Priyanka Chopra is one of Bollywood’s most successful actresses, as well as a crossover star who has made a name for herself in the entertainment industry of the West. She speaks to Bulbul Sharma about completing two decades in show business, her current and upcoming projects, and how she had to build an acting career from scratch in the United States of America.
Q. For director Shonali Bose, the film’s title, The Sky is Pink, represents freedom, the liberty to be whoever you want to be. And the characters in the movie believe that their sky is indeed pink, as they hope for a better future. So what colour is your sky?
A. My sky is definitely pink, at the moment. Not just because of the movie, but in general I am feeling a little gulabithese days [laughs]. I am the most content I have been in my life. Sure, I am stressed because of the film, but I am enjoying this as well and I am so proud of the film. This is the story that I feel, from my heart, needs to be told on so many levels, and that is why I have co-produced the film.
It is based on a real-life couple and every scene in this movie depicts verbatim what they told us. I felt that the positivity of their life needs to be told to remind this cynical world of the things that we forget. We have become so solitary even when we are with other people, and I think may be digital technology is to blame for that. I remember family dinners on the dining table. But when was the last time we sat down together and talked about the day? When I finished reading the script, I was reminded of my parents. My parents were like Aditi and Niren [characters played by Priyanka and Farhan Akhtar in the movie] to me. They supported every dream of mine, gave up their careers so I could have mine… This was such a special movie to me and I wanted to be at its helm.
Q. Shonali also talked about how you would have long conversations with her about personal tragedies and ways to cope with them. These conversations went on for almost a year. How did this exchange with her affect you on a personal level?
A. It healed me to a certain extent. After the loss of my dad, I was angry and upset. There was a lack of understanding on my part… I didn’t know how to deal with it. I went to work after four days of his death. And my dad was like my BFF. I was really close to my father.
Working on this movie and hearing from Shonali how she dealt with the loss of her child gave me a lot of courage. There is an acceptance now from my side. When someone goes away, they have finished what they were supposed to do on earth. That doesn’t mean that their memories are gone. We should celebrate the life lived, instead of mourning the void the person has left behind. That’s a wonderful way of looking at it. To me, working on this movie was cathartic and extremely healing.
Q. At this point in your career, what drives your professional decisions and how has your approach changed from when you had started out in 2002?
A. What I am grateful about is that I have the ability to make choices on my terms. That doesn’t always happen. You have to reach a certain point as an actor to be able to do that—to have a sense of what I want to do and to be able to do it. And that took a few years in the making.
Next year is going to be 20 years since I won Miss World. It is a massive milestone for me. What has changed for me is the kind of work I am taking on. The Sky is Pink is an example of that. I want to do work that moves me, scares and challenges me as an actor. Complacency can set in when you are doing the same thing, and I don’t like being complacent. I like being challenged all the time and that’s what I am looking for. I am looking for an immersive experience. The kind of work I am doing, whether it is this movie or White Tiger [an upcoming film by Netflix], I play really immersive characters.
Q. You have had a bumpy start in the Hindi film industry. Did you ever feel you might not be able to succeed?
A. A hundred percent and all the time. I didn’t have my career handed over to me. I have worked extremely hard for it. I think every actor does. The audience has to keep investing in you and for that they have to see the consistency of your work and performances. It is not easy for an actor to get the love I have been blessed with. It only comes from delivering constantly. You are known by your last failure until you succeed again. It is what you do after your last failure.
Q. So back when some of your films did not do well, did you do a lot of introspection?
A. I didn’t and I think that’s the trick… I have a philosophy. If in school you aim at the final exam only, and not care about the everyday tests, can you imagine the pressure you would put on yourself? So if you aim to get an A on every single test that you give, eventually your final exams are going to be easy. If you live every day in the pursuit of excellence, then your life will be excellent. Instead of worrying about what my career should be, I just continued to focus on my work. I never thought that I would have a 20-year-long acting career. When I joined the movies, girls were not supposed to have a long shelf-life. But here I am.
Q. You have seen Bollywood transform and you have been at the centre of this change yourself. You started out in Hindi cinema with films like The Hero and Andaazin 2003. But over the next few years, we saw you taking up very different films, like Fashion and Dostana. What further followed these was a host of strong female-centric scripts and out-of-the-box stories. Did you notice back then that a major transition was underway in Indian cinema?
A. When it was happening, I could not tell. Now in retrospect, I think yes, I was one of the first few who were part of that change, and I am proud of that. I remember that when I signed Fashion , so many people told me that girls do female-centric movies towards the end of their careers. When I did Aitraaz, I was told that if I play a vamp now, I would be tagged as one forever. But with that role, I think, I managed to move the audience, and I didn’t know back then that I would be able to it. I was 22-23 at that time and I was nervous myself. Today, I feel that it was very important for me to have done that role. Now you see actors like Alia [Bhatt], Deepika [Padukone], Kangana [Ranaut], Vidya [Balan] being able to helm the films on their shoulders. There was a time when people felt that it was insane to do that…
Indian cinema has gone through a metamorphosis, which is beautiful. Not just with the female actors being able to helm films, but also with the kind of cinema we are making now. The kind of content-heavy movies that we are making are amazing. This is a wonderful time.
Q. What was it that took you away from Bollywood and made you want to become a part of the entertainment industry of the United States of America?
A. Not knowing any better [laughs]. Even at that time when I did Fashion and Aitraaz, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know what Hindi film heroines should or shouldn’t do…
Going to the US was hard because I did it in my early 30s, and I did it at the time when I was at the top of my game here [in Bollywood]. I had to walk into rooms and introduce myself and say, “Hi, I am Priyanka Chopra. I am an Indian actor and these are the kinds of films I want to make. This is the kind of work I have done.” This takes a tremendous amount of humility and I wasn’t scared of that for some reason. Of course, I was nervous and scared of what I was taking on, but I wasn’t embarrassed of doing what I needed to do. You have to know that there is nothing too small to begin with, if you want something big.
Q. You have talked about being bullied and facing racism as a teenager when you were a student in the US. Now that you are a popular figure there, do you feel that life has come full circle in some way?
A. In a weird way, yes. I left America when I was a teenager because I felt that I didn’t want to be in a country that made me feel the way I did back then. Now the same country has given me so much love, respect, my husband, my family, and that’s wonderful. This only goes to show that nothing lasts forever and everything depends on what you make of yourself. This defines your life, your circumstances don’t. Circumstances will never define who you are. You will only be defined by what you choose to be.
Q. Your production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, supports a lot of regional content. Do you think it is now time for filmmakers to promote the stories that India’s regional cultures have to offer?
A. When I first started Purple Pebble Pictures, the idea was to have it stand on its own feet, independent of me, which is why I didn’t call it Priyanka Chopra Productions or something like that, and I didn’t act in any of the films I produced. I wanted it to have its own legs. I am the daughter of the country in many ways. I was born in Bihar, Jharkhand now; my dad is from Ambala; I lived in UP; my grandmother is from Kerala. So I feel that I have influences from so many states that it was really important for me to promote our regional stories. We have made a Sikkimese film, as well as Marathi and Punjabi films. We have done a Bhojpuri film as well. This was really important for me because storytelling and stories are everywhere. I feel that Bollywood has sort of monopolised cinema for a very long time, which is why I decided to go local at the same time when I was going international.