Over the last seven years that she has been in the Hindi film industry, Sunny Leone has faced threats and trolls, brickbats and accusations and come out stronger. By refusing to bow down to her detractorsa, Sunny has proven that determination, passion and hard work are the main requisites to making a mark in any industry.
With Season 2 of Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, underway, the actress and mother of three talks to Yahoo! India about work, motherhood and her journey so far.
You have been through a lot professionally and personally, from when you entered Bollywood through Bigg Boss Season 5, to where you are currently. What has your biggest challenge been?
I look at it more as a learning curve than a challenge. America and India are two different ways of thinking, doing things and conducting businesses. So, I believe that the learning curve of the entire journey – and I am learning on a daily basis – was the most difficult part. I had been living in a bubble, and I am fine living in a bubble, but people keep telling me that I need to get out of my house and be social.. That has been difficult but I keep trying.
It must have been around three or four years ago when a slow shift started to happen. A couple of different things helped change people’s perceptions about me and made them realise that I am a human being, after all, and that they like me. To an extent, I believe it is because I have been here and have not gone back. Whether it is working on television, doing songs, shows or commercials, I have always believed in trying to stay as busy as possible and working as much as I can.
ZEE5’s web series, Karenjit Kaur, sees you play yourself. What motivated you to take up the project? How difficult was it to step back and separate yourself?
The idea of the biopic wasn’t mine. The producers came to me and initially I was hesitant in saying yes. It went into areas of my life and my childhood, which, though maybe funny on the hindsight, were upsetting at that point of time. Simple things such as being called aloo paratha at school.
It was really difficult separating myself. There was this point in season one where I was very upset and had an argument with Daniel (Weber). He is a fixer and he didn’t want me to be upset. He wanted me to separate myself from what I was portraying. But it is difficult for somebody from the outside to know what I went through. This is my journey and I told him that I can’t separate myself from it.
I would take an hour of my day every day to go to the gym, workout and be in silence. That would be my time to just release all the crazy tension and bad feelings that were pent up. Daniel asked me if I could skip the gym since he was there. But I couldn’t since I needed the time for myself. Daniel has been my pillar of support. Since we had this conversation about separating myself, Daniel made sure that he went through what we are shooting for the day, and if it is an emotionally heavy scene, he would be there as my support system. I also had an amazing team around me who picked me up every time I was low and crying.
Even today, I have to go dub after this and I still have this anxiety over how I would go back home after all this, put a smile on my face, be with my babies and act normal. I need to have a happy disposition all the time as if I were a super mom, except I am not one.
You have three adorable children, Nisha, Asher and Noah. At what point did you feel that you were ready to bring them into your life?
We had been trying for surrogacy and that wasn’t working. We were also donating time at St Catherine’s Home. One day we went to the nursery and saw these adorable babies and I thought, why don’t we just adopt a baby. Daniel was supportive and he said, yes let’s go for it! Then we found out that we were having three babies in one day – it was crazy. We got the letter for Nisha and we got the IVF transfer confirmation all on the same day. June 21, 2017, changed our lives, forever.
Was adopting Nisha a difficult decision to make?
When I saw her picture online, I was sure that Nisha would be my baby. Her skin colour may be different, but I would think of her as my flesh and blood and I would want her to embody both Daniel and me in her personality as she grows up.
Nisha came to us when she was 21 months old, so I don’t know what she has gone through till then. We were analysing the letter that said that we had a match, we looked at her picture and her medical records and wondered whether she was going to be okay, considering her background. We then spoke to a doctor in the US who works with autistic children and children with behavioural issues. She told us not to worry and that Nisha is still young and will not remember her life until now.
The one thing that I know for sure based on Nisha’s personality is that they gave her lots of love. She is always a happy baby.
You have such a culturally diverse family – how do you plan to bring up your children?
