UNDER HER WATCH
PRIYANKA CHOPRA JONAS HAS MADE A LIFE IN AMERICA BUT INDIA STILL BURNS BRIGHT IN HER HEART, NOW MORE THAN EVER.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas is hitting her stride: leading Hollywood productions, creating her own scripts, penning a bestselling memoir and happily married to Nick Jonas, her husband of almost three years. Though excited about this next more balanced phase of her life, right now, she’s focused on her homeland. By Hannah-Rose Yee. Styled by
Kate Phelan. Photographed by Bibi Cornejo Borthwick.
It’s a public holiday and Priyanka Chopra Jonas is working. Actually, they call them bank holidays in London where she is based, just four weeks into an epic nine-month shoot for Citadel, the multimillion-dollar espionage television series that Chopra Jonas is leading, alongside Richard Madden and Stanley Tucci. She’s been living in London since November, in Robbie Williams’s old house, a neat Notting Hill hideaway with a sun-drenched backyard and plenty of room for guests, which is just as well, because since she relocated a revolving door of family have shuffled in and out of quarantine in order to visit her. At one point, her mother Madhu was in residence – together, they binged Bridgerton. “Like everyone in the world,” Chopra Jonas deadpans. (For the record: Madhu soundly approves of the bodice-shredder. “My mum’s not one to get embarrassed,” Chopra Jonas says. “I’m that person.”)
London is a second home for Chopra Jonas, whose phenomenal global fame is scaffolded with 62 million Instagram followers, more than double the paltry 30 million that her husband Nick Jonas boasts. It was in London that an 18-year-old Chopra Jonas represented India at the 2000 Miss World pageant – and won. Not that she has been able to see much of the city on this trip. London has been in various stages of lockdown for months, and between filming Citadel and Text For You, a lush little romantic comedy that she squeezed in before Christmas, she has spent a lot of time indoors. In the evenings, she usually orders takeaway – “I can’t cook,” she shrugs cheerfully – and watches something transporting; the other night, it was, somewhat incongruously, The Da Vinci Code. “I was just missing Paris,” she sighs.
Chopra Jonas understands the power of the arts in these – oh, let’s just get it over with – unprecedented times. Not only is she creating content that people are consuming, she’s an enthusiastic audience member. But she’s also aware of her particular position, as someone with an immense international platform, to open dialogue on the issues that matter the most. Chopra Jonas has been doing exactly that in the past few weeks, speaking directly to her Instagram followers about India’s devastating spike in Covid-19 infections, at time of print in excess of 20 million cases. Every day, she logs onto social media to call for much-needed donations for Indian hospitals in dire need of vital resources as they fight the country’s biggest health crisis in recent memory – Chopra Jonas has now raised more than $1 million through her fundraiser with GiveIndia. “Simply put, no one is safe until we are all safe,” she stresses. “As a global community, we have to be willing to step in and help where we can … That is my belief.” Her mother, now back home in India, was recently vaccinated – “which is a great relief for me,” Chopra Jonas adds. “She is a doctor and is spending her time trying to help in whichever way she can, and while I worry for her, I think that it’s everyone’s responsibility to help those in need right now.”
Advocacy is second nature to Chopra Jonas. It’s only one of her many hats: there are also her acting jobs, her tech investments – she’s a stakeholder in Bumble India – a haircare line, a restaurant in New York, her long-time advocacy with UNICEF and all the upcoming film and television projects that are still barely a twinkle in her eye. It’s because of one of these that she is working on her day off – in fact, her day has only just begun. “It’s not a long weekend for me,” she says. “In the world of Zoom, we’re always working.”
She’s frankly and disarmingly gorgeous on Zoom: glossy toffeecoloured hair in a bun, radiant and regal in a creamy sweater thrown over her workout gear, Gucci slides on her feet – she raises one leg with pilates-honed grace to show them off. “Zoom fashion, I have it figured out,” Chopra Jonas jokes. “This is just for you, Hannah. I wanted to impress you, so I put on a sweater.” (Chopra Jonas likes to address people by their name – so much so that her publicist specifically confirms, prior to this interview, whether I go by Hannah or Hannah-Rose, which is how Priyanka Chopra Jonas ended up telling me that I have a beautiful name.)
She has another meeting scheduled directly after we speak. The grind doesn’t stop, but she isn’t fazed. “I’ve never treated it like work,” she explains. “I am very privileged to be amongst a percentage of people around the world who wake up every morning and do something they love.”
