In the Juggernaut Books blog, there’s a post from December that leads with a collage of their ‘Blockbuster authors.’ Among them are Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievic, historian William Dalrymple and writer Arundhati Roy. And actor Sunny Leone, who has authored a book of erotic fiction which will be among the publishing house’s initial offerings.
It is not only proof of the growing value of Ms Leone’s brand that a newly launched publishing house is expecting to cash in on. It is also testimony to a certain respectability that is attached to her name today. The adult entertainer-turned-Bollywood actor is now a symbol of a liberated woman, an assault on the double standards of the great Indian morality. Juggernaut’s website describes her as someone who stands for, “glamour, sex appeal and girl power” and “the epitome of a strong woman who is unapologetic about decisions she has taken and choices that she has made in life.”
Much of this began to take shape after a TV interview with a senior journalist in January this year. The video went viral, and she found herself riding a wave of support. According to social media, that journalist’s demeanour, his way of phrasing questions his questions, projected blatant misogyny; her answers, on the other hand, radiated grace and confidence.
That is not what she expected.When we met for this interview, Ms Leone told us, “I felt completely alone in the room, there was no one to come to my rescue to say that this is wrong,” Perhaps as a result of the experience, there is at least one person around her during any media interaction. She left the studio that day dreading a backlash. “After the interview, I told him, ‘Sir, you will go home to your family, your kids and wife and you will have a lovely dinner, while I will have to deal with the repercussions of the interview. I didn’t remember the tiny details of the interview, if I may have said anything that offends someone… people are waiting to fabricate things, waiting to take a hit on you. I already have had enough of that and its no fun. On top of that, he was a senior journalist. But to my shock and surprise, things went on a completely different direction. It took me weeks to wrap my head around everything.”
And then, we switch topics, to her book. Or do we? Sweet Dreams , her debut collection of short stories, treats “women as sexual equals to men and explore girls who do the seduction”.
We got to sample the first two stories, ‘Seat 7E’ and ‘Call Centre’, about two sexual encounters in unlikely places: on an airplane and in a call centre. “These are fantasies that everyone has,” she says, “such as a mile-high club, or finding one’s boss attractive, but most of them never come true. The theme in all the stories is intimacy and these unexpected encounters.”
She is quick to add that Sweet Dreams includes other kinds of stories too, including one that revolves around a persuasive lover who waits for a lady in a movie hall, and another about an overweight girl who gets motivated to work out by the boy she likes.Leone isn’t a natural writer (she is no great book-lover either, but she says that it was “challenging in a good way”) but this isn’t the right space to discuss the merits of her writing style. It is perhaps relevant to note in passing that her literary debut trades on her sex symbol image, in the way that her films have been more about her body than her acting. One could argue that the sexist subtext of her movie choices undermines the liberal cred she has earned.
But then, Leone isn’t pretending to be someone she’s not; she is honest about her idea of what entertainment is. “When you are working in the entertainment industry, you are objectifying everything in some shape or form. When a Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan takes off his shirt, every single person in movie theatre is objectifying them. Or when an A-list actor looks stunning in a new dress. No one forced me to do anything. I say no to things I don’t want to do. It’s just how each individual perceives it. And I don’t look past movies past entertainment,” she says, perturbed at first, but calming down quickly. Her upcoming films, she says, are “a little more serious and don’t focus on the “glamour and intimacy.”“For instance, [the forthcoming film] One Night Stand actually follows what happens after that one night. Although the promos may tell you a different story,” she says breaking into a smile, as if realising the irony of what she just said.Irrespective of the films in which she plays other people, later this year, Leone may enter the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where a documentary on her life, Mostly Sunny, Partly Cloudy by Dilip Mehta, is likely to premiere. If that happens, it would also mark her return to the country where she was born — as Karenjit Kaur Vohra — and grew up.
Shot over two years, with 22,000 hours of footage, the film is expected to show Leone open up about some of the sensitive things from her past that she has been uncomfortable talking about. “I saw the first edit,” she says, “and it was very difficult to watch. There are a lot of emotional things happening in it: especially talking about my parents who passed away around that time.”
But for now, the mood is mostly sunny. Leone is beaming about having shot a song with SRK for his next film Raees . “If somebody asked me two years ago if I would ever feature next to him, I would ask her if she is out of her mind. But perseverance, hard work and positivity have made it happen.”
Juggernaut Books will launch its new app at 10pm today with a story from Sweet Dreams , with the rest over the next few evenings. The book is exclusive to the app on Android and iOS.
2015 Kashmir Despatch