In 2011, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was offered the opportunity to make it as a recording artist in America. This was before her eventual big move to the country for her TV show Quantico. She created a few popular songs like ‘In My City’ and ‘Exotic’ and worked with major artists like will.i.am and Pitbull. But the plan never came together. By her own admission, her music sounded rather generic and she couldn’t create a distinct and unique sound. “My music fell short of my own artistic standards. After three years of trying to make it, I decided it was time to move on,” writes Chopra in her memoir Unfinished, a chronicle of her professional and personal journey so far.
The demise of her musical career in America stands out because it is one of the few instances of professional failure in a book that largely celebrates her many, many achievements – from her pageant wins as a teen and her movie career to her humanitarian work. Sure, there have been hiccups along the way but Chopra dwells more on how she beat them and emerged bigger, better and stronger. For instance, on the sets of Andaaz, her first Bollywood release as a lead, she took over 35 takes to nail a basic dance move. Choreographer Raju Khan yelled, “Just because you’re Miss World don’t presume you can dance”. She returned to India humiliated, signed up for classical dance classes, put in hours of practice, and in a few weeks, she was reborn as a dancer.
Unfinished isn’t about Chopra alone. It’s as much her parents’ story. It’s about doting parents who moved mountains to make sure nothing came in the way of their child’s destined stardom. Her mother Madhu Chopra nudged her to give the Miss India pageant a shot, wrapped up her medical practice and moved to Mumbai in a heartbeat when Bollywood came calling, attended those crucial dance classes along with Chopra, and today runs her production company. Chopra writes about her mother stocking up on general knowledge books and coaching her for the daunting question and answer round before the Miss India contest. Her mother made “overachieving cool”.
Chopra’s writing feels most genuine and heartfelt when she’s talking about her parents. She paints them as superheroes – how her father, a doctor in the Army, dislodged a bullet from a dying soldier or when her mother rescued an abandoned girl child outside a hospital on a rainy night. Chopra’s pain when her father succumbed to cancer and her inability to come to terms with his loss for years after, is palpable.
Her telling of the other aspects of her life is more guarded and strategic. We do get to see her frailties – the reconstructive nose surgeries that cost her a few films, facing racism and bullying in America both as a student and a professional, powering through the boys’ club that is Bollywood, and balancing superstardom in one country and anonymity in another. But Chopra carefully controls how much she’s willing to let the reader in. The narrative begins to resemble the beats of the many biopics we’ve been seeing in Hindi cinema off late – the subject beats obstacle after obstacle after obstacle and inevitably emerges victorious. She underlines the importance of “achieving in the face of your detractors”.
Chopra’s unapologetic ambition, her insane capacity to hustle, her need to be the best at everything, and her inherent belief that she was meant for greater things is both apparent and admirable. But I wanted to get deeper into the head of the performer in her. How she creates and shapes characters while maintaining a chaotic life between continents and charting plans of world domination. We get details of the large room she wants to create for the “actor in her” in the new house she’s building with husband Nick Jonas, but nothing beyond.
She talks about being overlooked at all the major award functions for her performance as the autistic Jhilmil in Barfi! but doesn’t speak about how she became that character. She informs us that a conversation with TV stars Ellen Pompeo and Kerry Washington when she was finding her feet in American television was a defining moment. I wanted to eavesdrop on that conversation between artists but Chopra doesn’t let us in. To be fair, she does say, “I get to choose what I share and when I share it”.
Halfway through the book I became aware that perhaps I wasn’t the intended audience for this memoir. Growing up through the 90s and 2000s in India, I have a clear memory of Chopra’s entry into public life and her rise. I vividly remember watching her Miss World win on TV, and the controversial ‘Mother Teresa’ answer which won her the crown. I’ve seen almost all the 70-odd films she’s been in and watched countless interviews. That’s how I know that this book is authentic. You can hear her through the pages – we know her voice too well.
Perhaps her more recently acquired fanbase doesn’t. This seems more like an attempt to acquaint them with her pre- Quantico adventures and bridge the cultural gap between them. She also makes it a point to bust any pre-conceived or ill-informed notions the West may have about an Indian upbringing. When Chopra went to high school in America, she became a star student because the far tougher Indian education system had prepared her for it. When she was quitting to come back to India she writes that she didn’t need any of the books in her school locker. “I don’t need them, mom. I’m smart here in America,” she recalls telling her mother. It’s this unrelenting sass and confidence that makes her life and this book interesting.