Priyanka Chopra, as most of the world knows, is a massive star, and perhaps the most popular celebrity in all of India. The woman is 35 years old and has been in 50 films. Just two years ago, she made history crossing over to become the first South Asian to headline an American TV drama series, ABC’s Quantico. So it was extremely disheartening to hear her talk — in an onstage conversation as the guest of honor at the TIFF Soirée, the opening fundraising event of the Toronto International Film Festival — about just how much discrimination she’s faced trying to break into the American TV and film industry.
“It’s been extremely hard,” she told TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey, “to have had a career where everyone knows me and I look like everybody else and then to come into a country and not have that.” (A lot of the discussion centered on opportunity gaps; proceeds from the night went to “Share Her Journey,” a TIFF program to help get more women behind and in front of the camera.)
Chopra already knew what it felt like not to fit in in America. As a teenager with an Indian accent, she spent four years living with family and going to school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the kids would ask her things like, “’Do you find gold in your rivers?’ I had to be like, ‘That’s the other Indians,’” she said. “Or, ‘Do you take an elephant to school?’”
During those four years, she said, “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on television. I still don’t see that many people who look like me on television, or movies for that matter.” Back in India, she made her name playing controversial women, such as a model who smokes and sleeps around in 2008’s Fashion, at a time when, she says, “leading ladies were supposed to by shy and coy and never say anything and look pretty and have wind in our hair. I still love wind in my hair. I act better with it. But I really wanted to change the game a little.”
She’d heard from friends who were South Asian actors trying to break into Hollywood that the pickings were rough, but, she says, “I never understood that until I started working here.” Three years ago, she’d signed a deal with ABC, but she had to read 26 scripts to find a role that “wasn’t a stereotype of what America would think an Indian would be, like My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding.” Her part in Quantico had originally been written for a white actress.
In India, sexism had been her biggest issue. Just after she’d won Miss India and Miss World in 2000, she was up for a big movie with major male lead actors, and the producer told her that if she didn’t like her remuneration, and couldn’t match the schedule of the male stars, they’d just find someone else. “He was like, ‘Listen, let’s keep it real: Girls are replaceable. Who are people coming to watch in the movies? The guy on the poster. The girl is standing where? Behind him. So if I change her and I get another girl, she’s still going to be doing the same thing. If I don’t get another girl, I’ll just launch a new actress,’” said Chopra. “And I remember sitting there in that office and I must have been 19 or 20 and somewhere, I think psychologically, it really affected me. I was like, Wow, I’m really replaceable. I don’t want to be replaceable.”
The most horrifying story she told, though, was about a call her agent got two years ago, after doing Quantico — for which she’d become the first South Asian actress to win a People’s Choice Award. “I was asked to not be a part of a movie because I was too ethnic,” Chopra said, as the TIFF crowd let out disapproving murmurs.
Yeah! First of all, everyone has an ethnicity. Even Caucasian is an ethnicity. But I was “too ethnic” for the part and it was a mainstream American part. And I remember my agent being — he didn’t know how to tell me that. He was really skirting the issue and I said to him, “Just tell me.” And he said, “Priyanka, I don’t know how to say that in 2017,” that this was actually a reason! They could have at least made up a reason! Don’t be so on the nose about it! But they said the reasoning that was given was that, “You know, we’ll have to explain how an Indian girl is this character in the mainstream. We’ll have to explain where her parents came from and what was she doing in America.”
I didn’t realize that that’s how hard it was until I came here. And now I’m really taking it very personally. And whether it happens for me or it doesn’t, I really do hope for the future generation that they don’t have to deal with this because of what my colleagues and I will do. I want to stick my feet in and say, “No, this is not what we’re going to stand for. Look at the world around you. Look at North America right now. It’s a melting pot of cultures from all around the world. You cannot turn around and tell one kid or one person or one type of person because of the color of their skin that they need to be treated a certain way. Yes, they’ve done it for centuries. But come on now! We’re in the 20th century and we really need to step up for ourselves, and the future generation.
It was hard not to be impressed listening to Chopra. Here are a few other things we learned:
— The reason she wanted to go to school in America as a teenager was that she’d visited her cousins in Iowa and they didn’t have to wear uniforms. “In India, we had to wear uniforms in school, so it’s equality for all children. Some kids can’t afford and some kids can afford great clothes. I was so excited as a 13-year-old girl that I could wear short skirts … And that was the reason I decided to go to school in America. My mom probably hates hearing this.”
— In high school, she said, “I wanted to marry Tupac Shakur. Guys, don’t laugh! I wore black for like 20 days after he was killed. I took it seriously.”
— Until very recently in India, female-led films were considered a gigantic risk. “In 2008, it was considered that a female-led film is done by actors when they’re at the end of their careers and are like, ‘I want to win an award before I go down!’ I was told that by so many filmmakers.”
— She’s comfortable poking fun at her Baywatch co-star Zac Efron, who she said practices his lines a ton, “and he works out in the middle of all of it, the whole time. He does lines with, like, a resistance band.”
— Her production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, works almost exclusively with first-time directors from states in India that don’t have a national film industry. “I was raised in so many states, and it was important for me to find stories that come out of small villages or small towns or from filmmakers who might not have a grandfather that’s been in the movies,” she said.
— The Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Health and Education she runs is currently “self-funded and extremely small,” she said, but they educate 80 or so girls around India, and Chopra knows all of them personally. “I get their report cards and their letters of, ‘I got these grades in school,’” she says.
— Asked by someone in the audience for a piece of life advice, she said, “I have my moments where I don’t want to get out of bed and I’m afraid of how I’m going to deal with the world and everything it throws at me … But if you do great every single day and try not think about where you’re going to reach at the end of life, it’s going to be a good life.”