In her memoir, “Unfinished,” Priyanka Chopra Jonas is not resting on her laurels, but dissects her failures, her rejections, her sorrows, and her mistakes. “It took me two years to figure out what my life story was,” she says, “but quarantine really helped because I didn’t have much to do,” she adds. “I realized that I have been running so hard all this time that I’ve forgotten a lot of things and the memoir is my way of reminding myself.”
The actor, producer, singer and now author reveals this and a lot more about her book and her career graph in an informal chat with late-night host and comedian Lilly Singh. The Feb. 9 chat, hosted by Books & Books along with Harvard Bookstore and the Washington, D.C.-based Politics & Prose, coincided with the launch of the memoir.
Sitting at her Los Angeles home, in front of a large burning fireplace, in a bright red silk shirt, an often animated Chopra talked about her very short music career in the U.S., and her transition from Bollywood to Hollywood. She didn’t speak much abut her marriage to Nick Jonas, but she has devoted a chapter on that in her book.
Her friendship with Singh was evident as well, as the two often referred to their shoots together, or Singh attending Chopra Jonas’ wedding. Both these women are trailblazers in their own right. Chopra Jonas has successfully managed to straddle a career in both Bollywood and Hollywood. And along with that she is a producer, an investor, a businesswoman and also dabbles in non-profit work. Singh on the other hand made history in 2019 as she became the only openly queer woman of color to host a late-night show on a major network.
During quarantine Chopra Jonas started “living in a ritual a little bit” with regular workouts and taking care of herself — “face masks and hair masks beyond just binging television for a really long time.” She also found time to pursue hobbies — knitting, learning to play the piano (“which didn’t last for more than two days”) and taking a screenwriting class (“which didn’t last very long either”).
Chopra Jonas, 38, titled the book “Unfinished,” because she feels that there’s so much more to do in life and so much more she wants to do. She decided to write it to mark 20 years since she launched her career in the entertainment industry. She takes readers through her childhood in India and her move to the United States at age 13, her winning the 2000 Miss India World pageant, her acting and her marriage to Nick Jonas.
She talks about how she started her production company at 30, when her mom pushed her to start something on her own, as her career in films could be short lived, because leading men, no matter their age, want to romance a 20-year-old heroine on screen. “And here I am today, on the other side of 35, and so proud of what I am achieving,” she says.
While writing the book Chopra Jonas says she learned so much about herself, about her younger self, who she was. “This book was so healing to me because I didn’t intend to write a book in which I was so personally exposed.” The focus of the book is her journey. “And the only way that could happen was because I was in a very vulnerable place, just like everyone else, during quarantine, away from everyone, not being able to do anything, the uncertainty. She treated the book like a journal, and went about writing how she felt. “Sometimes I couldn’t write or type as fast as I was thinking so I would record myself and then transcribe.”
She spoke with her family, her mom, brother, cousins, to find out what their memories were. “It took a big process, but more than anything it was so healing,” she says, “because I am kind of proud of where I am today and I never have time to think about what my younger self went through to be where I am today.”
She recalled reading the manuscript for the first time and crying. “I cried so much, it was sort of coming out of me, the relief of all that pressure I was holding and all the things that I haven’t discussed, even with myself or even admitted. The pressure was gone now, it was cathartic, I felt lighter.”
She begins the book with the love story of her parents. Explaining the reason behind doing that she talks about how, since she was a kid, she has heard “a fable” about how her parents met, and got married in 10 days “and it was not an arranged marriage, they met each other at a party. Their marriage lasted for “30 something years, was a marriage of equals,” she says.
“I have seen them build their careers together for each other, take a step back when the other one wants to go forward. They always held each other up, there was always joy and laughter; my father was a very gregarious person. So their love story to me seemed like who they were as people in the present and made me so curious about how it happened,” she says. “Nick and I still took two months to get engaged.”
When asked about what she hopes readers will take away from her memoir, she says: “People who know me or know my work will get to know me a lot more as a human being, as a person, rather than a headline or a meme or new or gossip. I hope they get to see the girl that I am, the girl I was, what it took to get here,” she says. “have built a career from talent and perseverance and it’s a career I am proud of. If I can do it anyone can.”
The Bollywood Star
Chopra Jonas says that her entry into Bollywood at the time was “a natural progression” after her award-winning streak in the beauty pageant world, but she didn’t know anything about the film industry. “I am competitive, so all I knew was if you throw me into the mix, I am going to try my damn best to swim and keep my head above water.”