In another life, Priyanka Chopra Jonas might have ended up in Australia. She was born in Jharkhand in eastern India, the daughter of two doctors who raised her on a diet of confidence and conviction, burnishing her with ambition. When she was 17, Chopra Jonas had a dream: to study aeronautical engineering in Melbourne. She’d long been fascinated by planes and as the child of physicians, engineer was on the list of acceptable career paths, right underneath medicine but above businessperson. As part of her scholarship application, Chopra Jonas had to supply a professional headshot. Afterwards, the photographer asked if it might be possible to shoot some modelling pictures and, absolutely not apocryphally, these are the photographs that Chopra Jonas’s younger brother Sid ended up submitting, unbeknownst to her, to a local beauty pageant. (He wanted his sister to leave home so that he could finally assume ownership of her bedroom; you have to admire the hustle.)
She never made it to university in Melbourne. Those photographs secured her a position in the regional pageant – which she won. Then it was on to the national contest. She won that, too. From there, Chopra Jonas took part in Miss World and – here, you can sense the pattern forming – she won. Australian classrooms were replaced with Bollywood film sets and then, in 2011, she crossed over to the US, where she became the first Indian star of a primetime television show Quantico and played a devious villain in the Baywatch reboot. Along the way, she met and married Jonas – famously, he slid into her DMs. Theirs is a golden Hollywood courtship: their first meeting was at the Vanity Fair Oscars party, their first red carpet was the Met Gala in his-and-hers Ralph Lauren. At their 2018 wedding, Chopra Jonas wore a dress by the designer that featured a 23-metre-long tulle veil.
Chopra Jonas never moved to Australia, but she has travelled here. “That Qantas flight [from Mumbai],” Chopra Jonas says wistfully, “I used to do it so often. I’ve shot a lot of movies in Australia … I’ve spent time in Adelaide, in Melbourne, in Sydney. I’m a big fan.” For her, it’s how “cosmopolitan” our country is. “Melbourne is one of my favourite cities,” she enthuses. “It is artistic wherever you go.”
It’s probably just as well that she never ended up becoming an engineer in Australia though. Because Priyanka the engineer might have fallen in love with an Australian man, which would have been a disaster come the Boxing Day test. “It makes me so happy that my husband is American and is so not into cricket,” Chopra Jonas jokes. “And that he and I are on the same team when we’re watching,” she continues, raising her chin defiantly, “which is team India.” The Olympics, she adds, is “totally my thing”. “My family has always watched the Olympics together. We love all of it, from the swimming to the javelin,” she enthuses. “As a community, as humanity, we need sport.”
If there’s one thing to know about Chopra Jonas, it’s that she’s competitive. In her memoir Unfinished (Penguin), released earlier this year, she recounts the story of her school house cup, in which she, as – naturally – house captain, led group and solo dances and theatrical and choral performances in order to secure the trophy. She has said that after she was crowned Miss World she realised that, aside from any vestigial thrill of winning, what she really liked was not losing. The reality, she reflects now, is a little different. “No one only wins,” stresses Chopra Jonas. “I’ve lost many battles. I’ve done many, many movies that no one has watched. It’s what you do after failures that defines you.” By which she means swiftly moving on. “To me, life is a ladder. It’s never a destination,” she emphasises.
Chopra Jonas wrote Unfinished over four months early in the pandemic. “I don’t rest, I always need to do the next thing,” she sums up, in a way that is both self-aware and self-deprecating. Unfinished is a revealing read. Chopra Jonas writes about her boycrazy adolescence, the racist bullying she endured studying in America, and her regrets about promoting a skin-whitening product. “I’ve been very private,” Chopra Jonas explains. “I had to open up my own walls and go inside uncomfortable places where I didn’t necessarily want to be.”
One such subject was the grief she felt after the death of her beloved father, Ashok, of cancer in 2013, when Chopra Jonas was 30 years old. They were close; her wrist is inked with the words ‘Daddy’s lil girl’ in his handwriting. It was challenging revisiting his death and the four years of deep depression that followed it. “I re-created the tangible feeling of silence and darkness,” Chopra Jonas recalls. “I could taste and feel what that felt like.” Getting into that headspace was excruciating; getting out of it was “easier”, she says. “It’s cathartic when you write something difficult and you look around and you’re like: ‘I’m not there anymore,’” she adds. “You feel a sense of hope and … relief that you got through that.”
