One actor from Hindi cinema to have made it big in Hollywood is undoubtedly Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Everything about Priyanka’s spectacular career, now set to enter its 20th year (she began shooting in 2001 for her debut film, Thamizhan in Tamil, opposite Vijay), is a result of what came before. As the daughter of physicians in the Indian Army, she had already travelled and lived around the country and then (for a while from the age of 13) in the US, and soon after a May Queen triumph in a local Bareilly contest, she was crowned Miss World in 2000.
Her debut Hindi film, opposite Govinda, was launched in 2002 but managed to release only after major changes in 2013 as Deewana Main Deewana. Luckily, her first two Hindi releases were The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy opposite Sunny Deol, and within weeks, the hit Andaaz opposite Akshay Kumar, in 2003. After making an award-winning mark in a negative role in Aitraaz (2004), Priyanka went on to score high in films as varied as Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Waqt: The Race Against Time, the Krrish franchise, Fashion (for which she won the National award), Barfi, Mary Kom, Dil Dhadakne Do, Bajirao Mastani and Jai Gangaajal.
Along the way, Priyanka also made a mark as a singer, collaborating with Sam Watters, Matthew Koma, Jay Sean, RedOne and Pitbull, in hit singles like ‘In my city’ and ‘Exotic’. She also sang in a few Hindi films, beginning with a lullaby in Mary Kom.
Effortlessly ruling among the topmost names for over a decade here, Priyanka was then offered the central role in the American TV serial Quantico, which ran into three seasons, starred in a grey role in Baywatch and, featured in the films A Kid Like Jake and Isn’t It Romantic there.
Back home, she took a break from acting after Jai Gangaajal, but turned film producer of a string of purposeful regional films, beginning with the acclaimed 2016 Marathi hit, Ventilator, in which she also essayed a cameo. In 2018, even as she was working in Hollywood and sifting through scripts in India, Priyanka married singer, songwriter and actor Nick Jonas, 10 years younger to her.
Her return to Hindi cinema happened with her debut Hindi production, The Sky Is Pink, also the first film in which she has played mom to a teenager. Like Ventilator, the film is a tribute to the profession of her parents — medicine — as it deals with a medical condition. We ask how it feels to be a global icon, and she says that such “lofty” terms do make her feel very good, and that is what an artiste lives for. Why did she stay away from acting here for so long?
“It took 11 months there every year to shoot one season of television, and in one month, I could not have possibly accommodated a film,” she says. “What drew me to The Sky Is Pink was that it was a real story about real people. Real, normal, everyday people — I had played Mary Kom, who is a national icon, and queen Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani, who was from a bygone era.”
“Here, the parents who could not give their daughter a long life, did their best to make her life big. Birth and death touch us all, however big you become, as I learnt when I lost my father and grandmother,” she stresses. “The Chaudharis, on whom the film is based on, had the unique perspective that in life, you must appreciate your family openly. People in Toronto watched my film and stated that they immediately wanted to call their family.” She goes on, “I recall my parents teaching me that girls must raise their voice against marginalisation of their gender in any form. We are not just meant to marry. They gave me the confidence and support to face and outwit problems, and taught me that my opinions, thoughts and dreams matter. They allowed me to fulfill my dreams, implying that they were solidly behind me. And they also taught me never to compromise on my values, integrity and principles. They said that nothing was as important as self-respect. We are born and die alone, so what you stand for is important.”
As for her own marriage, she quips that she feels that she has married a Punjabi. “If you go on Instagram, you will see Nick dancing to Indian songs. He loves to wear Indian, eat Indian and has loved India ever since he came here,” she says. His effect on her has been amazing, she feels. “He’s so placid that I have become a better, calmer person after marriage.” When will she record a song with him? “Ah, no,” she gushes. “That won’t happen. I can’t dare sing with him — he is too talented.”
Priyanka does not miss India much because, if she does, she just comes down. “There is also no need to choose between India and America,” she tells you. “I have a home and family in both places, and also work. Initially, I would be scared of USA, because I had left my schooling there as I would be harassed for the colour of my skin, but now I am fine. But I do miss Indian food there. I cannot cook at all, so the only Indian food I get there is in restaurants or through dabbas.”
About her unconventional film choices right from the beginning, Priyanka thoughtfully muses, “Maybe because I wasn’t from the film industry, there was no one to advice me what I should do or not do, so I accepted every film that touched me or challenged the actor in me. I did a film like Saat Khoon Maaf when I was in my 20s, in which I aged for the first time. An actor’s job is to essay a character well. Age is not important. Ability, merit, focus and hard work are, and then it is about how big your dreams are.”
Priyanka has never been a method or trained actor. “No one taught me acting. I never derive anything from my life. I merge into the character, know each one so well — her life, her likes and dislikes. I feel my character, when she laughs, cries or feels sad,” she explains.
And though she declares that she is, “just a girl who is trying to work in her own way,” she is also writing her memoirs, a book aptly titled Unfinished, as she intends to do much more in life. A fiercely private person earlier, she wants to share things with the world just in case she becomes reclusive again.
Coming up in her profession are two projects with Netflix — Robert Rodriguez’s We Can Be Heroes, a kids’ superhero movie, and Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger featuring Rajkummar Rao, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s prize- winning story. A comedy with Mindy Kaling “based on my marriage” (she quips) and a film that is being written on the life of Ma Anand Sheela are also on the anvil. In India, she is screening scripts that will see her as actor, producer or both. But as of now, there is nothing she has green-lit back home. So will there be a long gap again before her next Hindi film? No way, she states decisively.