Priyanka Chopra's acknowledgement that a northeastern actor should've played Mary Kom is a sign of her evolution
Priyanka Chopra's experience of working in Hollywood, and the Black Lives Matter movement, seems to have made her aware of the need for diversity and representation back home in Bollywood.
Film stars pay a heavy price for being in the spotlight. It is difficult to predict when bouquets might turn into brickbats as their choices are constantly under scrutiny. Fame gives them a large platform and an influential voice but it also comes with responsibility. People who follow their work feel entitled, perhaps justifiably so, to question and hold them accountable.
It is rare, however, for film stars to publicly acknowledge their errors of judgement. In a recent video interview with Vanity Fair, actor-producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas has gone on record to say that, instead of her, someone from northeast India should have been chosen to play the role of world boxing champion Mary Kom in Omung Kumar’s film Mary Kom (2014).
Chopra, who is among the few actors of her generation, to have won the National Film Award and the Padma Shri, said, “She (Kom) comes from the northeast of India and I am from northern India, and we physically don’t look alike. In hindsight, the part should have probably gone to someone from the northeast.” Chopra added, “Because I physically didn't look like her, I decided to embody her spirit. So I spent a lot of time with her so that she could educate me about what her choices were, why she made the choices that she did."
It is incredibly mature of Chopra to have finally cleared the air on this matter. The statement comes eight years after the release of the film but few people in her place would have had the courage to go public with this honest confession, knowing what has happened in the past.
Along with the glowing reviews and awards for her performance, Chopra also got booed for accepting the role since people from the northeast are stereotyped in northern India, and rarely get parts in Bollywood films. Kumar too was criticised by those who felt that casting Chopra was a racist decision, and that he should have worked harder to find someone appropriate.
Chopra's experience of working in Hollywood, and the Black Lives Matter movement, seems to have made her aware of the need for diversity and representation back home in Bollywood.
Being a brown actor in a predominantly white film industry is not easy even for someone who is rich, famous, well-travelled, married to a white man, and a former Miss World.
We cannot undo the past but we can reflect, take responsibility, and move forward. Chopra has done this in her Vanity Fair interview. She said, “I was just greedy as an actor to get a chance to tell her story because she inspired me so much, as a woman, as an Indian woman, as an athlete. When the filmmakers insisted I do it, I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it.’” Her initial skepticism melted away when they showed faith in her.
Chopra’s colleague Lin Laishram, who played the role of Bem-Bem in Mary Kom, hails from Manipur. She had expressed her disappointment in Kumar’s choice of the lead actor as she was hoping that someone from the northeast would bag that role. Aseem Chhabra, author of the book Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of A Global Bollywood Star (2018), had written an article for Quartz saying that Geetanjali Thapa, Bala Hijam, Masochon V Zimik, and Karen Shenaz David would have made “a much better Mary Kom” than Chopra.
Chopra seems to have taken the feedback well. Laishram’s reaction to Chopra’s recent interview has also been widely reported. She thinks that it is "gracious and brave of Priyanka to finally accept this and put it out there," and her admiration for Chopra has "grown immensely." Hopefully, Chopra’s statement will have a wider impact in Bollywood, and push filmmakers to be more discerning when it comes to matters of casting – not only with respect to people from the northeast but while working with all groups that are marginalised.
That said, it is interesting to know how Chopra got associated with the film. According to Bharathi S Pradhan’s book Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse (2018), Kumar had started off with the vague idea of making a “female-oriented film.” He zeroed in on Kom after considering and rejecting the stories of Princess Diana, Rani Lakshmibai, and Durga.
Saiwyn Quadras, the screenwriter who worked on Ram Madhvani’s film Neerja (2016), came up with the suggestion of making a biopic on Mary Kom. Initially, Kumar said, “Suna toh hai (I’ve heard of her), but why would I want to make a film on boxing?” Quadras convinced him to read up about the sportswoman’s life before ruling out the idea. Kumar was bowled over when he learnt about her achievements. He felt that the story was worth telling on screen.
Kumar and Quadras flew to Manipur, met Mary Kom, and said, “We want to make a film on you.” She laughed and said, “Why would you want to make a film on me? Are you mad or something?” They left her house after getting her consent and paying her. Now, they needed to find a woman who was not only a competent actor but would also be willing to learn boxing and build muscles. Kumar felt that Chopra would be perfect but the problem was that she was not on talking terms with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who was the producer of the film.
Chopra was upset because Bhansali had cast her in the film Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), and then replaced her with Deepika Padukone. It seemed unfair because Chopra had stepped in to help Bhansali after Kareena Kapoor walked out of the film. Despite all this drama, Chopra did hear Kumar’s narration, and said she would like to work on the film. She had realised that she was getting the role of a lifetime, and did not want to lose out by holding onto grudges. She and Bhansali sorted out their issues with each other later during the shoot.
In Pradhan’s book, Kumar says, “I got a lot of flak for not casting someone from the northeast as Mary Kom… But I wanted the movie to have legs; I wanted the movie to go everywhere. That’s why I wanted a star. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a big producer but I was new, I needed a big actress to bank on.” Kumar got lucky with Chopra. She underwent rigorous physical training, interacted regularly with Mary Kom, and shot when her father was in hospital, and soon after, he passed away. These are all markers of a thorough professional.
In her memoir titled Unfinished (2021), Chopra writes, “As always, work was my therapy. I put all of my grief and a piece of my soul into that character and that film. It’s what drove me, and it’s what allowed me to continue functioning.” She alternated between feeling numb and having intense bouts of crying because of the personal tragedy that had struck her. Every night, she went to bed thinking, “I can’t do this”. She woke up saying, “I will do this.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist, and book reviewer.
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