That was the period of isolation that reached its lowest depths in 2017, when Chopra Jonas was single, living alone and sunken in grief. Life has changed immeasurably since then. That same year, Chopra Jonas met her future husband and everything shifted on its axis. In the BN – Before Nick – years, her life was dominated by work. For the better part of a decade, she often put in 18-hour days, frequently shooting Quantico in Montreal all week, flying to India on a Friday night to film a Bollywood movie on the weekend before returning to Canada to rinse and repeat. “I never even thought about the fact that that’s not normal,” she reflects. “It’s not normal to miss Diwali every year. I’m known by my friends and family … always remember to text or call someone when it’s an important day – I’m never there.”
Chopra Jonas doesn’t want to live like that anymore. Her career is entering an exhilarating new chapter: the blockbuster television series, the lead roles in rom-coms, a starring turn in the new Matrix reboot alongside Keanu Reeves, co-creating a South Asian “buddy comedy” movie with Mindy Kaling that will begin production in 2022. She’s the most in-demand in Hollywood that she’s ever been. “Finally!” Chopra Jonas says with a laugh – but she isn’t going to let work consume her life again. “I was always so afraid that if I didn’t hold on really tight, I was going to lose it,” she muses. “I’ve worked so hard for this. No one has given me this career. Every single failure and success has been mine on my own … If I miss one thing, the sky will collapse and my career will be over.”
Can you blame her for thinking that? Chopra Jonas is one of the very few South Asian stars to successfully crossover into Hollywood. There were countless times when she felt she had to work harder for her wins. “We as Asians have always been taught that you’ve got to run faster than everyone to get where you’re going,” she says. If Chopra Jonas is nose to the grindstone, public holidays and all, it’s because she hopes that the next generation won’t need to do the same. “I wanted to be seen as a mainstream leading lady, and not be boxed into the stereotype I saw a lot of,” Chopra Jonas explains. “That required 10 years of work … And finally, I feel like I’ve been able to get to a place where I am doing that. So, I think the responsibility is to constantly push the goalposts, not just for yourself, but for everyone who comes after you. For the next generation of South Asian talent, I want it not to take 10 years for them to get the roles that they want.”
Chopra Jonas turns 39 in a month. This decade of hard graft and enormous change is almost over and the clearest lesson is one that she is still learning: Chopra Jonas is trying to achieve balance. “I do want to be at home, having dinner with my family, instead of missing it six days in a row,” she stresses. She has been giving interviews for more than two decades, and speaks with brisk, no-nonsense polish, but when reflecting on her life, and how she wants it to look, she is surprisingly candid. “It’s really so new to me. I’ve never had a balance,” Chopra Jonas admits. She believes she is “reliving” her life – and she has Jonas to thank for that. “I married somebody with wanderlust,” she says. “Just experiencing life outside of a movie set, and outside of a premiere. And outside of work, which I don’t consider work,” she jokes. “Now, suddenly, I’m like, it’s actually fun to take a couple of friends out and go for dinner. I never even thought about those things.”
She still doesn’t know if she has it figured out – who among us does, really? But Chopra Jonas, at the height of her career and in a relationship that excites her, is certainly trying. So what if she has to have a few meetings on her day off? So what if the one thing she has learnt about her husband over the past year is, somewhat tellingly, that they love working together? A great pleasure in her life right now is sitting down with Jonas of an evening and teasing out an idea for a screenplay. (He is very good at dialogue.) It reminds her of the banter between her doctor parents, a back-and-forth tennis match of “this appendectomy” and “blah blah blah, this thing,” she recalls, laughing. “Who would have thought that my life would end up being like that, where me and my teammate sit at the dining table … and we build upon each other? It’s such a joy. I feel very, very blessed.”
Maybe this is as switched off as Chopra Jonas gets. But when your dreams are as big as hers, that might be the trade-off. What was it that she said? Life is a ladder – and Priyanka Chopra Jonas is always climbing.
“I’VE LOST MANY BATTLES. I’VE DONE MANY, MANY MOVIES THAT NO ONE HAS WATCHED. IT’S WHAT YOU DO AFTER FAILURES THAT DEFINES YOU. LIFE IS A LADDER. IT’S NEVER A DESTINATION”