Entertainment

Sunny Leone: How a porn star from Sarnia, Ont. won over Bollywood

How a Penthouse Pet of the Year turned into an icon of a new India.

Sunny Leone shot to fame in the porn industry at 19 before making an unprecedented move to the Bollywood big screen in often-conservative India.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Sunny Leone shot to fame in the porn industry at 19 before making an unprecedented move to the Bollywood big screen in often-conservative India.

Filmmaker Dilip Mehta may have intimately studied the main character of his latest documentary, but he admits he’s still completely baffled by Sunny Leone.

“Here is a former porn star in India, which is steeped in tradition,” offered Mehta about the real-life Bollywood star of Mostly Sunny, opening in most cities Friday. “Even after spending two and a half years doing the film, I just don’t get how India has accepted her with open arms.”

The truth is Sunny Leone’s success itself is a bit mysterious. Born in Sarnia, Ont., Sunny shot to fame at just 19 years old when she plunged herself into the porn industry and quickly rose to be crowned 2003’s Penthouse Pet of the Year.

Today however, Leone has inexplicably become a Bollywood sensation by transitioning to mainstream movies — an unthinkable transformation in a traditional culture that channels an extreme kind of conservative parochialism.

“Her parents’ generation, they have shunned her because of her choices,” insisted the talented brother of Canadian auteur Deepa Mehta (Midnight’s Children).“It’s a strange choice of words but the younger generation are really tickled pink by Sunny Leone because they find her liberating, they find her fresh and almost label her as a feminist.”

Indeed, despite her lascivious start in the adult industry, Leone has truly become an ambassador of female empowerment in India.  

Sunny Leone is the subject of documentary Mostly Sunny.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Sunny Leone is the subject of documentary Mostly Sunny.

Not only does she continue to be feted in Bollywood circles but her success has pushed a pseudo-liberation movement. Perhaps most compelling though is how her story is inspiring the next generation of Indian women.

“She is spearheading a movement,” said Mehta of Leone’s influence in India. “There must be (others) but none who have her acumen at making money and her history. And her history’s remarkable.

“They’re looking at her and saying maybe there is an alternative. Maybe what our parents have told us in life may not necessarily be true for us anymore — that you can make your own choices and possibly even succeed.”

Filmmaker Dilip Mehta admits he is still completely baffled by Sunny Leone, the subject of his latest documentary, Mostly Sunny.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Filmmaker Dilip Mehta admits he is still completely baffled by Sunny Leone, the subject of his latest documentary, Mostly Sunny.

“I wanted to do it because it was a vehicle for (female empowerment), plus, it was an introspective vehicle for me to look at India. India today is not the country I grew up in and I felt it’s an interesting time to do such a film and use her as the vehicle.”

On the screen, Leone’s acting ability also quickly won her an admirer in Mehta.

“I was floored by her honesty,” he said of her work in the film. “My approach was to distance myself in one sense by being a fly on the wall.

“I think the film has done her wonderfully because she’s come across as a strong woman, as an independent-thinking woman (and) good for her.

“Who are we to cast dispersions and judgment?”

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