The most googled person in India hails from Sarnia, Ontario.
Sunny Leone, a Bollywood movie star, is the best-known Canadian in this nation of almost 1.3 billion.
Leone has topped India’s Google searches every year since 2012 — eclipsing even wildly popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A daily fixture on the Bollywood pages of India’s thousands of newspapers, she appears in ads for energy drinks, her own line of perfume and condoms—a wink at her early career starring in American porn films.
Leone exudes Canadian modesty when discussing her fame in the world’s largest movie industry, which annually releases more than twice as many productions as Hollywood.
“I just see myself as a girl that just wants to work and is happy doing that. I know it all goes hand in hand but for me I’m just following my dream of working in Bollywood,” she told the Star last week.
Born Karenjit Kaur Vohra in Canada 34 years ago, she has happy memories of her childhood in southwestern Ontario before her family moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager.
“It was great growing up in Sarnia — great place for kids to grow up,” said Leone, whose parents have since passed away.
Unapologetically liberal in a country with strict film censorship rules that prohibit nudity from being shown on screen, Leone gained even greater prominence last month after a contentious interview with journalist Bhupendra Chaubey on CNN’s Indian network.
In a scolding tone, Chaubey condemned her “past as a porn queen” and suggested she was causing the spread of pornography in India.
Repeatedly haranguing the poised Leone, he quoted politicians who have publicly accused her of “corrupting Indian minds, Indian morality.”
Afterward, many in India rallied to her defence, saying no male Bollywood star would have ever been treated so disrespectfully.
“That was literally NOT an interview . . . just a hyper-opinionated statement with a question mark at the end. No grace? Chivalry? Ridiculous,” tweeted rising star Alia Bhatt, whose parents are also Bollywood players.
Writer and filmmaker Sandhya Gokhale penned Leone an open letter praising “your dignified composure throughout the attempted public lynching by an immature, crass interviewer on national television.”
“He tried to abnegate your present; his was a blatant misogyny. His look was torn between personal lust and cultural impairment,” wrote Gokhale on Friday.
Leone was philosophical about the encounter, reflecting on her own successful transition to mainstream Indian stardom in a nation of traditional values.
“I believe out of a very uncomfortable situation some positive has come from it,” the actress said.
“Women and men have commented on my calmness, but for me, I don’t really get that angry or flustered, so I just really wanted to answer the questions to the best of my abilities,” she said.
“I am attacked on a regular basis, but for the first time people were watching the way someone spoke to me — and felt what I feel regularly.”
Indeed, Leone has no regrets about starting her entertainment career in U.S. adult films, though she conceded that “the move was not easy” to Hindi-language Bollywood blockbusters.
“It did all happen organically. Nothing was planned. It just happened and my husband, Daniel Weber, and I just focused on working and being professional,” she said.
“There was a huge learning curve because things work very differently in Bollywood than in the U.S. But it was fun and we learned from our mistakes.”
Asked if her candour about her career choices was liberating for women in patriarchal India, Leone said: “I don’t know about empowering, but the only thing I say all the time is that I believe people should do what they want to do as long as they are not hurting someone, stealing or cheating someone.”
“I don’t regret my decisions in life and they were solely made by me. We should live life with integrity and honour our decisions,” she said.
During Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario trade mission to India earlier this month, much was made of Canada’s first openly gay premier being honoured at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith.
Some socially conservative Sikhs had not wanted Wynne, who was travelling with her spouse, Jane Rounthwaite, to be presented with the “siropa” robe of honour.
The issue became front-page news in several of India’s largest circulation newspapers, but in the end, the premier was greeted with courtesy at the temple and received the orange robe.
When made aware of the controversy, Leone, a Sikh, stressed all people should be treated equally regardless of gender or sexuality.
“Everyone should have the freedom to live their life their way. My best friends are gay and lesbians and to me they are my family and I love them just the way they are,” she said.
In a country where homosexuality is still technically illegal — though India’s Supreme Court is currently reconsidering a law that dates back to British colonial rule — that stance is courageous.
“I am no one to judge someone’s sexual orientation as long as they are good human beings to people around them.”
- Star of 14 Bollywood films since 2012
- India’s Central Board of Film Certification censors delayed for months the release of her newest film Mastizaade, which promotes the use of condoms.
- 1.3 million Twitter followers
Google India’s most search person 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015
- Appeared in more than 40 American porn movies between 2002 and 2013
- 2003 Penthouse magazine Pet of the Year