In an exclusive interview to Indian Express’ Harneet Singh, Priyanka Chopra talks about Mary Kom, 100 crore heroines, girls on film, surviving a decade in Bollywood and being a game changer.
You’ve gone on record to say that Mary Kom was the toughest film of your career, how do you feel now that it’s out?
I feel as if something is missing. I started shooting for it four days after my Dad passed away. I was so consumed with grief and wasn’t distracted by anything else and I put it all in this film. Now that it’s released I feel as if something has ended.
Did you identify with any emotion or characteristic of Mary Kom, which helped you play her?
When I approach a character I don’t look for similarity because then you end up spending too much emotion on it and can’t portray it with feeling. For me, playing a character is like making a painting—the entire team makes the painting, but as an actor I get to put the colours. In order to play Mary, I had to access her personality and bring it out. She is a relevant real person so it was daunting. I couldn’t put a step wrong. I’m grateful to her for allowing us to invade her private space. I even opened her drawers and fridge to know how she lives. I became a detective while doing my research. The challenge was to hide myself as Priyanka and delve into Mary’s character.
What was Mary’s first reaction after she saw the film?
She just kept crying. The last bits of the film really overwhelmed her. She showed me her son’s scar, which he got after his heart surgery. Now he’s 6 years old. She said this film is her photo album, which she will show with pride to her grandchildren. This bit about her reaction as a mother is what attracted me to the film. In my opinion, Mary Kom is such a feminist film. I loved the fact that Mary is not a crusader. She is a feminist but not a bra-burning feminist. She’s just a simple girl who chases her dreams and has the guts to fight her own battles.
What was the pressure like to carry the film on your shoulder right from the poster to the promotion?
I didn’t realize the pressure till a week before the release. I would go for promotions and meetings and look around me only to realize there was nobody else. That’s when I had newfound respect for the boys (heroes) because they do this all the time. I’m being honest, many times, we, girls take advantage of the situation and let the boys carry the film on their shoulders. We ride the wave with them but they do all the hard work. One has got to acknowledge this.
Your recent comment that heroines should not be credited as 100 crore heroines when they are riding on the back of a hero has started some conversation and controversy. Can you just elaborate on your statement?
First of all, I was talking about myself. I’ve been a part of many 100 crore successes like Krrish, Don 2, Krrish 3, Agneepath, Barfi but other than Barfi, I can’t take the credit for the rest. I cannot say that Krrish 3 or Don 2 is a Priyanka Chopra film even though nobody can play a better Junglee Billi than me! I’m a part of these film—a very important part—but you can’t give me complete credit for them. Yes, I will take the credit for Barfi because it was as much my film as it was Ranbir’s. Just like it was with Katrina in Rajneeti, Deepika in Chennai Express, Alia in Two States—these films were as much about the girls as about the boys.
Undoubtedly this has been the year of ‘the Girls on Film’. Do you think a change is coming?
Of course. With Alia in Highway, Rani in Mardaani, Kangna in Queen, definitely we are on the threshold of a change. The girls have proved that if they get substantial parts people want to watch them. Now it’s up to us, to take the responsibility to drive a film and own it totally. Personally, I like to have a balance in my film choices. Like George Clooney says, “I do one for them (the studios) and one for me.” Every year I hope to do one film for the heart. But this change of ‘female driven films’ is a lot to do with what is happening in the society.
In what way?
There is a metamorphosis currently taking place in our country. With so many atrocities happening against them, Indian women have understood that they have to take care of themselves. Today’s girls are not willing to sit at home with head bowed down in shame. Our girls want to know their value. They are standing up for themselves and want others to stand for them. This societal change is being mirrored in our films. That’s why I feel this is the best time to be a female actor.
As an actor, are you more process oriented or result oriented? Does every film have to work?
Yes, always. Nobody does films that only they can watch in their living room. Filmmaking is a business and art unlike theatre which is pure art. I want to do stage, sometime in the near future, and that will be purely for art. But films are about money, if you can create art and make money then it’s great!
Do you remember during which film did you first feel that you could act?
It was during Aitraaz that I felt I could do it. You know, when you are an outsider, with no film connection, your knowledge about the movie business is very superficial. You think it’s about the make- up, the clothes and the fame. When I did my first film, Andaaz, I felt I was just going to play dress-up! Once you start realizing what acting entails, you realize that it’s a craft that can be honed. I got this realization during Aitraaz and since then I’ve been on a quest to create different characters.
How do you select your roles?
My favourite genre is the ‘tent-poles’. Give me my X Men and Don, anyday. I select my films as an audience. I instinctively say yes to a film that I want to watch. Unfortunately in our industry girls don’t usually get the parts that they can chomp off so we have to balance it out and find the roles that keep us engaged and entertain our audience. But it’s films like Don and Krrish that give me the commercial viability so that a producer feels confident to make a Mary Kom with me. I take my roles as my responsibility. When I did Fashion, everyone laughed at me. They said how can you do a heroine centric film, that too with an ‘A’ certificate! They said heroines do heroine centric films when their career is finished but all this changing now.
If you were to throw a dinner party and invite five of your favourite characters, who would you call?
I’ll call Roma from Don because she’s such a badass and so cool. I’ll call Meghna from Fashion because she’s so screwed up. I’ll call Jhilmil from Barfi and make her sit on my lap because she is heartbreakingly cute. I’ll call Mary Kom because she’s new in the group and I’ll call Sonia from Aitraaz because we will need some glam quotient.
You are quite a Girl’s Girl, have you always been like that?
I’m a mix of a tomboy and a Girl’s Girl. When I’m with the boys, I’m on backslapping terms with them, which is why I’ve done so many ‘Bromantic’ films. But I love Girl Power too. I believe in celebrating femininity. I can play a mean game of Paintball and also wear a saree. I’m brilliant at both, by the way.
Are you competitive?
Very much. Ever since school, I’ve wanted to come first. I want to be the best at whatever I do. When I was in school in America, we had to paint a wall and I wanted to be the first one to complete it and I wanted my wall to be the best. My cousin who was with me said, “it’s just a wall, chill!” But I always want to be better, faster, quicker. I keep looking for things that are tough and I want to excel in them. I’m a project finder. My mom tells me, “You are a perfect case of Aa bael mujhe maar.” I’m a rebel looking for a cause, all the time. I have no reason to be a rebel but that’s how I’m wired.
You are a decade old in the industry, what have been your biggest lessons?
That there is no time for anything. That we are made by our fans. We are a very small community of people who have that power and privilege when some many people love us. We should use this privilege to do something important and enjoy it till it lasts. One day, the curtain will fall but that doesn’t mean that your story ends. That will be the beginning of doing something else. Like in life, there is no full stop in the movie business.
What dreams for the coming decade?
I just want to evolve. For me, it’s not about being No 1, 2, 10 or 20. I want to walk my own path. I want to be relevant. I want to change the game a little bit. I just want to do something that impacts the fabric of showbiz in someway.
Is that the reason for turning producer with Madamji?
In a way. When I came to the movies you had to know people in the movies to get movies. My family didn’t know anyone and it was scary. I want to make it a little easy for actors. I want to make small movies with new talent. My company, Purple Pebbles Pictures, is a small production house and I’m so happy that Madhur Bhandarkar agreed to be our first director. What Kevin Spacey said really left an impression on me. He said, “When you are on your way up, you have to send the elevator down.”