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Sunny Leone (Karen Malhotra), an Indo-Canadian pornographic actress, business woman, and model is pictured in Mumbai March 23, 2012. In 2011, she participated in the Indian reality show series Big Boss. These days she is working on her first main stream high budget Hindi film. (Priyam Dhar/Priyam Dhar for The Globe and Mail)
Sunny Leone (Karen Malhotra), an Indo-Canadian pornographic actress, business woman, and model is pictured in Mumbai March 23, 2012. In 2011, she participated in the Indian reality show series Big Boss. These days she is working on her first main stream high budget Hindi film. (Priyam Dhar/Priyam Dhar for The Globe and Mail)

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Why this Canadian porn star's past isn't holding her back in Bollywood Add to ...

When a family thrust an infant into her arms a few months ago and asked her to pose for a picture, Sunny Leone knew that everything was changing: her life, definitely. And India, too.

Leone is used to a certain level of fame. For a decade, fans have asked her for autographs and pictures. But they never brought their children. “Whoa,” she recalled a few days later, in an interview in the swank Mumbai hotel where she is now living. “That’s just weird.”

Leone, born and raised in Sarnia, Ont., is one of the biggest stars in the North American adult-entertainment business. She’s been a Penthouse Pet of the Year, starred in high-grossing hits such as Not Charlie’s Angels XXX, has her own line of sex toys and a production company.

Her Punjabi parents left India more than 30 years ago to find a new life in Canada. Now Leone is back in the land she calls her “birthright,” seeking a new life of her own – and she’s a whole new kind of famous.

Last fall, she travelled from her home in Los Angeles to join a smash hit reality-TV program made here in Mumbai; called Bigg Boss, it follows the Big Brother, unlikely-group-of-people-trapped-in-a-house theme. Leone, the first South Asian star in the North American porn industry, seems to have been a bit of viewer bait chosen by a savvy producer. She tripped around in stilettos, smiling sweetly and speaking broken Hindi. On her first day, she was almost entirely unknown in India, but she quickly charmed millions of viewers.

Some of them didn’t know she was a porn star. But as “Sunny Leone” shot to the top of the list of most-Googled celebrity names in India, and stayed there month after month, it became apparent that many Indians were in fact getting to know plenty about Leone’s other acting life.

She “came out” to her fellow residents after a few weeks, although the censors beeped out the words “Penthouse” and “adult.” Yet India, it seems, made a collective decision to get over it. Before Leone was voted out of the house at New Year’s, she was hired by one of Bollywood’s leading filmmakers, Mahesh Bhatt, to star in his next movie.

Combative at the press conference where he announced the plan, Bhatt seemed braced for criticism. This, after all, is a country where the production and purchase of pornography is entirely illegal; where mainstream films never show or use the word “sex,” and usually stick to air-kissing; where morality squads of police arrest (or demand bribes from) canoodling couples in public parks; where more than half of all marriages continue to be arranged for two young people who have barely laid eyes on each other.

The outspoken head of India’s Press Council, Justice Markandey Katju, also leapt to Leone’s defence. “My opinion is that Sunny Leone was earning her livelihood in the U.S. in a manner acceptable in that country, though it is not acceptable in India. Hence, if she conducts herself in India in a manner which is socially acceptable in India and does not breach the social moral code in India, we should not treat her as a social outcast.” (He also helpfully pointed out that many historical figures, from Buddha to Jesus, have accepted “fallen women” who went on to live lives of virtue.)

Yet Katju received a grand total of 38 complaints about Leone’s presence on a show that routinely had more than 25 million viewers. Not exactly a hue and cry – just people who couldn’t get enough details about what Leone was up to: learning to cook Indian food? practising Hindi? taking up yoga? oiling her hair? She tweeted, and the gossip magazines reported every detail.

“It’s a huge attitudinal shift,” said Varkha Chulani, a clinical psychologist who writes a sex-advice column for the popular women’s magazine Femina. “Indians – those in the cosmopolitan areas – are being open-minded, less judgmental, about what can be provided in terms of sexual gratification. They don’t mind experimenting, don’t mind exploring their bodies.”

Media have played a key role in the shift, she said, both in pushing the boundaries of what’s shown here, and in bringing in Western influences. Young people 17 to 30, who are also the most exposed to technology, are the ones who have really changed, she added. “Anything above 30 is a little more restricted and restrained and a little more orthodox.”

Leone, herself 30, says she senses the shift in people her age. “Our parents’ generation isn’t ready. But ours is.” Clearly conscious of the uncertain cultural waters she is navigating, she is being careful with her message. “It’s not something I’m changing. I’m not saying: Do what I’m doing. I say: Do what you want to do.”

In her case, that’s make money. Leone was a C student in school, she says, but always an entrepreneur: selling candy, lemonade, and organizing her brother and his friends to shovel snow for $3 an hour.

She was 19 and in nursing school, aspiring to model, in California (where her parents had moved when she was a teen) when a photographer pointed out that she could earn plenty more modelling without clothes on. He sent around her portfolio; her first-ever nude shoot was for Penthouse.

At first, she didn’t tell her conservative Sikh parents about her new career. But before long, she came to the attention of Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse. (He gave her the name she uses now; she was born Karen Malhotra, or Karenjit Kaur Vohra – her “people” won’t confirm which, for security reasons, they claim.) It was in 2003 that she won the title of Penthouse Pet of the Year, which put her on the cover of the magazine and led to appearances around the globe. She could no longer put off that awkward conversation with mom and dad.

“I wanted to tell them before the rest of the family told them. This was the least I could do,” she says.

How did that conversation go? “My mom didn’t get it. At all. She had no idea what I was talking about at first. And then – she did. Then she was upset. But I don’t know any mother who would say, ‘You’re naked and you’re in a magazine – yay!’” Her father was distressed, she says, but soon reiterated the maxim he had always told his children – Do your best.

In a way, she says now, she was living up to the immigrant ideal: She took home a $100,000 (U.S.) cheque as Pet of the Year. When she started making adult films a few years later, there were bigger cheques. And before long, she had her own production house; SunLust Pictures earns about $1-million in annual revenue, says her partner, Daniel Weber.

“It was what they taught me,” Leone says about her parents: ‘Don’t rely on anybody. You’ll have to do everything yourself. Be self-sufficient.’”

She speaks now about her parents – and the phone calls that poured in from horrified aunts and cousins – with a hint of regret in her voice. “It was a crappy situation for them.” But the family soon agreed that they wouldn’t discuss it, and stayed close, she says, meeting for dinner every week. Both parents died in the last few years; she and her brother brought their ashes back to India.

As a child, Leone says, she watched Hindi films with her mother, and they talked about how she might one day be in one. When she flew back to Mumbai to start filming her first Bollywood role, she was met by a crowd of several hundred photographers at the airport, and the attention has barely let up. Fresh-faced, friendly and homesick for Timbits and Coffee Crisps, she seems equal parts delighted and bewildered by this twist in her life. “I wasn’t going to be famous in North America,” she says. “But here I am.”

Laws against porn notwithstanding, Leone’s adult movies are in fact widely available here; pirated copies are sold in alleyways for about $4. The country has a comparatively low rate of Internet use – about 100 million people, less than a 10th of the population, access the Web at least once a month – but that’s expanding at a ferocious pace. Google says that, globally, seven of the Top 10 cities for porn searches are in India.

Leone’s girl-next-door demeanour slips slightly when she talks about the piracy; the flinty entrepreneur shows through instead. Eighty per cent of the traffic on her website, and 60 per cent of her revenue come from India, she says. “And the second it’s legalized here … that’s gonna be a business opportunity.”

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