In a league of her own

Priyanka Chopra Jonas is a contemporary global Indian icon and has undoubtedly mapped her own path, riding crests and jumping troughs her way. Her life lessons have shaped her truth, the only one she walks with, facing life head on and punching above her weight, and now, building cross-cultural bridges. An actor, producer, speaker, UN ambassador and techpreneur, she met us during the promotions of The Sky is Pink, which she is co-producing. In between conversations, she was clued into social media updates about trailers and campaigns, never once dropping guard on what matters in the film business. It is no secret how driven she is. But underneath all that, she is a great conversationalist, who enjoys being with people. Excerpts from a tete-a-tete with Rinku Ghosh:

While you are continuing your acting career, you have also turned into a successful producer, foraying majorly into regional films before The Sky is Pink. What’s the story of Purple Pebble?

I started my production house because I wanted to create something that would stand outside of me and engage with meaningful cinema. Which is why I’ve produced regional films that have amazing stories to tell, be they Marathi, Sikkimese, Punjabi and Gujarati. You can call Purple Pebble my dream, so named because purple is the colour of royalty and I consider myself a queen (laughs). And like a little pebble, like a rolling stone, I go from one place to the other, chasing newer horizons. It has a very deep meaning but it’s also a cute name. When I started the production house with my mother, who is also a director in the company, the idea of it was to be able to tell a story that I wanted to tell but couldn’t always as an actor. And I believe a lot in the kind of cinema I want to make, which is content-heavy. I chose to co-produce The Sky is Pink not because it is a Hindi film but it being a real human story. The characters are not superheroes, they are just everyday people, a regular couple, who have thrived in extraordinary circumstances and survived them in such a positive and amazing way. I feel in such a cynical world, people look for inspiration and surprisingly, we forget that they exist among us. Families should watch this film and see how if you stick together, you can come out of difficult circumstances. It is one of those films.

Considering you are a global star, how do you manage your projects?

I worked around the clock for a year. Now I am just dividing my time between what I do in the US and what I do here. But that is manageable because I have always been selective about all my characters. If you go through my filmography, I have never played the same person ever. I get bored by doing the same things. Once I choose not to repeat myself, I find newer areas to work on.

How do you manage this multi-national to and fro?

It is multi-continental, actually. It was a very difficult balance to achieve but I was up for the challenge.

What made you take up the TV show Quantico in Hollywood? You were anyway at the top of your game here, why did you choose to begin again from the base in another industry, especially one that isn’t too absorptive of Asians?

As I said, I do not like repeating myself and I was honestly looking to evolve. I did my rounds of the studios and had to introduce myself all over again. The struggle was tremendous. I had to take meetings and tell them, ‘I am Priyanka Chopra. I am an actor from India and this is the kind of work I want to do.’ I had the humility to do that and I feel that it is required when you want to start anything new, not just films. Just because I am a star here doesn’t mean the world knows me.

But let’s face it, keeping it real is a difficult adjustment to make, right?

It is difficult for people who don’t have humility, whose pride is bigger than them or the end result. I am sorted that way. I started from scratch and I didn’t have my career handed over to me. I made my career bit by bit. Since I had done it once, I did it again this time. Of course, this was a tougher task because I did it in my 30s, when they say that a woman’s career in showbiz is over. I am very happy to be proving them wrong. I have an almost two-decade long career now. I think it’s all because I had humility and though it was difficult at times and took a mental adjustment, I knew what I wanted to do. And I wanted to do it well. I didn’t want to do sidekick roles in Hollywood. Since I had been a leading lady here, I wanted to take off from that point and start out in a lead role there. I have to give kudos to ABC that they could see me as the leading lady. In the process, I became the first Asian ever to helm their show. It had never happened before. So that was a big achievement and post that, it has been an amazing experience, doing the work that I have, people giving me that space and accepting me in the US. Yes, it did take a lot.

As somebody who is a fan of technology, your app, Bumble, is now a big hit in India. So now, you are a techpreneur?

