Sunny Leone’s the kind of hot that could make a staunchly heterosexual woman consider switching sexual preferences. You didn’t know that when you walked into the appointed suite at JW Mariott, Juhu, in Mumbai to interview her ahead of the release of her erotic short stories.
In the lounge, Sunny’s husband, Daniel, a tall good looker with a strong handshake, a direct gaze, and a spider tattooed on his neck, chats with the bouncers. Chiki Sarkar, whose new mobile-focused publishing house, Juggernaut, is unleashing Sunny’s literary efforts, is there too. “One story will be released every night at 10pm,” she says. There are 12 stories in all. The three you’ve read are certain to be devoured by good Indian girls and boys in spotless pajamas.
Sunny emerges from the bedroom, her hair perfect, her face perfect, her perfect porn star body encased in an impossible sheath dress. You immediately hope she’s dumb just so you can feel intellectually superior. Alas, a few minutes into the conversation you become aware of the excellent marketing nous that’s got her thus far in Bollywood.
“We had to keep in mind that the stories related to the Indian market. I was keen on making things seem more pleasant, sexy, but make it so some readers won’t go, ‘Oh! What?” Sunny says in mock shock. She believes women readers, especially, are put-off by the explicitness of erotica by men. Though her stories aren’t directed at a specific gender, she has been careful to create elaborate scenarios. “Women love the story. That’s why they love reading romance novels; they love the idea of things being described, but described in a different way than how men see things,” she says.
All of which means that if you’re expecting hot and heavy BDSM on your mobile, perish that line of filthy thought. We Indians have only just emerged from the era of copulating on-screen flowers, OK? Sunny definitely isn’t a desi Anais Nin. Her stories set in locations like call centres and small towns feature affable Indian protagonists with sexual fantasies that are never transgressive.
“People are not always comfortable talking about these things. This will give us a good idea of whether you need to bring it up a notch or tone it down. We don’t know what our audience is going to be like,” she says. Some stories are inspired by common fantasies like the one about having sex with a stranger on a plane. Sunny insists she isn’t (yet?) a member of the mile-high club. “There are not many people who are part of it,” she giggles. “You have to have a lot of guts to be able to do it. So when you’re writing about it, you have to think, ‘OK, what would I want it to be like?’” she says.
Sunny steers clear of degradation, spanking, graphic language, or ‘unnatural’ tastes. “These guys are not cheap or sleazy. There are situations that might seem very forward but I didn’t want any character to seem like a total dirtbag,” she says adding that her favourite story is one about a couple who doesn’t consummate their relationship until the young man returns to his small town after establishing himself professionally. It’s so in step with vintage Bollywood, it could be a Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer circa 1995.
“He is a true gentleman and treats his girl like she’s his princess. He says, ‘OK, let me go develop who I am as a human being and I will come back to you’. He’s from a small town and respects family and traditions. It brought a tear to my eye because it was sad but it was so beautiful,” Sunny says while you suppress a snort.
But then you’re a cynic with a comic imagination. Her story set in a call centre featuring a charismatic female senior manager having wild sex with a bumbling underling on office premises only makes you wonder about mundane things like CCTV, security guards and whether the manager has stocked up on vaginal wipes. You are also certain that, in the real world, after the thunderous event, the underling will text the manager non-stop before, perhaps, clubbing her to death in a dark alley.
“Well, we don’t want to end this story on a bad note!” she says.
Sunny’s stories are relentlessly optimistic. The characters are not complicated or unpleasant and exist in a world that veers on the border of Valentine’s Land with its floating pink hearts and soft focus lighting. But it’s the women characters – always sexy, intelligent and never passive – who make these pieces interesting.
“I did like to keep ideas of women having these encounters because they do happen; we just don’t talk about them. With some of these stories, people, women, will feel like, ‘Yeah, that’s happened to me before!’” says Sunny, who has created a new space for herself in the Indian imagination that has so far subsumed itself in the binaries of the ‘good’ woman on the pedestal who keeps her desires in check and the fallen one who doesn’t. And here she is, unashamed of her porn star past, capitalizing on it in her films and now in her fiction too. Her success has much to do with how Indian society is changing, with how we are coming to reject the Madonna-whore dichotomy and embracing a more liberal approach to sex. “I think Indian culture is quite open now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” she says.
It occurs to you that Sunny Leone wouldn’t have got very far if she had been a homegrown porn star, someone whose skin was a few shades darker, who spoke broken English in say, a Bihari, Bengali or a Malayalam accent. Perhaps she is emblematic of contemporary Indian aspirations; our urge to be more westernized, less outwardly traditional; our yearning to be whiter, brighter, sexier. She speaks to our inner selves that crave modernity while -- ah, confound it! -- being held back by self loathing, the gift of centuries of stratified social systems topped by the colonial experience.
