Actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas tells BBC 100 Women that she received equal pay to her male co-actor for the first time in her 22-year career for her role in a forthcoming US spy series, Citadel.
She is a hugely successful star in India and has acted in more than 60 Bollywood movies. About a decade ago she made a foray into Hollywood and is now one of the few Indian actors to make a mark for themselves in the US entertainment industry.
“I’ve never had pay parity in Bollywood. I would get paid about 10% of the salary of my male co-actor”, said Ms Chopra Jonas.
“It [the pay gap] is large, substantially large. And so many women still deal with that. I’m sure I will too if I worked with a male co-actor now in Bollywood,” she added.
“My generation of female actors have definitely asked [for equal pay]. We’ve asked, but we’ve not got it.”
Speaking after having been named on the BBC 100 Women list for 2022, Ms Chopra Jonas recounted how as a young actor in the Indian film industry she accepted deep rooted patriarchy as “normal”.
“I thought it was absolutely OK to sit for hours and hours on set, while my male co-actor just took his own time, and decided whenever he wanted to show up on set is when we would shoot,” she said.
When she started out in Bollywood, she recalls facing body shaming because of her complexion.
“I was called ‘black cat’, ‘dusky’. I mean, what does ‘dusky’ even mean in a country where we are literally all brown?
“I thought I was not pretty enough, I believed that I would have to work a lot harder, even though I thought I was probably a little bit more talented than my fellow actors who were lighter skinned. But I thought that was right because it was so normalised,” she said.
“Of course, that comes from our colonial past, it’s not even been 100 years since we shed the British Raj, so we still hold on to it, I think. But it is up to our generation to be able to cut those ties and change it so that the next generation doesn’t inherit the equity placed on light skin.”
When asked how different Hollywood is regarding pay parity, Chopra Jonas said, “Well, the first time it’s happened to me, it has happened in Hollywood. So I don’t know going forward. Because this was my first show with a male actor as a co-lead,” referring to her upcoming role in action-packed spy series Citadel.
Despite being known and adored by millions in South Asia, the actress had to struggle for a decade to carve a niche for herself overseas.
“I would go into meetings by myself, introduce myself and take my show reel. I worked with acting coaches and dialect coaches. I did auditions, got rejected, cried, then went back for another one. I did the hustle that I needed to do to make it in any new industry. It was a humbling experience,” she said.
In 2015, Ms Chopra Jonas became the first South Asian to be the lead in a network television programme in the US, with thriller series Quantico. She has also been the first Indian on the cover of multiple prestigious fashion magazines.
But she says it’s still difficult to get mainstream work in Hollywood for people of her ethnicity, despite a greater awareness to be more inclusive and diverse.
“I think maybe I’ve built a certain amount of credibility, and so I’m doing interesting work. We’ll see if that’s accepted or not. It’s really hard to be South Asian and Indian in Hollywood. There’s still a long way to go,” she said.
As an international celebrity who is often vocal about global events, Ms Chopra Jonas has faced criticism in India for not commenting on domestic issues. Her publicist intervened to stop her responding to a question about that criticism.
When replying to an earlier question about receiving positive and negative attention on social media, she said: “There will always be people that will say, ‘You didn’t say something about something,’ ‘You should have said something about something’. And it’s just like, you can never please everyone.”
Ms Chopra Jonas spoke to BBC 100 Women in Lucknow, in northern India, where in her role as Global Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, she visited health centres and schools, meeting young female students.
She’s been associated with Unicef for 15 years and in addition to India, has travelled to Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Jordan and Bangladesh, among other countries, meeting children affected by conflict and natural disasters.
“When you’re a public person, people are interested in seeing where I am, where I’m going. So I feel like that’s where I find my purpose, if I can use the platform that I have to talk about the initiatives and the problems children face, and how they have overcome them… maybe the people who consume me will also consume their message,” she said.
“So I amplify the voices of people, especially of children, whose voices don’t travel. This is the greatest job of my life.”