No one in Hollywood thought a brown person could play the lead: Priyanka Chopra at Jaipur Fest

Ayesha Banerjee-

There were myths to be busted. When Priyanka Chopra-Jonas was in the United States looking for work, she says, people did not think “that a brown person could be the lead of a movie or a show. Conceptually, it didn’t exist in Hollywood. It didn’t make sense.”

In a conversation with columnist-novelist Shobhaa De to discuss her memoir Unfinished at the Jaipur Literary Fest, which kicked off on February 19, the actor-producer feels thankful that things have changed.

It was insider’s myth once that movies starring black and brown people did not work internationally outside of America, she adds. “That’s why big movies would not be made with people who were black or brown. Ava DuVernay (American filmmaker who has executive produced The White Tiger for Netflix with Chopra-Jonas) and I were talking the other day about it and we said it’s incredible to see that we have been able to push that boundary now just in this five-year span.”

Insisting that The White Tiger is “historic” because of its all Indian star cast and its top ranking on the largest streaming platform in the world, Chopra Jonas says it bothers her to not have major representation in English language entertainment, “especially as most of us speak (English), most of us know it. It should be normalized to see someone like you and me as the lead on a mainstream TV show or a mainstream movie.

“Merey to aag lag gayi (I was on fire). This is what I want to champion, because we have the largest movie industry in the world, bigger than Hollywood.”

Talking about the book, Chopra-Jonas remembers Choti, the five-year-old daughter of a helper at her parents’ home, who largely shaped her thinking on life’s choices.

Choti had, matter-of-factly, told Chopra-Jonas that she had no option of going to school because her family was poor and could only educate her brothers.

“That provoked me. I am a daughter of the same country and my parents raised me with encouragement, taught me about having an opinion, having choices, making decisions according to my desires. And then there was another daughter of the same country who did not have the same choices.”

This led to Chopra-Jonas promoting important issues as an entertainer, to work for change through philanthropy, to choose work she could align with and even make well-thought-out decisions about her own life.

Marriage to pop star Nick Jonas too was a conscious choice. Though they had been texting each other for two years, Chopra-Jonas says she realized he was more than special to her when he once supported her decision to leave a party for a work assignment, saying he would keep their friends busy till she returned.

On her Miss India and Miss World victories, the actor says everything happened too quickly for her. She had to change her high school uniform for high-fashion couture within days. “I won Miss India in January and Miss World in November. In November the year before I was in school and now I was trying to keep my head above water, talking to heads of states, expressing opinions on the state of the world and the economy…I was scared they would take it away from me,” she laughs.

Things started to go crazy too when Hollywood came calling, Chopra-Jonas says it was “punishing” to film for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s mega movie Bajirao Mastani and on the weekend go back to the US to shoot for the TV serial Quantico. “But I was greedy, I wanted it all,” she adds.

Humility helped her crack Hollywood as she could walk into a party where no one knew she was this top Bollywood star and introduce herself. Bifurcating home and work has given her the confidence to know she can choose to do anything she wants and not agonize over the next big role or the next mega movie.

If you want to go places, “swallow the pill of humility, go to a new industry and start over again, if you crave change and evolution,” she says.

Chopra-Jonas is also optimistic about the future of the next generation of women actors. “Girls of my generation have created a change. Leading ladies (in Bollywood) are married now, most are (chosen for roles) in which they are closer to the age of their male co-actors, they are creating their own content to star in. They have the ability to stand on their own feet and have opinions.”

The goalposts have changed. “Hopefully girls from the next generation will not inherit the issues we have faced,” she says.