Whatever has propelled it, Sunny’s success is real. Her uncomplicated stories with their fully-described orgasmic money shots are certain to be successful too. There were moments of difficulty, of course. “Developing the characters was my favourite part. The hardest was trying to make the intimate encounters different in each story,” she laughs.
Do the descriptions of that perennially unchanging yet infinitely varied act read differently in each of these stories? Ah, fiddle with your smartphone to find out. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Sunny encounter, this writer ponders her suddenly shaky heterosexuality.
Q&A: Sunny Leone talks about her writing process, that interview with Bhupendra Chaubey, and how she hopes her stories will inspire young men to become perfect gentlemen
I’ve read a couple of the stories. What made you…
Decide to do this? Well, Juggernaut came to me and they proposed the idea. I love reading stories. I read more scripts now than I do books but I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of being able to create something you’ve seen in your mind so I thought, ‘OK, this is something different, it’ll be challenging. I’ve never done it before and let’s see what happens’. Turned out it was a little bit more difficult than I thought!
How long did it take you to write these?
They wanted them done a lot faster than what I delivered! But for me it was a special project so I wanted it to be perfect. If someone’s going to read these short stories, it shouldn’t sound like a 12-year-old (has written them). I had help and it was a lot of fun.
I’ve read the story set in the call centre and the one on the airplane.
The airplane one took the longest because it was the first. I didn’t want it to be vulgar because I know, as a woman, when I’m reading something if I see a word that makes me go, ‘Ooh, what am I reading?’ I’ll shut it and won’t read it. So I was keen on making things seem more pleasant, sexy, in that zone, but make it so some readers won’t go, ‘Oh! What?” because that happens, that’s how women are. Guys, on the other hand, they want everything! (laughs)
Exactly. Whereas women, they love the story. That’s why women love reading romance novels; they love the idea of things being described, but described in a different way than how men see things.
That’s what you thought when you were writing this? Because I read the stories and thought, ‘Hmm they are not very wild’.
People are not always comfortable talking about these things. Or they don’t want somebody to know they’re reading it. I’m sure there are a lot of women out there with their 50 Shades of Grey book, who have covered the front with some sort of paper or have it only on their Kindle. I think this will give us a good idea of whether you need to bring it up a notch or tone it down even more. It is pretty tame in that sense. It’s a test to see what’s going to happen. I’d rather be tame and work upwards than throw so much up that it’s too much to handle. We don’t know what our audience is going to be like.
Are you assuming the readership will be female?
Well, it’s written by a female (laughs) so obviously a lot of things come from a female’s perspective. Even when you’re reading about some of these guys, they are not cheap or sleazy guys. There are situations that might seem very forward but I didn’t ever want any of the characters to seem like total dirtbags. There’s a couple of stories that I absolutely love. One is about a young man and, in the story, the couple don’t actually have sex.
What was the process you went through? The ideation…
I thought of an idea or it was suggested by the Juggernaut team. The first story was suggested just to get things started. I read it and I took it in a completely different direction. I’m not a writer, I never was a writer. This is the first time I’m doing this. So I’d read it, come back to it the next day, to make sure it all makes sense. I had this argument with Daniel (her husband) all the time. He was like: “What’s taking so long?” I had a lot of help from a good friend in the US. I would bounce things off of him. So it was a process like that.
What about the ideas? One features everyone’s fantasy of doing it on an air plane, of joining the mile-high club…
There are not many people who are part of the mile-high club. I’m not part of it! Even if you’re sitting on the plane and you’re thinking ‘OK I’m with my guy and let’s see if we can do this…’ you get scared! You have to have a lot of guts to be able to do it. So when you’re writing about it, you have to think, ‘OK, what would I want it to be like?’ That was part of that process. I really liked making sure the characters seemed normal. The inspiration comes from everywhere. We had to keep in mind that the stories related to the Indian market. In one, a successful woman headed home on that last flight of the night ends up meeting a guy. Then, the one at the call centre… People are attracted to power, to people in higher positions. They might not be drop-dead gorgeous but that sense of authority is something that gets people going; they think it’s hot and they want to be with somebody like that. Whether they can handle it later or not, that’s a different story. In that particular story, they didn’t take it further afterwards.
Watch: Sunny Leone talks about her erotic short stories
With the call centre story, I thought, ‘Great, it’s ended like this but if it actually happened, in the Indian context, this guy would become a psychopath and he’d stalk this woman and make her life miserable.’ Maybe I’m very realistic!
