By all appearances, Priyanka Chopra Jonas seems like she would make a great gal pal.
In town for the Toronto International Film Festival September to promote her latest film, The Sky Is Pink, she holds court in the hidden, cavernous back room bar of a King Street West restaurant, navigating the media melee with practised charm. Interviews are running more than an hour behind schedule, and her manager is none too pleased. But Chopra Jonas approaches each interviewer with her trademark megawatt smile, taking a moment to get the correct pronunciation of their name.
Director Shonali Bose (Margarita With a Straw, Amu) as well as Chopra Jonas’s cast mates Farhan Akhtar and Rohit Saraf occasionally join in. Chopra Jonas is happy to share the spotlight, but it’s clear that she, dressed in a striking chartreuse Alberta Ferretti number, is the star of the show.
After all, she’s a former beauty queen (she won the Miss World pageant in 2000), Bollywood A-list star and North American household name, owing to her 2015 foray into American TV with the ABC show Quantico. When she married pop star Nick Jonas last year, her Hollywood fame was cemented.
The tale at the heart of The Sky Is Pink is a stark contrast to all of that. Based on a true story, the movie is told from the perspective of Aisha Chaudhary, a teen motivational speaker who was born with SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency). Her parents scrounge up money for life-saving bone marrow replacement treatment at a hospital in London. Hard times follow. But Aisha survives and soon the Chaudhary family is thriving financially. They return to India, taking up residence in a swank estate on the outskirts of New Delhi. But Aisha falls ill again and eventually dies. Throughout her physical and mental ordeal, Aisha’s family tirelessly supports her – especially her mother, Aditi.
Bose’s own marriage crumbled soon after the death of her 16-year-old son, Ishan, in 2010 following a freak accident at their Los Angeles home.
“I think I was quite excited and ready as a filmmaker to explore the loss of a child,” says Bose, explaining how Aditi tracked her down after watching Margarita With A Straw and asked her to consider making a film based on Aisha’s life.
“What really drew me was [the Chaudharys'] amazing love story that spanned 25 years. They met in high school in Delhi. And here they were at 52 having lost two children [Aisha’s older sister died as a baby from SCID] and still standing together. I loved how they were as parents. How they were able to completely create these moments for their daughter. How they weren’t intimidated by the fact that [Aisha] had only five years to live … Aditi’s whole motto was that I want the epitaph on her grave to be: She lived.”
I want to ask Chopra Jonas about channelling Aditi’s challenging marital life, when her own marriage seems like an extended honeymoon – or so says TMZ – but I flub the question.
“You have a very interesting marriage going on …” I start.
“Interesting? Really? Tell me more. What do you know about my marriage?” Chopra-Jonas, 37, raises an eyebrow, laughing away my visible embarrassment as I try again. How did you channel the marital strife the Chaudhary’s went through, I ask. “Well, every relationship has its ups and down,” she lobs back.
To truly understand “the unnaturalness of losing your child," Chopra Jonas met with Aditi. From there, she relied on Bose’s account of losing her son, her mother’s experience raising two kids and dealing with her own father’s death in 2013. As for capturing the dynamics of the Chaudhary family, she says she was fortunate to work with actors who have the ability to give back. “Smart actors who understand that if the scene prevails, so do we. And that does not happen all the time.”
What also doesn’t happen all the time? Enough opportunities for actresses of a certain vintage. While also true of Hollywood, this practice is particularly entrenched in Bollywood. Chopra Jonas’s answer? Producing films herself. Her production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, has made several Indian regional language films including Pahuna, which screened at TIFF in 2017, before co-producing The Sky Is Pink.
“There’s a lot more we need to do in terms of progression of female filmmakers,” she says. She’s waiting for the time – maybe a generation from now – when “it won’t be female filmmakers. It will just be filmmakers. It won’t be female athletes, it will just be athletes.”
As the publicist signals to wrap up, I attempt another question. In August, Chopra Jonas was involved in a public confrontation with Pakistani-American beauty blogger Ayesha Malik.
During a Q&A session at a beauty convention in Los Angeles, Malik accused Chopra Jonas of being a hypocrite and encouraging nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Malik was referring to a tweet Chopra Jonas had written expressing her support for the Indian army during a time of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan in February following a suicide attack that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
The cantankerous exchange at the beauty convention resulted in calls for UNICEF to revoke Chopra Jonas’s role as a Goodwill Ambassador for children’s rights.
I want to ask Chopra Jonas about the exchange and the challenges of being a celebrity spokesperson in the age of social media. I barely utter the word “Twitter,” when I see the shift in Chopra Jonas’s demeanour. It seems as if she’s getting ready to answer – her back straight, her eyes serious, her mouth set.
“Priyanka won’t be answering any questions that aren’t related to the movie,” snaps her manager, who suddenly materializes by my side.
With that, my time’s up. And Chopra Jonas, with her megawatt smile, moves on to her next interview.
The Sky Is Pink opens Oct. 11