I think religion is important to provide structure and to teach children so many different things about cultures. I would never want to deny Nisha or my sons any of that. Ours is a very modern family which is a mish-mash of everything. Daniel’s a Jew, Nisha is born in Maharashtra so I am assuming she was born a Hindu. I am a Sikh. The boys are Punjabi Jews and I have two Catholic nannies. Our household has a cross, Guru Nanak’s picture, it has David’s Star. Nisha will celebrate Diwali and Holi and Sikh holidays and Jewish holidays. In fact, this was the first year that Nisha went for a Ganesh darshan and it was beautiful to watch her go around and apply tikkas on all of us, she just did it naturally. In America, she goes to a Hebrew school, so every Friday she wishes her Saba and Safta (grandparents in Hebrew) Shabbat Shalom (Hebrew greeting).
What motivates you when you wake up in the morning?
My coffee pot (laughs). But, yes, I love my job, I love my family and I think I have the best of both worlds. I am excited about everything I do so that in itself is motivation. I am up at 6:30 – 7 no matter what time I sleep the previous night. The sound of my kids giggling and laughing in the morning and their excitement to see me motivates me – no one else is so excited to see me other than my kids. They are the only ones who like to hear me sing. No one else does (laughs).
You have faced backlashes from political parties and religious groups. Does it affect you personally or do you block it out?
I am human so it does affect me personally. But what I find frustrating is how the media finds certain ridiculous things newsworthy and highlights them, just because a group has said my name and that they will do XYZ if I come to their city. You are talking about a group that is known to terrorise people, and you are still giving them that coverage on your news channel or in your articles. It boils down to viewership. That, I feel is ethically and morally incorrect.
Instead, let’s talk about the kid on the street who doesn’t have clothes or does not have a toilet at home. Let’s talk about the pregnant mother who goes begging for food or money, holding two other children. I am no one in this world, don’t talk about me. I feel that if we all come together and start talking about things that we can change in our own communities, amazing changes can happen.
What about Bollywood, how much patriarchy have you faced there?
I am really lucky that everything is channelised through Daniel before it comes to me. Daniel is the one who has to deal with a lot of things that I will never deal with. And I believe it is really difficult to find that one person who has your back, professionally and emotionally, in any entertainment industry in the world. Daniel is that backing for me.
What do you love about India?
I love it here. Every time I go to the US, I am dying to get back after a week. It’s the hospitality, the care, the emotions, which sometimes drive you crazy but are also the most endearing ones. I feel that India has some of the best service cultures – Americans are so cold.
I love living here, I love this industry and the fact that I can have any idea and make it happen. I say this to young people all the time that if you live here and you have an idea or a concept then you can make it happen. You can have the smallest of ideas and go big with it. Some of the smartest, most talented people come from here. It’s all about harnessing that power.
But you also hear about rape and violence being perpetrated against women and children, every day. What do you feel needs to be done to bring about a change?
It boils down to education, and that has to begin at home. So all those new moms and dads out there who are in a stable, healthy home, it is time to teach your children and future children that violence is not ok, whether against men or women. Respect women, respect your mother, sister or friend who is a female. If you see something wrong happening around you, speak up. Silence is the worst thing possible. I think our youth is extremely powerful and intelligent and if they start speaking up against violence – we will see a change.
Can you tell us about your future projects? What about regional language films?
I launched my own cosmetic line this year, called Star Struck and I am very excited about it. My production house will be shooting its first film end of this year beginning of next, and I have the Season 2 of Karanjit Kaur. So yes, it’s a very exciting time for me on the work and personal front. I love the entertainment industry so whether it is one language or the other, I will be open to it.
Finally, what is your message for all the young women out there who admire you?
Don’t follow my way, follow your own path, make your own choices and follow your passion. I believe in little changes which will add up to big changes at the end of the day, or the week or the year. And, for those women who are in a household that may be a little gender biased, it’s these little things that you can do to help yourself, to build your confidence, to make you a better person. Whatever your capacity as a woman is at this point of time, it’s those small changes that will count.