Priyanka Chopra recently celebrated 16 years in the entertainment industry. From her early days as a model, to becoming a household name in Bollywood and her successful move stateside, Chopra’s resume reads nothing short of impressive.
However in spite of her achievements, she revealed in an interview with Instyle Magazine that she lost a mainstream Hollywood movie role because of her ethnicity.
She told Instyle, “I was out for a movie, and somebody [from the studio] called one of my agents and said, ’She’s the wrong — what word did they use?—‘physicality.’ So in my defense as an actor, I’m like, ‘Do I need to be skinnier? Do I need to get in shape? Do I need to have abs?’ Like, what does ‘wrong physicality’ mean?” Chopra pauses. “And then my agent broke it down for me. Like, ‘I think, Priy, they meant that they wanted someone who’s not brown.’ It affected me.”
Last year, speaking to TIFF, Priyanka mentioned more about the feedback provided to her agent.
“They said the reason that was given was ‘we’d have to explain how an Indian girl is this character, we’ll have to explain where her parents came from, what she’s doing in America.’ I didn’t realise how hard it was until I came here and now I’ve really taken it personally.”
Frankly speaking, she has every right to as well.
The feedback is not only offensive but suggests the issue of race is still something Hollywood hasn’t overcome yet. Why can’t a South Asian female be accepted as a protagonist for a movie? Having to explain her origins creates this idea that South Asians don’t belong to a modern western society and drives division when actually, big cities are now regarded as melting pots of culture.
What’s even more frustrating is this wouldn’t be up for discussion if we were talking about a Caucasian actor. That’s because white males who decide the stories that are told typically control Hollywood storytelling. It would explain why Caucasian characters don’t have to have their origins explained or justified in order to fit in - they are automatically accepted as part of society.
The Washington Post cited a report commissioned by the racial justice organisation Color of Change, which found that ‘efforts over two decades to diversify the writers’ rooms at TV networks have largely failed.’
Another report compiled by Bloomberg found that ‘about 89% of executive producers of new series airing this season on the four U.S. broadcast networks are white, and 79% are male. Minorities have advanced by less than two percentage points since the 2016-2017 TV season, and women of color claimed fewer executive producer spots than they did a year ago at the two networks that provided data.’
The UK film industry isn’t any better either. Last year the British Film Institute commissioned research which found a ‘striking lack of diversity and “significant obstacles” to people getting jobs in the first place.’
Despite films like Lion, which garnered six Oscar nominations and Black Panther and Girls Trip, which each set respective box office records, there is still this barrier that stops people of colour from achieving their full potential in Hollywood.
That’s because behind the camera there’s been no real progress on diversifying the workforce. There’s definitely no shortage of actors on both sides of the Atlantic but what we lack are producers, writers and directors from ethnic minorities who can bring fresh stories and ideas to the table.
Chopra’s admission may even suggest that some people in Hollywood aren’t open to ethnic minorities depicting characters that deviate away from the stereotypes that have been created around them. This can hold actors back from expanding their range, honing their craft and showing versatility. The real issue though comes down to decision makers who can’t see past the colour of people’s skin.
Chopra isn’t deterred though. She is the lead protagonist in the modern US drama Quantico and starred in last year’s Baywatch in a role that was originally written for a man. She may ruffle feathers with her choices that challenges stereotypes, but for many, I think she’s a true and positive representation of what it means to be a South Asian female in 2018.