How Priyanka Chopra Jonas Will Change the World
Over breakfast in New York one fine spring morning, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the 37-year-old actress and producer who has successfully crossed over from Bollywood to Hollywood, is serving up a side of existential optimism while eating her avocado toast. “Obviously, the purpose in life is to be happy,” she says, her bedazzling Chopard wedding band from her husband, American heartthrob Nick Jonas, managing to sparkle even though we’re sitting far from the window. Perhaps it’s catching the light from her hard-to-miss newlywed glow. "Nobody put you on this earth to feel like shit. I think the point of existence is to make the journey the best that you can. Create your own circumstances."
She knows whereof she speaks. Crowned Miss India and Miss World in 2000, she then pivoted to become an actress, eventually appearing in more than 50 Bollywood films. While the typical Indian heroines were pristine and perfect, Chopra Jonas opted for roles that were complicated and deliberately abstract. It was her way of testing her ability and setting herself apart from some of her predecessors, like Aishwarya Rai, a Miss World-turned-Bollywood actress who attempted to cross over but with little success. Chopra Jonas’s choices paid off — among her many accolades was a National Film Award (India’s version of the Oscars) in 2008 for her role in Fashion as a supermodel who gets pregnant. She also played a disabled girl in Barfi! and a legendary champion boxer in the biopic Mary Kom. Versatility has proved to be Chopra Jonas’s strong suit, even if it means falling short once in a while.
“I like learning, and I’m not so afraid of failure that I won’t attempt something,” she says. “If you fail, which I have many times, and make risky choices, you just dust yourself off, get up, and try something else. It’s not the beginning of the end of everything.”
In 2012 Chopra Jonas was approached by ABC’s then-executive vice president of talent and casting, Keli Lee, to star on American television. They had a prolonged back and forth — the actress was wary of leaving the comforts of home (where her film career was thriving) and also of being pigeonholed by the color of her skin. She thought, "What does it take for an Indian or a South Asian actor to not be so different and alien? Why can’t you see them as a lead?"
While her Indian films lent themselves to complex roles, in America she just wanted to act and sought out culturally ambiguous characters. "I told Keli that I don’t want my ethnicity to dictate the part or what my character does,” says Chopra Jonas. “It should be about the story. I’m an actor, and it’s my job to deliver." After being sent more than 20 scripts, she eventually landed on ABC as Alex Parrish in Quantico, a drama about a team of FBI recruits. On the big screen she played the role of Victoria Leeds in the 2017 Baywatch reboot alongside Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron.
"I knew that American pop culture was not used to seeing Indians outside the box," she says. "I was definitely not signing up for something like My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding. Or something where people would see me as a Bollywood actor with, like, 15 people coming out of a car and all of those stereotypes. I wanted to be able to shift that narrative, because that’s the India I know."
The strategy worked. Quantico was a hit, airing for three years and broadcast in more than 60 countries. Chopra Jonas had broken through and become a household name in the United States, but at what cost? So, by the beginning of 2018, the girl from Jamshedpur was ready to embrace her full Indianness.
And then love struck. Last December, after a whirlwind romance that began as flirty direct messages on social media, Chopra Jonas married Nick Jonas, one-third of the Jonas Brothers band, in a grand, multiday ceremony in her homeland. The wedding and Chopra Jonas’s newfound desire to actively reframe the conversation around South Asian culture could not have been more perfectly aligned. Not only had she found her mate in the 26-year-old Disney-trained pop star from New Jersey, but her Hindu traditions left an indelible impression on both her husband and her new in-laws. (Jonas’s mom, Denise, loved her sari so much that she also wore one to the couple’s much smaller reception in North Carolina.)
The union also set off a social-media frenzy rivaling that of the royal wedding of her pal Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, several months prior. The phenomenon known as the #JSisters was born. It stands for Jonas Sisters — Chopra Jonas, Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner (who married Joe Jonas in May), and Danielle Jonas (wife of Kevin, the eldest brother). The inseparable group posts pics from private jets and family vacations. "I feel scared for the boys," says Chopra Jonas with a laugh. "We always steal their attention."
But since Chopra Jonas has more than 40 million Instagram followers, not all the reactions she received about her happy union were positive. First, there was the indignation over the couple’s age difference. ("People gave us a lot of shit about that and still do," she says. "I find it really amazing when you flip it and the guy is older, no one cares and actually people like it.") Most surprising was the opinion piece that labeled Chopra Jonas as a global scam artist and called the relationship fraudulent. While she brushed off the insults, the reaction behind the scenes was different. "Nick, Joe, Sophie, my mom, his parents, everyone was there furiously typing on their phones. They were so mad." Immediately, high-profile actors, journalists, and fans cried xenophobia and sexism. The article was ultimately removed, and public apologies were issued.