Well, we don’t want to end this story on a bad note! Turning into a psychopath!
That would be too noir.
That’s like my new movie. It’s called One Night Stand and, like you just mentioned, the character in my movie does turn into a psychopath, a stalker, cuckoo! I did like to keep ideas of women having these encounters because they do happen, we just don’t talk about them. Women don’t talk about their encounters or about how they feel when they meet somebody. They usually hold it in. I don’t think women tell their best friends. I think with some of these stories, people, women, will feel like, ‘Yeah, that’s happened to me before!’
You occupy this unusual space. You’ve come from somewhere completely different and you’ve made it in the Indian entertainment industry, which has always been so straitlaced. You’ve managed to break that in some way. How has that happened?
I don’t know; I haven’t figured that out myself. I’ve always believed in doing things my way as much as possible. I’ve done everything backwards. I came to the industry married, I came to the industry late, I’ve done things that people are shocked to hear about, and I’ve just been myself through the process. Maybe that’s what the normal person relates to. I have no idea.
We Indians generally think of ourselves as staid, not experimental…
Obviously they are because they’re such a large population in the world!
Well, doing ‘it’ a lot and being creative about it are different things! Do you think your success is indicative of a change in the way Indians view themselves?
I think Indian culture is quite open; I think it does love the idea of being more liberal. Certain groups are really conservative or really religious – which is fine. And then there’s the youth and there are business people who want to compete with Europe, the US, or Canada. In the last 60 years things got a little more conservative but I think the culture is quite open now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I never thought any of this would happen; I never thought I’d be writing 12 stories for a publishing house. Everything that’s happened is above and beyond anything I ever expected.
After that interview with Bhupendra Chaubey, you’ve become a sort of feminist heroine. What went through your mind after everything played out?
I’ve never felt more alone than I did during that interview. I didn’t have my team with me. If this man was sitting (Points to her unsmiling head of security, Yusuf)) there, he probably would have said something or stopped the interview. But for some reason, none of my team was there. Afterwards I explained to the gentleman, ‘You’re gonna go home to your family and I have to deal with the repercussions of these questions that you’ve asked me’.
You told him that?
Yeah, afterwards. During the whole situation I thought, ‘OK, first of all, I’m not going to just get up and walk away, I’ve never done that in my life. He didn’t even let me finish my sentences before he asked the next question! I’d watched an interview on television once where a journalist was drilling somebody and they weren’t letting him finish his sentences. I had that at the back of my mind. So instead of doing what he was doing to me I just kind of sat there. “You finish your sentences and we’ll talk” (laughs)
You came out classier so it worked well for you.
He got trolled a lot.
Yeah, but there are no repercussions here for this behaviour. I don’t know if the channel did or said anything to him. He’s still doing his job and that’s sad because when people do something wrong there have to be repercussions, otherwise it’s not wrong.
This will come out on mobile. Did you think of the medium when you were writing these stories?
I knew it was going to be for a digital platform. I’ve heard that they are planning to release one story every day at 10pm at night… So I will be your goodnight story before you go to bed! We’ll see what happens. We live in a world where you have to be creative in how you release certain projects and this is a clever way to kick start people into getting interested. For people to know that I wrote a bunch of stories is, in itself, going to be intriguing. Even if they have an idea that I might be a certain way, when they read it, hopefully, they will be pleasantly surprised. I don’t think these stories are for children so, hopefully, parents have put their blockers on their phones (laughs).
What was the most difficult thing about writing these stories?
Developing the characters was my favourite part. The hardest part was trying to make the intimate encounters different in each story (laughs). People are going to read 12 stories back to back every single night! How are you going to make sure that each one is different?
I noticed the central character is always a very sweet person, not somebody who’s neurotic or…
Like a nymphomaniac?
Yes. They were all very straightforward and sweet!
Most of my characters are pretty sweet. I didn’t want them to be mundane in the idea of intimacy. In the story of the young man who meets this girl, he doesn’t actually have sex with her, he waits until he comes back. That might not be your idea of interesting, but it is interesting for a young lady who reads it, who is still a virgin, who is still waiting for her Prince Charming to find her. She wants the idea of a complete gentleman. I do! With Daniel, when we met, we didn’t just have a one night stand and then get to know each other. He courted me for a couple of months, which doesn’t happen. I think there are a lot of women out there that want that perfect man, and they (perfect men) are out there. Men who read these stories might learn something from some of these guys about being a gentleman, being respectful. Even though there is intimacy and there is sex in these stories, it’s nice to know that there are nice guys out there.