoughts and just ask God to give me the strength to be a better person.”
Back to work: it’s not often that someone gets to star in their own biopic. Did Leone find it therapeutic to revisit scenes from her past? Leone laughs.
“I don’t consider therapeutic in all the words I would love to use. Not just yet. Maybe later on in life,” she says. For months, she sat with the writer, going over things that had happened to her over the years. Some of it was happy; some, not so much.
“I was angry, I cried, sitting on my couch, explaining some of these stories. When you get to shoot it, the emotional part was the stuff with my parents, because they’ve passed away. They’re not alive, and then you see their pictures on the wall every day, in the house that I grew up in,” she recalls.
13-year-old Dubai-born newcomer Rysa Saujani portrays Leone in her younger years. The budding actress, who filmed primarily in Cape Town, South Africa, found the role to be “emotionally challenging”.
Saujani, speaking over the phone from the UK, explains that the biopic might help strip away some of the judgement that has attached itself to Leone.
“After reading the script and understanding her full story, front to end, I have nothing but respect for her. I think that her story is an incredible one. People are going to gain a lot of knowledge, and learn a lot from it,” says Saujani, in a heavy British accent, which she had to train herself out of for the series.
(Asked how she balances schoolwork with a project like this, Saujani adds: “My headmaster was previously working at this school with Emma Watson, so because of that, he’s kind of understood the whole leaving for a while, and the bits where I have to catch up [on] work.”)
Saujani met Leone on her first day on set. She describes her as sweet, gracious and humble. The star came over to greet Saujani and her mother. They discovered something serendipitous they had in common.
“One really big thing between me and Sunny that not many people know is that we share the same birthday, which is just the strangest thing,” says Saujani.
Leone didn’t have any advice for the young actress, but was pleased with her performance. “I had to fix some audio, some dubbing, and I saw a small little piece of a scene she was in, and she looked so cute,” says Leone.
LIKE A HAWK
Leone hopes that the finished product will help viewers understand the human behind the persona she crafted.
“I think that there’s this person called Sunny Leone that people created in their mind when they see someone on television, or they see me in a song or a film. And that’s the image that I created, and I get it and I understand it, and I get full credit for creating that person,” she says.
“But it would be really nice when people watch this, that they go, ‘Oh, she went through some of the same things that I went through as a kid.’ I’m just like everybody else. Everybody has problems and family issues and traumatic things that happened to them.”
Now that Leone is a mother of three, how would she feel about her kids opting to work in the entertainment industry some day?
“I don’t know, 18 years from now, 16 years from now, how I’ll feel about anything. It’s really hard to say,” she says.
“If, for some reason, my little girl or my little boys decided that they want to get into entertainment, then I’d think that I’d raised them well enough to make wise, good decisions. And of course, I would watch them like a hawk, make sure they’re safe.”
Next up for Leone is an expansion of her make-up company, StarStruck, which currently focuses on lip liners, lip glosses and lipsticks. She wants to turn her attention to women who don’t have the patience or time for a beauty routine.
“I would love nothing more than to create a make-up kit that’s your five-minute make-up bag. And create these items that make life easy. Instead of, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to get this on my face and make it look good like all the pictures I’m seeing?’ It’s not that difficult. The thing is, most women just don’t know what to buy,” says Leone.
Don’t miss it
The trailer for Karenjit Kaur - The Untold Story of Sunny Leone is now online. A premiere date for the show has not been set.