Priyanka Chopra Jonas: ‘I’m grateful for my chances. But it took a lot of digging my heels in’
The Bollywood star who cracked Hollywood on being able to set her own direction
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: ‘South Asia represents a fifth of the world’s population and you don’t see that in global cinema.’ Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty
More than a century into the history of Indian cinema and only a handful of stars have successfully transitioned from Bollywood to Hollywood. Om Puri worked both sides of the Atlantic for decades before his death in 2017; Nargis Fakhri reportedly did her own stunts for the 2015 Melissa McCarthy comedy, Spy; Irrfan Khan has popped up in Jurassic World and The Amazing Spider-Man; following the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto landed roles in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Hillbilly Elegy.
No Indian actor, however, has attained the kind of international stardom that Priyanka Chopra Jonas has.“High-profile people in the industry in India would be like, ‘It’s never happened before. It’s not going to happen. You’re wasting your time’,” her manager, Anjula Acharia, told Vogue in 2018.
But it has happened. Forbes listed Chopra Jonas among the world’s 100 most powerful women in 2017 and 2018. She is the first Indian actor to have her wax likeness installed in four Madame Tussauds museums.
These days her every move, frock and occasion – from her sequined $2m Ralph Lauren wedding dress to her posting Diwali wishes for her 59.6m Instagram followers – makes for global tabloid headlines
When Nick Jonas met his future wife at a Vanity Fair Oscar party, he got down on one knee. And who could blame him? At 38, Chopra Jonas can look back on a string of musical hits, dozens of Bollywood movies, India’s first superhero franchise, a National Film Award and the Netflix musical comedy, Isn’t It Romantic.
These days her every move, frock and occasion – from her sequined $2 million Ralph Lauren wedding dress to her posting Diwali wishes for her 59.6 million Instagram followers – makes for global tabloid headlines. When she isn’t on screen, she’s producing through her Purple Pebble Pictures imprint, investing in technology and providing for underprivileged children through the Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Health and Education.
Even her account of lockdown, during which she wrote her incoming memoir, Unfinished, sounds exhausting.
“When we were in lockdown, and I saw what was happening in the world, I had a very visceral reaction,” she says. “I felt a sense of privilege and gratitude to have a home and to have hot food and have my husband next to me and my mum and we’re all safe and healthy.
“But, at the same time, I’m a creative person. And creativity can take many shapes and forms. I had the ability to create a lot of shows. And I ended up selling a lot of shows. I have a first-look deal with Amazon Studios, and I’m doing some really great work with them. I have my own company, Purple Pebble Pictures. So I have the ability to be productive from home.” She laughs. “And I’ve finished two movies already.”
Normally, you audition and you get the part or you don’t. This time it was me reading about the film and seeing that Ramin was directing and knowing that it was in capable hands and then calling my agent and shouting: ‘I want to do this!’
Sure enough, Chopra Jonas is speaking via Zoom from London, where she has just wrapped on Text for You, a romcom inspired by the 2016 German-language box-office hit SMS für Dich, costarring Outlander’s Sam Heughan and Céline Dion. That film is a very different animal from The White Tiger, a dark, energetic adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel due to premiere on Netflix this month.
The White Tiger, which was written and adapted by Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, 99 Homes), casts Adarsh Gourav as Balram, a clever, conniving young man from a poor coal-mining area, who is robbed of a bright academic future by the landlord’s demands of his family.
Balram follows these wealthy predators to the city, where he falls in with the landlord’s liberal younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has recently returned from the United States with his Indian-American wife, Pinky (Chopra Jonas). Balram’s ambition and the ruling class’s greed forge a tale that marries Dickensian striving with the callousness of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley.
“I read the book about a decade ago,” says Chopra Jonas. “It was so clever and sardonic. And to keep that sense of humour through a book as dark as it was was so compelling. Normally, you get offers through your agent and you audition and you either get the part or you don’t. This time it was me reading about the film on Twitter and seeing that Ramin was directing and knowing that it was in capable hands and then calling my agent and shouting: ‘I want to do this!’
