Priyanka Chopra Jonas, India’s biggest export to Hollywood in the 21st century, is everywhere these days – she has written a memoir, she stars in a film nominated for the Oscars, last week she was announcing the nominations for the Academy, and now she is giving an interview to the most talked-about host these days, Oprah Winfrey. A Bollywood biggie, she is a popular face in Hollywood. Straddling two wildly different worlds, it is this duality that has come to define her. In India, she was an outsider to the glamorous world of cinema. Little did she know that this would only be microcosmic of what would be a glowing career in America.
There is a lot we know about the star and there is a lot that we still don’t. Over the course of her career spanning two decades and counting, several books have been written about her. Aseem Chabbra’s “Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star” traces the minutiae of her trajectory whereas Bharathi S Pradhan’s “Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse” waxes poetic about her work ethic by collating accounts of various people. What these books have severely lacked is Chopra’s own voice. Now with her memoir, Unfinished, already gracing The New York Times bestseller list, she attempts to shed some light on her life by telling her story herself. The latest episode on Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday is largely characterised by her book and her personal story – both of which are seemingly unfinished. As someone who has closely watched her career graph, I wish Winfrey had dug deeper and thrown more pressing questions at her.
1. How did she navigate Bollywood after being sidelined by the industry over certain personal vendettas?
Chopra has spoken about being thrown out of films at the behest of lead actors in favour of their girlfriends. She was allegedly blackballed by Bollywood’s inner circles after earning the ire of a star wife. Bollywood espouses the patriarchal hammer that comes down harder on the “other woman” than it does on the husband. Additionally, in 2019, she quit Salman Khan’s Bharat because the dates were clashing with her wedding. This engendered many angry rants and snide remarks from Khan who questioned her priorities. It is quite remarkable that PeeCee (as fans call her) managed to stay afloat despite these attempts to make her sink.
2. How satisfying has Hollywood been when it comes to acting?
Chopra was already a household name in India before her foray into American television. For many girls, her achievements were an aspiration. Her work reinstated the possibility that one could succeed without a Khan or Kapoor suffix. In Bollywood, she embodied some rather challenging roles in movies such as Mary Kom and Barfi! Meanwhile, in Hollywood, she played an FBI agent in Quantico and the central villain in Baywatch. Yet none of these performances are close to being award-worthy. How satisfying has playing second fiddle in Hollywood been for an actress who is always hungry for more?
3. What about the casting couch in Bollywood?
Her book as well as the interview gave us some superficial insight into Bollywood’s best kept open secret, the casting couch. She refers to a movie director who had asked her to strip down to her underwear for a dance item. She did reject the role but regrets never having stood up to him, blaming her novelty in this world for it. In 2019, at the 10th Annual Women in the World Summit, Chopra said, “Sexual harassment had become a norm with women” and emphasised how important it was for women to support others of their ilk. Despite this, she has shied away from voicing her opinions about an industry that tried to exploit her, and failed to show solidarity for women who have. Why did the Bollywood MeToo not have the same impact as Hollywood’s?
4. Why does everyone love to hate PeeCee?
Chopra was born in a country where sex and sexuality remain taboo. She now finds herself in a world that is a diametric opposite of this; where kissing on-screen does not raise questions about denigrating national culture. Navigating the sensibilities of both worlds is like walking a cultural tightrope; one misstep leads to a fall from grace. In 2015, her Indian audience criticised her for portraying several “bold” scenes in Quantico. Come 2021, she was once again questioned by an Australian journalist as to why she qualifies to make the Oscar nominations announcement. In a world that is constantly questioning her motives, how do you legitimise your presence in both worlds without upsetting the apple cart?
5. Does having your own voice necessitate you pass on the mic?
In Unfinished as well as the interview, Chopra repeatedly underlines the liberty that her parents endowed upon her to voice her opinions. In this bid to offer other women the same independence that she grew up with, she became the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2016. Her involvement was focussed expressly on the girl child and built awareness about their rights. Having said that, in 2019, she also shut down a woman who questioned her hypocrisy for supporting war while being a peace ambassador herself. Doesn’t having a voice come with accountability? How open is Chopra to her opinions being challenged?
Chopra’s career is far from over. As Oprah Winfrey iterated in her interview, Unfinished is going to be the first of many memoirs to come. That, combined with the media’s obsession with her every move, one can only hope that we understand “Daddy’s Li’l Girl'' with more profundity.