Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Lilly Singh, both successful women of South Asian descent in the entertainment industry, discussed Chopra Jonas’ new book, “Unfinished” (2021), during a Feb. 9 event hosted by Harvard Book Store. Chopra Jonas is an actress, singer and film producer. Singh is a popular late-night talk show host, actress and comedian.
To start, Singh asked, “Why now a book?” after a warm greeting which set a supportive tone for the following conversation, one fitting for two friends with overwhelming respect for each other. Chopra Jonas chuckled, admitting that her project was delayed. Still, she explained, this was significant, as quarantine allowed her to focus her intentions. The process of writing a memoir “has a funny way of reminding you of a lot of things,” Chopra Jonas said. Singh described the entertainment industry as forcing a quick lifestyle. The details that paint a life story are lost in between more pressing projects that quickly pile up. The unexpected help of seemingly endless quarantine time allowed Chopra Jonas to remember her sorrows and mistakes.
Singh then defined Chopra Jonas as one of the most complete people she knows. In response, Chopra Jonas explained the meaning of her memoir’s title. She believes she has so much more still to do with her life. Naturally, then, her existence is ‘unfinished.’
Chopra Jonas overcame the misconception that only 20-year-old actors are desirable. At 30, she started her career in the American entertainment world after working in Bollywood. Now 38, she has secured multiple prominent roles in Hollywood, developed her production company Purple Pebble Pictures and is confident about future projects. Singh criticized the common trope that female actors have “an expiration date.” Chopra Jonas applauded Singh, as she too is severing norms as the first Indian to host an American late-night television show. “The silver lining is progress” for women in this uncertain time, Singh said.
Singh delved into the intricacies of Chopra Jonas’ career in the Indian film industry. Her voice fluctuated, as she recalled watching the “iconic” and “legendary” Chopra Jonas on screen.
Chopra Jonas acknowledged that her perceived confidence grew from struggle. She was plucked from high school, thrown into the pageant world and then pitted against other girls to win roles, all while not knowing the fundamentals of acting. She gained acting skills along the way, emerging from the caricature of “lots of hair, lots of makeup,” she said. Instinctively, she was drawn to roles that interested her, like the movie “Aitraaz” (2004), where she played a “sexual predator, almost” at the age of 22. Thus, she arose from the “untouched” female role as a powerful actress capable of tackling the American industry.
Singh then recounted her surprise at Chopra Jonas’ career move to America. Chopra Jonas’ career in America began with music; her first two singles, “In My City” (2012) and “Exotic” (2013), featuring will.i.am and Pitbull, respectively. Chopra Jonas admitted she was “hungry … to push [herself] as an artist,” and the American industry presented her with the materials to do so. She completed four songs and ended up pivoting to acting because it was more comfortable. She said that it is okay to leave things “unfinished,” referencing a theme of her memoir.
Lastly, Singh questioned Chopra Jonas about the “tangible difficulties” of being South Asian in the American entertainment industry. Chopra Jonas recounted an anecdote, remembering a magazine writing “[Creative Artists Agency] signs its first Bollywood star.” Her name was not present; the only aspect that was significant to the writer was her race. Chopra Jonas lamented that she does not want roles to always highlight her ethnicity. She just wants to be “a girl trying to save New York.” “Quantico” (2015–2018) gave her that opportunity, as ABC saw Chopra Jonas for her talent. Still, it took years for her to finally get leading roles in American films – her most famous to date being in “The White Tiger” (2021). Reflecting, Singh and Jonas both determined that the South Asian community must come together to demand change and give each other opportunities when no one else will.