“They were not making this movie without me. This is a movie that’s very specific to India. But it’s about a class divide that exists around the world. It’s Balram looking at you and telling you he is in control of his own situation. There’s something so powerful about his ambition and the desire that he has to make sure that his belly is not empty.
“In every country the socioeconomic divide is increasing, and there is a huge percentage of people around the world that have no choices. For me that’s a very important conversation. As a film-maker I want to be aligned with thought-provoking work like this.”
Following on from Slumdog Millionaire and Photograph, The White Tiger is emblematic of a new globally minded cinema emerging from India.
“I think Bollywood was looked at as a genre for a very long time,” says Chopra Jonas. “But Bollywood is not a genre. It’s multiple genres. It’s the largest film industry in the world. It produces the most movies. And the emergence of this new kind of cinema is happening because of the internet and the cross-pollination of cultures that the internet allows for.
“I was really very excited after Parasite won the Oscar last year. It’s a South Korean movie with subtitles. That gives you so much hope that other industries can be part of global entertainment. It’s about time.”
Chopra Jonas was born into a family of physicians; both parents served in the Indian army. She had lived in such varied locations as the desert region of Ladakh and the bustling city of Pune when, in her teens, she joined her equally perambulatory aunt in the United States. She attended schools in Massachusetts, Iowa and New York before returning to India.
“We moved every two years to different cities when I was growing up,” she says. “But that gave me the ability to handle instability, and that’s a crucial ability as an actor. You don’t want to be yourself in every movie. And when you’re moving out to different parts of the world and having to adapt to those circumstances every few years, that really gave me the skills I needed later. It was hard when I was young.
It became a game for me. Every time I moved to a new place I was like: all right, how am I going to evolve myself this time? Instead of letting other people dictate to me, I started enjoying new parts of my personality
“But my father was very clever; he spun it on its head for me. He said: ‘You’re not doing really well in your Hindi class, and you don’t like this particular friend, but when you move you start with a blank slate.’ So it became a game for me. Every time I moved to a new place I was like: all right, how am I going to evolve myself this time? Instead of letting other people dictate to me, I started enjoying new parts of my personality. And I enjoyed that tremendously.”
Chopra Jonas shot to fame aged 17, when her mother secretly entered her in the Miss India beauty contest. She won and went on to be crowned Miss World in London in 2000. It was an odd twist of fate, she concedes, for a teenager who was planning a career in aeronautical engineering.
“I recently started investing in technology,” says the actor, who is a major backer of the Bumble dating app. “Because I’ve always wanted to be at the forefront of technology. I never thought about show business. I was an academic cockroach.
“But my brother and my mum sent some pictures that I had taken at the shopping mall... I took Miss India as an opportunity to skip my exams, and then it was sent to Miss World... I won that and then people came to me and I started working in movies. It was as if destiny had a plan for me. So I just put my head down and worked. I had a lot of learning to do, and I didn’t come from drama school or film school. And learning my craft has been a great experience.”
Hollywood, equally, came knocking after a chance meeting with Keli Lee, the vice-president of casting at ABC. That dinner-party encounter led to Chopra Jonas landing the lead role for three seasons of the drama series Quantico. The show was the first US network series to be headlined by a South Asian actor. Breaking the US may not have been part of the career plan, but greater representation has always been in her sights.
“I set up my production company because there weren’t a lot of parts written for people like me,” she says. “And that was obvious, especially coming from a different industry. Bollywood has its own issues with representation. It could do better with different kinds of actors. But in Hollywood representation is a much bigger issue.
“South Asia represents a fifth of the world’s population, and you don’t see that in global cinema. It was important for me to find material that I wanted to produce and that I wanted to get made. Not just for me but for actors like me. It was important to have females on the technical side, writing and directing. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. But it took a lot of digging my heels in.”
The White Tiger is available on Netflix from Friday