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What India thinks of Sunny Leone

February 04, 2016 14:36 IST

Sunny LeoneAs Sunny Leone's film Mastizaade hit screens amidst a wave of unprecedented social media support for her, Ritika Bhatia finds out what India thinks of the actor.

'Oh my god, oh my god, I think I'm having a total fan-girl moment,' squeals a visibly excited Sunny Leone in the middle of our chat at Mumbai's JW Marriott upon learning that Vidya Balan is around.

Leone had previously stated in interviews how she has always felt like the elephant in the room in esteemed Bollywood company.

That seems set to change after her interview with Bhupendra Chaubey on CNN-IBN.

Leone has become Twitter's darling after battling hostile, prejudiced questions with wit, poise and bravado.

A host of celebrities such as Anushka Sharma, Alia Bhatt, Aamir Khan and Balan have lent their support to Leone and hailed her 'rockstar' attitude.

Balan has heard that Leone is in the vicinity and comes swishing by for a quick meet-and-greet. The two embrace like old friends.

The image makeover is complete. That she was a porn star, born and brought up in Canada as Karenjit Kaur Vohra, who relocated to India and became a household name as a mainstream Bollywood actor is, in itself, a commendable feat.

So what has changed in the past week?

"I think people had never heard someone talk freely and honestly, which made a big difference in how they saw me," says the 34 year old whose adult film career started at 19.

"I don't regret my past and I wasn't apologetic. I've never said anything bad about this or that industry," she says. "The way I see it, if I change one person's view about who they think I am, then that's all I want -- one person at a time."

Prabhat Choudhary, co-owner, Spice PR, believes that in the last four years, Indian society's attitudes towards sex have undergone a change and Leone has been the precipitator behind it.

"The way she has conducted herself has changed her perception in the minds of the public. The grace with which she handled that interview has earned her a lot of public respect," he says. "Her concepts are very progressive and she articulated them eloquently."

He believes that a lot of celebrities have also appreciated her because they were seeing Leone as an individual for the first time. "She may have done B-grade films, but that interview was A-grade. She made us aware of her personality, separate from her work and the genre that she has come to represent."

IMAGE: Sunny Leone in a double role in Mastizaade.

Leone's reach has been expanding ever since her appearance on Bigg Boss, season 5, where Mahesh Bhatt offered her her first lead role in Jism 2.

Soon after, she landed an endorsement deal with Manforce Condoms, manufactured by Mankind Pharma. Sheetal Arora, managing director of Mankind Pharma, credits Leone with putting the brand on the map.

"In the three years since we signed Leone, we have become the country's largest condom brand in terms of sales, with a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in profit and a turnover of Rs 170 crore (Rs 1.7 billion)," he says. "People had warned us that our brand would be finished after signing Leone, but now we think it was the best marketing decision we have ever taken."

Leone has since endorsed brands such as Shilajeet Pan Masala, Chaze Mobiles, XXX Energy Drink, VI-John's hair removal cream and Addiction deodorant.

Public perception is shifting in Leone's favour -- from people storming the streets, burning posters of her first film to rallying behind her on social media.

But Leone hasn't gone out of her way to win herself this acceptance, says Choudhary. "She's one of the most searched celebrities online in India, so obviously people are seeking her out, whether in public or private."

The poster-burning public still exists, but now there are more people applauding her, says Choudhary. There will, however, always be aberrations.

"I will not praise Sunny Leone's profession and don't want our youth to get inspired by it," said ad-man and lyricist Prasoon Joshi at a recent event.

Using a poor analogy of a drug dealer's profession, Joshi stated that his culture didn't allow him to condone Leone's past.

Leone, in her classic bindaas style, declined to react to the comments, saying she "does not know who Prasoon Joshi is."

What has worked in Leone's favour is that she reaches out to her fans directly, among the families who sit together in their living rooms and watch reality TV shows such as Bigg Boss and Splitsvilla.

When she came on board to host MTV's Splitsvilla, season 7, it reached 10 million viewers -- the highest-ever ratings for the show till then.

Her husband, former adult film actor, her manager and business partner, Daniel Weber, concurs. "She enjoys hosting as she gets to be herself and also have a lot of fun," he says. "And since she's not playing a role, people are getting to know her for her personality. Splitsvilla has a huge connection with the youth. There is no monetary value you can put on reaching out to 10 million people this way."

IMAGE: Tusshar Kapoor and Sunny Leone in Mastizaade.

MTV Programming Head Shalini Sethi is all praises for Leone.

"Leone is a very intelligent woman with sharp observational skills and a great sense of humour. She's a true professional, serious about her work and a total stickler for punctuality -- which is a rare quality in people in this industry," she says.

These sentiments are echoed by every person I speak to who has ever worked with her.

"Her down-to-earth persona and polite demeanour make her approachable and an absolute favourite of the crew on set as well as the audiences," Sethi says.

While Leone has had only two big movie hits, Ragini MMS 2 and Jism 2, the future looks promising. She launched a Teen Patti app recently, is launching a perfume called Lust in time for Valentine's Day and has a host of content and merchandise lined up under the aegis of Sun City, the Indian production house she started last year with Weber. She's reading a script a day and has received offers from mainstream TV channels, such as Star, Zee and Sony, to host shows.

But is all the goodwill turning into good roles?

Her performances still have some way to go, though she is working on her craft.

According to Rangita Pritish Nandy, co-producer of Mastizaade, any association with the actor "always starts with eyeballs. That's why any producer would primarily want Leone in their movie."

She's also a massive attention grabber in the digital space, "an area of increasing commercial interest for all movie makers," says Nandy. She has over 15 million fans on Facebook and 1.3 million followers on Twitter.

IMAGE: Vir Das and Sunny Leone in Mastizaade.

Vir Das, comedian and Leone's co-star in Mastizaade, who had among the most searing comments reserved for Chaubey ('Here's hoping Mr Chaubey's next interview explores something other than his own prejudice'), describes her as "fantastic, intelligent and ambitious."

He says, "She's genuinely got a great sense of humour -- if you can make a comedian laugh, you know you're funny."

Rannvijay Singh, MTV VJ and Leone's co-host, agrees. "We've shot in the peak May heat in Goa in really difficult conditions. But she's always such a cool girl -- no-fuss, zero tantrums, never late."

Leone is also a sharp businesswoman.

"When the porn industry fell into my lap, I saw it as a business. I taught myself HTML, how to build a TGP site, to edit video and photos, put Web sites together -- you name it," she says. "I taught myself how to do that on my own because I had a philosophy -- if I am going to be in this industry, I want to make every last dollar; why should somebody else get it?" she says, laughing assuredly.

She certainly seems to be laughing her way to the bank, as well as the soiree.

Ritika Bhatia in Mumbai
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