Priyanka Chopra Jonas remembers when she was a teenager watching Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in her native India — and later, when she moved to the U.S. for high school.
“I was like, ‘That’s who I want to be,’” Chopra Jonas, 37, tells Variety. “She was an amazing teenage idol. But what if at 13, I had seen someone who looked like me? The only person that I saw at that time who was culturally representative of me was Apu from ‘The Simpsons,’ and he was played by a white guy, which I found out much later, obviously. But as a teenager, I didn’t see representation of myself in American pop culture or even global pop culture outside of the stereotypical caricatures of South Asians.”
Over the course of her U.S. career, Chopra Jonas has aimed to course-correct Hollywood’s treatment of South Asian actors and people behind the scenes. Now, as Variety is exclusively reporting, she’ll have a larger platform than ever from which to do that, having signed a two-year multimillion-dollar first-look television deal with Amazon.
“I didn’t think as a 13-year-old when I was watching TV that something was missing, but now as I’m older, I wonder if I would have been a lot more confident in high school if I would have not been afraid of every other person that looked different than me,” says Chopra Jonas, who launched her production company Purple Pebble Pictures in 2015. “I wonder if I wouldn’t have put my head down and walked in the hallways feeling like a unicorn that everyone was staring at. I wonder if that would have changed my high school experience. I think it would have.”
When Chopra Jonas arrived in Hollywood about eight years ago, she was a massive Bollywood star with some 60 film credits to her name and shelves lined with Indian acting awards. “When I got the opportunity to come to America and get representation, I remember the first thing that I had to do was swallow my pride,” she recalls. “I had to explain who I was and what I wanted to do. There have been some incredibly prolific Indian actors that have worked in American movies and have done incredible work — like Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Anupam Kher, Amitabh Bachchan — and outside of Indian Americans like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, there was no precedent for having someone who was an Indian immigrant from outside of the American culture to come in and break global entertainment.”
After becoming in 2012 the first major Bollywood star signed by CAA, Chopra Jonas made her U.S. debut the following year as a voice actor in Disney’s animated “Planes.” Her career began to take off in 2015 when she landed ABC’s “Quantico,” marking the first time a South Asian female actor headlined a network television series.
It was a general meeting with Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke that led to the first-look deal. “Priyanka and I bonded over a shared passion for diverse global storytelling,” Salke tells Variety, adding, “Priyanka is drawn to exciting original content and characters that can resonate globally. She’s a powerhouse producer, and we are thrilled to collaborate with her for years to come.”
Before striking the deal, Chopra Jonas was already collaborating with Amazon on two television projects: “Sangeet,” an unscripted series co-produced with her husband, Nick Jonas, based on the Indian pre-wedding tradition in which the families of the bride and groom compete against each other in song and dance, and “Citadel,” Anthony and Joe Russo’s spy series in which she’ll star with Richard Madden.
Amazon hopes Chopra Jonas will help grow the studio’s footprint in India. In a report published in May, research firm Media Partners Asia forecast that Amazon will reach 17 million subscribers in the country in 2020, just behind market leader Disney Plus Hotstar, with 18 million.
“My quest really is to be able to tell female stories, work with creators from around the world and create a cross-pollination of storytelling,” Chopra Jonas says. “Amazon is such a great partner to do that because their reach and outlook is so global. My Amazon television deal is a global deal, so I can do Hindi language, I can do English language, I can do whatever language I want.”
On the film side, Chopra Jonas has at least one project with Amazon that she can talk about: She’ll topline and produce “Sheela,” a feature based on the Netflix docu-series “Wild Wild Country.” She’ll star as Ma Anand Sheela, assistant to guru Bhagwan Rajneesh (also known as Osho). Amazon aside, she’ll next be seen in Netflix’s “We Can Be Heroes” with director Robert Rodriguez, as well as the streamer’s “The White Tiger,” an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning best-seller of the same name. She’s also shooting Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix 4,” which recently resumed filming after production was halted by the pandemic.
Says Chopra Jonas’ longtime manager Anjula Acharia, “Priyanka’s willingness to challenge the status quo is exactly what global audiences are crying out for, and for this reason alone, she is one of the most unique talents in the landscape right now.”
Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.