Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s memoir Unfinished (Penguin Books) offers a mid-career perspective on one of Hindi cinema’s most successful exports to Hollywood. A movie star back home who took a huge risk – and landed safely – in the American entertainment industry, Chopra Jonas has proven her self-belief, adaptability, industriousness and professionalism over and over again.
Unfinished follows two unauthorised biographies in recent years, one by Aseem Chhabra and the other by Bharathi S Pradhan. As memoirs go, Unfinished is as selective and subjective as they come, with the 38-year-old actor and producer focusing on formative events – her successive victories at beauty pageants, making movies in Mumbai, moving to America, picking up the pieces after her father’s death from cancer, and meeting and marrying the singer Nick Jonas. Here are a few things that Unfinished told us about its writer.
On the Mother Teresa blooper
After spending three years at high school in America from 1995, Chopra Jonas returned to her family (parents Ashok and Madhu Chopra and brother Sidharth) to complete school in Bareilly. She briefly considered moving to Australia for further studies. A set of photographs taken at a studio in Bareilly for an application for an aeronautical engineering programme in Melbourne weas instead sent to the organisers of the Miss India contest.
Chopra Jonas was crowned Miss India World in 2000. Later that year, she won the Miss World title. In reply to the question “Who do you think is the most successful living woman today and why?” she named Mother Teresa – who had died in 1997.
As she writes in Unfinished, an event organiser told her to face up to her blooper at an upcoming press conference. Chopra Jonas’s “survival instinct” kicked in: “I remember saying how grateful I was to have been chosen for this honor and how wonderful it was that we live in a world where mistakes can be forgiven.”
On being called ‘Plastic Chopra’
In 2001, Chopra Jonas writes, a sinus infection exacerbated her asthma and led to breathing problems. A polyp was discovered in her nasal cavity. While removing it, the surgeon accidentally caused the bridge of her nose to collapse, she writes. She has had several corrective surgeries to her nose, which she says explains the marked changes in her appearance over the years.
She was soon called “Plastic Chopra” in the media, she notes, a description that “followed me my entire professional life”.
On lessons from ‘Tamizhan’ and movie star Vijay
Thamizhan (2002), starring Tamil movie star Vijay, was the first film for which Chopra Jonas shot. She had signed a handful of movies after winning the Miss World title. Thamizhan was the first to go on the floors and “what a gift it was”, she writes.
The shoot offered her “the opportunity to do solid work without any discussion of how my looks had changed allowed me to regain some of the confidence that had been ebbing away”. Fans would throng the sets to see Vijay, and he would oblige them even after gruelling shifts, she says.
She writes: “Vijay’s humility and his generosity with fans made a lasting impression on me. Almost a decade and a half later, a portion of the pilot episode of Quantico was filmed in front of the imposing New York Public Library, and there was a line around the block of people watching. As I stood and took pictures with them through my lunch break, I thought about my very first co-actor ever and the example he’d set.”
On the insider-outsider debate
Chopra Jonas says that she too struggled with the “big boys’ club” that the Hindi film industry is often described as. “Over and over again I had to prove the studios, which were mostly family-owned, that I deserved a seat at their table – which was not easy when I overheard comments at parties like, ‘I got her cast in this movie and I can take it away from her as well’.” The actor also recalls being described as “too kaali” on account of her dusky complexion.
On endorsing skin-whitening creams
As Chopra Jonas’s star shone brighter, consumer brands began approaching her for endorsements. Among them were beauty and skin care companies that peddled the notion that fairness is an inextricable aspect of beauty. Chopra Jonas’s skin tone was lightened for these commercials, she admits.
She writes that she grew ashamed of endorsing racist attitudes towards skin colour, and has since distanced herself from brands that do so. “…this was one of the biggest missteps of my career and is one of my profound regrets,” she writes. “I am deeply sorry.”
On ‘Quantico’ and arriving in Hollywood
Chopra Jonas’s casting as the first South Asian lead character in an American television series marked a major professional shift. Between 2015 and 2018 and across three seasons of Quantico, Chopra Jonas played the biracial Federal Bureau of Investigation Alex Parrish.
It took a while for the American media to warm to her, she writes. It was initially galling, given her star status in India. “… I put my head down and just kept working.” Recognition came after the popularity of the first season, in the form of magazine covers and red carpet appearances, and more projects.
On that controversial photo op with Narendra Modi
In 2017, Chopra Jonas was in Berlin to promote Baywatch, a film she had worked in alongside Quantico. She was photographed there with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was in Berlin at the same time to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Chopra Jonas was heavily trolled for wearing a dress to the meeting. Here is her version of events: “The prime minister and I happened to be staying at the same hotel, and I contacted his office to request an audience with him.” The actor, her American publicist and her brother spent a few minutes with Modi and shared pictures of the encounter online. She had been wearing a dress since she had been promoting Baywatch, she writes.
There was criticism that her legs were both exposed and crossed in a disrespectful manner, she recalls. She was “angry and confused” by the reaction. “My response to the anger was to take a picture of my mom and me out at dinner that night in our short skirts and with our legs crossed, and post it online with the caption ‘it runs in the family’. But all joking aside, I felt that I had presented myself respectfully.”
She was similarly pained when a cover for Maxim India led trolls to accuse the magazine of photoshopping her armpits. More outrage followed during the third season of Quantico, after an episode about Hindu extremists trying to launch an attack on Manhattan and blame it on Pakistan. Chopra Jonas recalls the “worldwide backlash”, and points out in Unfinished that she didn’t have any control over the storyline.
These episodes led to a change in her relationship with social media platforms: “A relationship that had once been enjoyable and positive eventually transformed into one of mistrust and fear... I’ve come to see that there are times when you should speak up, and times when it’s better not to. So I’ve started picking my battles.”
On coping with her father’s cancer and death in 2013
In 2005, the actor’s father Ashok Chopra was diagnosed a form of cancer. Ashok Chopra was in and out of treatment for the next several years. Chopra Jonas was working in Rakesh Roshan’s Krrish at the time, and credits the director and his son, Hrithik Roshan, of providing invaluable assistance with her father’s hospitalisation in New York City.
Chopra Jonas was in the most fruitful phase of her career, appearing in such films as Kaminey, 7 Khoon Maaf and Don 2. Her father’s demise in 2013, which came after the success of Barfi!, gutted her, she writes. She didn’t pursue therapy, instead throwing herself back into her work, “burying my grief rather than coming to terms with it”.
In 2016 and 2017, she suffered from depressive episodes, she writes. She stayed at home when not shooting, watched a lot of television and put on weight. She was also grappling with the pressures of re-establishing herself in Hollywood. She eventually emerged out of the funk, telling herself to “focus on the blessings that I’d been given instead of focusing on what I was missing”.