Anurag Kashyap was adamant. The director wanted the newest member of his cast to create a signature laugh in the movie they were going to shoot in the streets of Mumbai.
“He sent me video clips of the laughs of Anoushka Sharma and Sushmita Sen,” recalls Sunny Leone about Kashyap’s decision to mould her character in Kennedy, the neo-noir thriller that had its world premiere at the 76th Cannes Film Festival this week. An official selection in the Midnight Screenings section, Kennedy tells the story of a police officer long believed to be dead carrying out assassinations for the system.
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“When I watched the videos, I said to myself, kaise karoon (how do I do it)?” says Leone. “Because these laughs by them (Anoushka Sharma and Sushmita Sen) are not part of a role, this is who they are. They naturally laugh like this.”
Leone, the Canada-born actor who made Mumbai her home in the last decade to find a footing in Bollywood after working as a model and a star in the adult film industry, plays the role of Charlie, an impactful character with a seductive giggle. In the beginning of the movie, Charlie finds herself in the lift with a dangerous assassin, but disarms him with her own lethal laugh.
“I believe Charlie is a charming woman, who, I believe, is stuck in different realities,” says Leone. “One reality is about what she wants her life to be and the other is the truth of the reality of what she is in.”
“I think the reason this laugh was created, maybe we know people like this who hide behind smiles and laughs. Charlie, too, is hiding behind this smile, though inside, she is hurting because of the circumstances she is in,” she says. Sounds akin to what Leone had to go through in her own life, face societal moral judgements, contempt and isolation for her career choice.
Leone, 42, was born to Indian immigrant parents from Punjab who wanted to protect their children growing up in a culture different from back home. She went to a convent school and joined college, but quit for modelling. Two decades later, her role in a film, made by an independent director who has influenced a generation of filmmakers with his cinematic language — that transfigures violence in such films as Gangs of Wasseypur (1 & 2, 2012) and Ugly (2013, in which he first worked with Kennedy lead Rahul Bhat) — has given her a new purpose and direction.
“Growing up you have a vision in your mind what it is going to be like. Then you are in the entertainment industry, and you have a new vision. I feel very fortunate. I have a purpose to be here with a film and to be a part of a film which is accepted at a prestigious film festival. It is beyond exciting,” she says. “This is the biggest thing for me because up until this moment to work with a director at this level hasn’t been a part of my résumé.”
“There is also the other side of me, what the film represents for me as a person. It is above and beyond my wildest dreams. If someone had said to me last year, Sunny, you are going to shoot a film with Anurag Kashyap and that film will be selected in Cannes, I would have laughed at them. Tu pagal hai kya (have you lost your marbles)?”
Bhat, who plays the titular role in the film, believes it is Leone’s emotional quotient that makes her an unassuming person and a perfect fit for the character of Charlie. Life is changing for Leone. Random people in Bollywood now walk up to her and wish her success. “That for me is shocking,” she says. “To be able to have feedback from people where before there was silence.”
She has been receiving a flood of messages from friends in Los Angeles where Leone worked before to wish her good luck. “They are proud of me.” The biggest moment was when her brother Sandeep Singh, who lives in Texas, called her to congratulate. “My parents are no more and it is just the two of us. My parents never got to see the transition. They only knew what I did before and obviously they were not happy about my choices.”
Leone remembers her father always telling her that whatever she was going to do would be the best. “He said you would do good work. I always think about that. Would he be proud of me now, would my mother be? I think they would be. I think it is a good moment.”
“I liked this type of cinema, for me watching it is enjoyable. This is the kind of cinema that I watch in my regular life, whether it is Hindi, English or in a different language. I believe what happened after COVID-19 is that we are enjoying shows and films in whatever language it comes in. We don’t care if it was made in Spain or in a country in Asia or South America as long as it is good cinema.”
Leone did acting workshops for Kennedy and had an acting coach. The film was shot during nights in south Mumbai when the traffic would be stopped for the shooting. There were a mind-boggling 150 locations over 30 nights. Leone’s schedule was shorter, 10 days. “I love Mumbai,” she beams.
Two phone calls in the past year have already been etched in her memory. One when Kashyap called her to come for an audition. The second, when he told her their movie is going to Cannes.