No sooner have I sat down for our interview than Priyanka Chopra Jonas has moved my chair closer and offered to hold my phone as it records our conversation. She checks on it periodically during our 15-minute chat, just to make sure it’s still on.
That take-charge attitude is in line with the character she plays in Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink, out October 11. The film is based on the real-life story of teen writer and motivational speaker Aisha Chaudary, who died in 2015 from pulmonary fibrosis brought on by a bone marrow transplant she underwent as a baby. Chopra Jonas plays Aditi Chaudhary, Aisha’s mother. It’s her first performance in an Indian film in three years, and undeniably one of her most fiercely impressive appearances on screen.
The Sky Is Pink is an unusual movie. It’s a love story between Aditi and her husband Niren, narrated by the couple’s dead 18-year-old daughter, Aisha, who gives her insights from beyond the grave. Bose weaves back and forth between the present, when Aditi and Niren are struggling to cope with their loss, and the past narrated by Aisha, which shows their journey as a couple, and as parents fighting for their child’s survival. And just as Aditi is the driving force in Aisha’s life, so Chopra Jonas dominates her screen time as we follow her through nearly 25 years of joy, sorrow, hope, love, worry, and earth-shattering grief.
We see her as a new parent, discovering that her daughter has a rare genetic condition that might kill her before the age of 2, and as a determined mother living in near-isolation while Aisha gets the expensive treatment she needs in London. We see her as a carefree young woman, dancing on rooftops with her new boyfriend, and hiding her face behind a motorcycle helmet so he can sneak her past his parents and into his bedroom. We see her as she rolls out of bed to spend the night in Aisha’s now-empty bedroom. We see her arguing with Aisha over treatments, boys, and lipstick. It’s a lot to take on, but Chopra Jonas does so fearlessly.
Ahead, Chopra Jonas explains her character’s journey, what lessons she took away from this movie, and how husband Nick Jonas helped her give one of her most powerful performances ever.
Refinery29: Your character goes through almost a 25-year journey in this movie — we see Aditi as a college student, a young mother, all the way into her 50s — but you avoid obvious aging makeup or wigs. How do you think having a woman director affected the way her aging process is portrayed?
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: “Society has conditioned us [so deeply] that even I, when we were starting the movie [and] were discussing the look, I told Shonali [Bose], As she ages, maybe Aditi should put on some weight, add grays, and Shonali snapped at me. She was like, ‘That's what happens in cinema. We always make women look dowdy. I'm 53 years old, I do yoga every day.’ Having a female director, definitely I checked myself — and I'm someone who has a mother that's impossibly glamorous at every given moment. She doesn't step out of a room without lipstick and eyeliner.
"[The real] Aditi is the most impossibly glamorous woman, even now at 55. She has a philosophy which is, when life sucks, look like a million bucks. Obviously there are scenes where you don't see me with makeup at all, but when [Aditi] is dressed up, she's dressed up, and she likes to look her best. That was such a thing for my director, she was so particular about it. She was like, ‘I do not need you to have crazy prosthetics and wrinkles. You live in a day where women can look amazing at whatever age they are.’ I mean, look at J.Lo at 50.”
Were there other moments in the film where you think that the female gaze was important, or made a difference?
“I don't think your estrogen changes your ability to direct, but this was definitely one that I don't think a guy would have thought of. In retrospect I can say that thankfully it was a female director, and she checked me too. Filmmaking is a director's medium, and through all of Shonali's movies, you'll see that she has a very particular way of telling stories, which are real, which are not melodramatic, they're not exploitative of emotions. They're a lighter look on death, a lighter look on life, and she always deals with really heavy subjects with a lot of humor.”
This movie is definitely an unusual take on loss and grief. It’s very funny, which you wouldn’t expect from a story about a teenager dying.
“Whoever's seen the movie has said, ‘We laughed so much that it makes you feel like, is it appropriate to laugh so much?’ I mean, we did when my dad passed. I remember we spent a lot of time before he died and after with the entire family talking about him and laughing. Because my dad was always the life of a party, he was always the one who told the best jokes. There used to always be a circle around him because he was the funny guy and charming. I remember it helped all of us process the grief because we laughed through it.”
You said in a previous interview that you filmed this up until four days before your own wedding. How did that affect your own empathy towards this couple whose story you were telling?
“After so many years of sort-of working, I've been able to compartmentalize when I'm playing my characters versus who I am, because I never play me. So, I know how to do that, but this was hard, specifically that schedule when we were filming right before my wedding because it was the happiest moment in my life, and in the movie I was dealing with such a difficult topic. But I guess I didn't have to really think about my wedding as much because Nick and my mom did everything. He came down 20 days early. He was like, ‘I know you're filming, why don't you focus on that, and I'll take the responsibility of just handling last-minute prep.’ That really gave me the ability to just focus on being the part. Once the schedule was done, we had this big wrap party and he came to set, they cut a cake, opened some Champagne, and then it was like, all right, now we're on. Now we can start partying.”
That’s the dream, to have the guy take over the last-minute wedding planning stress!
“But he is a dream like that. He really is. And he's better at planning.”
We really see Aditi’s evolution as a mother throughout the movie — did playing her make you relate to your own mom differently?
“Aditi really reminds me of my mom — she's my best friend. My mom knew about my boyfriends before my boyfriends knew about it, you know? She was that one who I would always talk to about everything too. And that only changed once I became a teenager. Before that she was Mom, and then suddenly as a teenager I realized this is someone that I could talk to. She always told me that whatever you do, I'll always be on your team so you can never fail. There's such a sense of confidence in that. I did channel my mother a lot when it comes to my on-screen Aditi.”
Your character deals with an unfathomable loss — how did you get into that mindset?
“It's not the natural order of nature; it's unnatural. I couldn't even begin to imagine what that must have been like. Not just for Aditi, but Shonali as well. She lost her son when he was 16 in an accident, and I remember there was this one scene where Aisha decides not to get a lung transplant. I look at [Farhan Akhtar, who plays Aditi’s husband Niren], and he tells me that she doesn't want to do it. But the gravity of that hits you that now time's ticking — it can be any time. I couldn't stop crying after that scene, and Shonali came and gave me a hug. I just kept saying, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry this happened to you. That's how I could do the character. I had to empathize with that feeling because I'm not a mom, and I don't think I could ever imagine what that would feel like.”
You co-produced this film, which marks your ninth credit as a producer. How have you evolved in that role, and has it affected how you approach a project?
“I co-produced this movie with two other producers, Sid Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala, with whom I’d done about six movies as an actor,. This was my first Hindi-language movie — before this all the movies that I did were more localized regional languages in India — so it was a little bit more mainstream than has been for me. But I knew that if I worked with producers who had so much experience, I would learn a lot more. I definitely think I've become a lot more comfortable when it comes to producing. I have a great team, and I love giving wings to stories that need to be told. And there's such a power in being able to pick and choose the kind of movies that I want to back. And this isn’t something I inherited — it was something I had to create for myself as my career went along. I'm developing so many projects here in India. Being able to do it in multiple languages around the world is amazing.”