And that’s what she did. “I used to imbibe from people, learn from people,” she says. No one was giving me jobs and opportunities that I wanted, I had to figure out how to get them, I had to figure out how to navigate the industry,” she says. “By the time I started working 10 years later in America, the one thing I had in my arsenal was that I knew I’d do my job.
But it wasn’t easy. “My career was my acting school,” she says. It was challenging, she says to get a job and attention, “especially when you don’t have someone advocating for you.” Explaining that it played a big role then on how you were cast, she remembers how navigating through it all was “really, really hard for me in the beginning.”
She focused on the work , “because that’s all I knew how to do. She started honing her skills — “how to be a better actor, a better dancer.” She began working “with prolific filmmakers that pushed artists to be an actor, rather than just superficial.”
She talks about her film “Aitraaz,” “where I played a sexual predator, at almost 22 or something. And that’s because I didn’t know better.” She said she “pivoted” towards things that she found exciting, and “not realizing that I was making my own path by not following the one dictated by me. But it wasn’t really a choice, it was instinct, a sense of survival. It took her a “couple of years,” she says, as she “aligned with filmmakers from the industry with merit and caliber” and had “a great career.”
Transitioning to Hollywood
Speaking about her move to the U.S., she says the opportunity came at a time when she was “struggling with work.” She was working with Vishal Bhardwaj on “Saat Khoon Maaf,” which she describes “a very immersive experience.” She wanted to do more work than she was doing.
She moved to the U.S. as a singer and eventually made a mark as an actor. “I have always loved music, but had never done it professionally,” she says about her reason to move for a career in music. “And if you know me, I always like to jump into the deep end, and then figure it out.” But she adds: “I didn’t do what I wanted to do in music. I think I never ended up finding my sound, what I wanted to say.” Which is why she has only done four songs and “the rest of my album is sitting in my laptop for almost 10 years.”
So she did the thing that she knew best and was acting. “I saw representation here and that is another chapter in the book.” Chopra Jonas has “really high” expectations for herself. “I set a really high bar for myself but I am also honest enough to recognize when I haven’t been able to live up to my own expectations,” she says, referring to her short-loved music career in the U.S.
“And that’s one of the reasons the book is called ‘Unfinished,’ because that’s another example of it’s okay to leave things unfinished,” she says. “You need to move on to something else where you feel comfortable and not be burdened by something you are just trying to make happen.”
Chopra Jonas has had her share of struggles, which she has written in the book. At the Feb. 9 virtual event, she told Singh about an article that was written when she was new to the industry. “I remember a trade magazine writing, ‘CAA Sings its First Bollywood Star.’ My name wasn’t even in the headline, she says. “It was as if I was representing the entire industry of sorts.” That was almost six years ago.
“Now there has been progress made because me and you [Lilly Singh] and few other South Asian people are demanding being in mainstream entertainment and not just being a check in the box,” she says. “We want to play leading parts that are not defined by where we come from. We don’t need to explain our ethnicity,” she says.
Pounding the Pavement
Calling “Quantico” a blessing, she says “at that point it really gave me that opportunity because ABC had the bandwidth, they saw me just as an actor. She auditioned for the part “with a lot of other girls” and got the role “by merit.” And it “changed the way people saw me here,” she says. But despite “Quantico,” which was “five-six yeas ago,” she says, “I have just about this year done my leading role in a feature – my first romantic part.”
She adds: “It really requires pounding the pavement for there to be opportunities. Giving the example of her new film The White Tiger,” which released on Netflix on Jan. 22, she says, the movie “which is an all-India star cast, is number one worldwide on Netflix.” She continues: “I don’t think this movie, five years ago, would have had that kind of reception.”
She highlights the work done by “a few amazing South Asian actors” like Mindy [Kaling], Aziz [Ansari], Riz [Ahmed], Kumail [Nanjiani], and Liliy Singh, “to push the goalpost.” Although “there’s a few of us,” Chopra Jonas notes that they are “banding together and that’s what’s so important.” Emphasizing the need for South Asians to come together as a community “to demand the opportunities that we want to see our kids have,” she says “we need to support each other and not want to pull each other down. This is the time to demand that change, so our kids don’t inherit this problem.”
During her conversation with Singh, she gave a shout out to all trailblazing women, including Singh. “This generation of women are breaking so many archaic thoughts and rules. You have to see the kind of women around us who are creating content for themselves,” she says. “We are taking charge of our future, and what an amazing time it is.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.