I love technology and wanted to be an aeronautical engineer when I was young. Physics and Mathematics were my favourite subjects in school and I have been a nerd all my life. (Laughs) Like they say, nerds will rule the world, if they don’t already! Anyway, my manager in the US is a venture capitalist. And I told her that if I ever wanted to diversify, I would want to focus on something related to women and their education. I was having dinner when Bumble got launched in New York. Its founder Whitney (Wolfe Herd) was giving a speech, detailing why she decided to create it. At that instant, I thought how amazing it would be to take this to women in India to encourage conversations that they may be diffident about, and to help them express themselves better. I lost no time and asked her if she was planning to expand overseas? She said “no” but I told her that I was thinking of taking the platform to India. An application, which allows women to make the first move, is such a powerful tool as women making the first choice doesn’t happen too often in our country. She liked the idea and we worked on it for a year. I’ll never forget the date when I launched it in India, which was right after my wedding — December 5. I was super excited about it. We never expected the numbers we got.

The only thing I told Whitney was that you have to culturally reform it to be able to protect the girls in the country. So we added the privacy feature and gave the user the right to send the first text and not be inundated by queries. There is also a photo verification option, so that you know the person you are speaking to is actually the person you’re speaking to. Besides, Bumble BFFs and networks allow women to not just date but also find like-minded people and friends. And in case, you’re a homemaker or a home entrepreneur and are looking to expand your business, you can also find people who can help you do that. So it is just a tool to empower Indian women and take command of their own lives in their own hands. I just knew it in my gut that this is what I wanted to create for the girls here. And I’m happy that it has done so well.

How do you see the transformation of Indian women over the years, having traversed a bit of that journey yourself?

To reach a place of equality and be treated the same as guys is going to take a long time. But the most important thing is to have women support each other and have each other’s backs. Who else is going to do that if not women themselves? The reason why it didn’t happen for a long time was that women didn’t have the time and opportunity. There were such few opportunities that they had to fight each other off to get what they wanted. Now, we are creating more opportunities for women and have men who are feminists. For example, in this film, Farhan (Akhtar), Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur) and Ronnie (Screwavala) are feminist men. They believe in a female filmmaker and a producer. So that is the world we want to create in our generation in the hope that may be and hopefully, the work that we do is what our grandchildren also follow without even thinking about it. It really depends on us and I am seeing such a massive change, not just in India but around the world. Of course, it is a really long conversation and has to go deep. Education is a really big part of it and I think the government is taking necessary steps and initiatives when it comes to that. I think that it will also require parents to have that understanding of giving exposure to the girl child instead of devaluing her. They need to give her the ability to stand up on her feet and understand that for her, education matters a lot. This kind of thought process will dig a deeper road to a smarter India. And I feel it will require us talking about it more often.

Women in our country are also deeply circumscribed by societal taboos. You yourself have been at its receiving end in public life, as recently as when you chose to marry. How do you fight them?

We are one of the oldest civilisations and cultures in the world, so traditional taboos have existed for thousands of years. But they will take as much time to be obliterated as it will take us not to succumb to societal pressure. I don’t succumb.

How do you handle trolls?

I really want young boys and girls to consider seriously what I say right now. These young people seek validation through social media, from people who are not even their friends. They are not “your people” and their validation wouldn’t even matter. That should come from your friends and loved ones and those who are, most importantly, invested in your growth. Criticism from those people shouldn’t be taken seriously as someone sitting behind the anonymity of a computer, telling you how you should behave doesn’t matter. There is a reason why they are called trolls. But why has trolling become news I never understood! I have blamed the media a lot for it about how they have started to literally report tweets. We should just stop magnifying their worth; it’s just crazy. You can react to tweets where may be my mother is saying something about me. But it’s crazy when some random people starts writing anything s/he fancies and that becomes news. And if you see the numbers of trolls, they are just about 100-150 people. So it’s basically making a headline out of 100-150 people writing something absurd.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

The most important thing is to have a partner who understands and supports your individual ambition outside of him. Nick and I may be a unit but we are also individuals. We both support our personal ambitions.

And the second bit, which me and he have, is communication. No matter where we are, we update each other about the entire day. I tell him if I am doing interviews or having dinner. He knows what is happening in my life just as I know what’s happening in his. Besides, video-calling has saved our long-distance relationship tremendously. We video-call each other all the time. I think eventually it is also about how much you want to make it work with the other person. And most importantly, to have time for each other and support each other’s ambitions and not just boast one’s own.

 (The film releases on October 11.)

Photo: Pankaj Kumar

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