Instead of getting upset, Chopra Jonas employed the Michelle Obama "when they go low, we go high" approach. "Commenting on some stupidity means it eventually becomes important because I gave it importance," she says. "A lot of people don’t understand that way of thinking. It’s not a myopic thought ... it’s a long-term plan."
As usual, Chopra Jonas is choosing to focus on the positive and be a catalyst for change. She and her husband are plotting a reality TV show based on India’s version of a rehearsal dinner called A Week to Sangeet, in which couples of every background enter a fervent dance competition. "Nick came up with it because he was blown away by how the dinner brings people together," she says. "By the end everyone knows each other’s names."
Also on the docket is a yet-to-be-named romantic comedy based on a wedding that, like her own, takes place in America and India, which she pitched to Mindy Kaling over lunch. Kaling will write and potentially direct the all South Asian cast, making it the subcontinent’s answer to Crazy Rich Asians. "An all-Indian cast in a Hollywood movie — I don’t think I would have been able to pitch that in a room three years ago," admits Chopra Jonas. "Mindy and I were both super psyched about it." She notes that whether you’re a Bollywood actor or an American-born Indian, it seems that working from the inside out is the best way to break down stereotypes. "Whenever you see Indian characters in Hollywood movies or on TV, the four or five people who have made it here — like Mindy or Aziz [Ansari] — had to write their own stories to be able to achieve them."
Then, of course, there is this InStyle shoot — dubbed “Indian Summer” by PCJ herself — that incorporates traditional Indian clothing not often seen in American fashion magazines. "Saris are my favorite," she says. “My problem is when it comes to Indian fashion, there are always these shiny, sequined, over-the-top Christmas-tree outfits. Those are not the saris I wear. I grew up with my mother wearing saris to the hospital, as a doctor. She’d wear these beautiful ones made of French chiffon, with a bindi over here," she says, pointing to her forehead. "And the nape of her neck would smell like Dior’s Poison. That, to me, was a modern woman. And that’s what I want to show the world. Indian designers make such incredible clothes that are inspired from beautiful embroidery and patterns."
For a woman whose name appears on Forbes’s power lists alongside world leaders, the emphasis is always on the bigger picture. She wants casting directors to find that sweet spot "where your ethnicity is your asset, not your identity," she says. "I want to create that opportunity for many more actors from outside the U.S. — and it doesn’t have to be just Indians — to come into global entertainment and be up for lead parts without having to just play, you know, what their ethnicity defines."
Aside from her projects lined up with Jonas and Kaling, Chopra Jonas is set to star as Ma Anand Sheela, the real-life villain in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, about the Oregon-based commune from the 1980s started by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She’s also writing a memoir, Unfinished, for Random House. In March she launched “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing” on YouTube, where she seeks the advice of powerhouse women like Simone Biles, Awkwafina, and Diane von Furstenberg. Meanwhile, Chopra Jonas is still producing movies in Bollywood through her company Purple Pebble Pictures, which is co-managed by her mother, Dr. Madhu Chopra, whom she relies on for advice in all things.
Chopra Jonas is changing perceptions in the beauty world too. She is the face of Obagi’s new skincare initiative, Skinclusion, which caters to diverse skin types — and colors. She’s not shy either about discussing the pounds she’s accumulated as a cheese lover. “I’m a very curvy woman. I like my curves. I embrace them. It took me the second half of my 20s to understand this, but I would love for people to understand it from me saying it as well.”
She doesn’t dance around her ultimate goal. “I want to change the world a little bit. My big endgame is creating a formidable career and legacy for myself, but at the same time I want to have moved something,” Chopra Jonas says, adding that having children with Jonas is definitely on the horizon when the time is right. “I want my existence to have meant something. I want my kids to turn around and be like, 'Yeah, that was my mom.'"
Photographed by: Robbie Fimmano. Styling: Julia von Boehm. Hair: Harry Josh for Statement Artists. Makeup: Yumi Mori for Forward Artists. Nails: Pattie Yankee using OPI for celestineagency.com. Set design: Todd Wiggins for The Magnet Agency. Production: Sister Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 14.