Sunny Leone has always walked between worlds.
She was born in Sarnia, Ont., as the daughter of Indian immigrants, then moved to California and eventually started a career in adult films. She eventually became one of the most-searched actors in the porn industry, then made the unprecedented jump into mainstream Bollywood, India’s super-massive film industry that still grapples with depictions of sex — or even kissing — on screen.
It was a rocky transition at first, but Leone weathered the critics to become one of Bollywood’s most popular stars, as well as one of the most-searched celebrities on the planet, especially in India.
“There’s a lot of ups and there’s a lot of downs, and you just have to keep pushing forward,” she told Global News in a recent interview. “It’s just about understanding that … if you’re in everybody’s face all the time, maybe it’ll just work.”
Leone hasn’t been in people’s faces for a few months now due to the novel coronavirus, which she’s been riding out with her husband and three kids at their home in California. But she’s poised to make a digital comeback — and a bit of a homecoming — with the #StayHome Bollywood Monster Mashup, one of Canada’s largest South Asian festivals. The event typically happens in Mississauga, Ont., but it’s going virtual on Facebook this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything that people have loved about the festival in the past when we’ve done it in person, we are doing in the virtual world,” said festival organizer Vikas Kohli. He adds that hosting the festival on Facebook has made it easier to enlist headliners such as the Meet Brothers, composer Arjuna Harjai and Leone, one of Canada’s biggest Bollywood exports.
“We’re actually able to boost the level of talent,” he said.
Leone says the event is like a homecoming for her, even though she’ll be participating from afar. She’s slated to perform a dance number on Friday, July 24, and will also take part in live video chats with fans.
Leone spoke to Global News ahead of the event about her childhood in Sarnia, Ont., her star turn in India and the coronavirus limbo she’s living in California.
Global News: You lived in Sarnia until you were about 13 years old. What role did Bollywood play in your life when you were growing up?
Sunny Leone: My parents would rent Bollywood films growing up. And that’s how I was introduced to them. At that age, since we were so young, it was more about: this is a three-hour film. I get to eat pizza and eat junk food in front of the TV. I won’t understand much of what’s happening, but, you know, the greatest thing that I remember. It was a family event and it was all of us. So, you know, the four of us sitting in front of the TV. And it was something that was regular, and I think that’s the most amazing thing that the Bollywood industry gave to our family was it was fun.
GN: At what point did you think, “I can do this. I can leave North America and make it in Bollywood”?
SL: I never – I still am trying to figure that one out!
GN: What would you say to someone else who might dream of making that same jump, either from Canada or the U.S.?
SL: Persistence is definitely something that goes a long way, and being professional. Luckily, there’s lots of unprofessional people out there in the world. And I love them because it means I get the work.
But, you know, it’s more about following your passions and sticking through it. And there’s a lot of ups and there’s a lot of downs. And you just have to keep pushing forward. It’s like a train. It’s just about being persistent. It’s just about being professional and understanding your craft and understanding that, you know, if you’re in everybody’s face all the time, maybe it’ll just work.
GN: What still ties you to Canada?
SL: Well, I have some family left there. They’re actually in Mississauga and I’ll be telling them to tune in and check it out [the performance]. But they’re still there and I talk to them all the time and they’re just as worried, just as bored and isolated.
GN: What little things do you miss about Canada?
SL: I miss Tim Hortons. I miss ketchup chips. Poutine. I think once a Canadian, always a Canadian. And you know, it’s such a great feeling to be part of a country where everybody knows Canadians as being nice people.
GN: You started your career in the adult industry in California, then you made the jump to films in India. You were one of the most Googled people in the world for a few years, and you also faced a lot of backlash from conservatives. How did you push through that criticism to establish yourself in Bollywood?
SL: The only thing I could think of all the time is these people don’t know me. They don’t know my life. They don’t affect my everyday life in a personal way unless I allow them to. If I allow them to take over my brain or hurt me, then of course, it’s going to happen.
There have been moments where it’s really scary and you’re dealing with groups of people and… Or, you know, authorities that don’t want you somewhere, so that’s not a good feeling.
But what we’ve noticed is, again, persistence, and, Abu Dhabi was a perfect example of that persistence in Dubai. We went from not being welcome at all to opening up a mall in Abu Dhabi and being, you know, one of the first makeup lines and celebrities to come there and do that. But that took many years of persistence.
You can’t let people affect you, otherwise you’re never going to work and you’re never going to get out of your house and you’re never going to be able to follow your dreams. So I’m excited that I get to do something amazing.
GN: What would you recommend as the Sunny Leone thing to watch, whether it be a movie or a music video?
SL: I’ve been fortunate to make some amazing music videos out there. The docuseries that I shot called Karenjit Kaur (Leone’s real name). It’s on Zee5. That’s a really good place to get to know me.
All the stories there were real about my childhood, about the people that were in my life. You know, maybe some scenery has changed, but the basic stories, all of them are true. And there’s two seasons. So you can binge-watch me during this crazy [time].
GN: You went back to Sarnia a few years ago for Mostly Sunny, a 2016 documentary about you. You visited your childhood home but the local gurdwara wouldn’t let you film there. What’s your relationship like with the community there today?
SL: I don’t have a relationship with that community, but I don’t feel bad that I don’t. I don’t feel bad that we weren’t allowed to film there. Every establishment has their own protocol and their own rules. And that was that. So it doesn’t hurt my feelings. It’s not like we were in touch for so long and all of a sudden they abandoned me. And, you know, I wish them all happiness in the world. I’m happy and I love my life and I think that’s all that matters.
GN: You and your family have been at your home in California since May. How do you pass the time?
SL: I have three children and they require a lot of attention because they’re twin boys who are two years old and a four-year-old little girl. So my time is literally chasing after these three children all day long.
I wish I had more time to watch TV and binge watch. I just started watching this show about people who are murderers and behind why they did things. It’s a little morbid, I guess. I’m watching The Last Kingdom. The guy’s really cute.
GN: You shared a sneak peek of your newest performance on Instagram recently. The video shows you with a bunch of masked backup dancers. What can people expect from your next video?
SL: It’s not my usual dance group, but the girls have worked really hard to learn the whole routine. And we’ve been working together on changing things so that we’re not doing lifts because of social distancing, of course. But it’s going to be so much fun. And some of these girls, which is amazing, it’s the first time dancing to Bollywood tracks. So they’ve been working so hard and they’re so excited.
GN: What’s it like putting on a virtual performance like this?
SL: When you live in a world right now, when there’s really not much that we can do except for be outside, I think that it’s really special to be able to come to one place, everybody’s united, listening … I think that it’s really great because it helps, you know? Our mental health is just as important during this lockdown. So this is going to be a great release for so many people and hopefully they like the performance.
It’s the most amazing thing to look forward to because it’s the first. It’s the first thing that I’ve done in so long. It’s been months. So I’m excited!
The #StayHome with #BollywoodMonster Mashup starts on Friday, July 24 at 6 p.m. EST on Facebook Live, with more performances at 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 25. The virtual festival features headliners such as Sunny Leone, the Meet Brothers, Khushboo Grewal and singer-composer Arjuna Harjai.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
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