BizAsia meets Priyanka Chopra Jonas & Shonali Bose at TIFF 2019 for ‘The Sky is Pink’

Sahar Junejo


‘The Sky Is Pink’ just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews and an enthusiastic audience. Following the story of the inspirational Aisha Chaudhary, the film explores the journey of her parents Aditi and Niren Chaudhary as caregivers and partners. caught up with Shonali Bose and Priyanka Chopra Jonas ahead of the premiere to talk about the journey of ‘The Sky Is Pink’.

Welcome back to TIFF! Having presented so many films here already, is there a familiarity with the festival’s audience or are you still nervous?
SB: I’m terrified. I think it’s always like that, every time. Even in India I’m going to be terrified. I know it’s home, but every time you show your film, which is the first time an audience is feeling it, my heart is so loud I feel somebody would hear it.
PCJ: The audience is different every time, it’s not like the same set of people come, but the kind of love I’ve always received from Toronto and TIFF especially as a festival, the kind of support that I’ve always received for my work goes back beyond the decade, since I’ve come here so many times. It’s just lovely to see so much fan support. So many people come out and actually give love and affection. It kick starts our journey for the rest of the promotion, which will be another month after this. It kicks it off in such a good place.

Going back to the start of your journey, Mr and Mrs Chaudhary approached you to tell Aisha’s story. How did they react when you told them that you wanted to share their story instead?
SB: They were not happy. And then I came up with this brilliant idea, and I really felt that it’s the right thing to do. With Aisha…. how can you really replicate somebody who’s their precious person? You can’t really do as much justice to it as the real person can.
They had a ton of footage that they told me about, because from when she was a baby there was always a possibility that she could have died. They shot her so much, so I told them you should make a documentary about you daughter, which would really be her voice versus a fictional film. And I think that your story is deeply inspiring for the world to know. To be carers, caregivers – it’s an unknown. For me, the heroic teenage dying girl was been-there-done-that in cinema and I felt I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it. I didn’t even feel Aisha would want that. I didn’t think she would want to be put on a pedestal.  It was hard, but then when I came up with the documentary idea they were excited and were for it. I said, she will still be in our story but I really feel the focus is the two of you and your inspiration as caregivers.
PCJ: To me that’s so interesting as well. My dad was unwell for about 8 years and I saw my mother, my family rallying around us. The caregivers are someone people don’t really ever see. And it’s so amazing that Shonali, as a filmmaker she’s so astute that she identified that and that’s what makes the movie so special. You see Aisha’s perspective. She’s there throughout the movie, it’s from her eyes, but because she’s not there with us anymore this is such an interesting way of telling us a story of what she saw and how she lived her life. It’s so clever to me, so artistic.

Just like how Aisha isn’t the “heroic sick teenager”, even Aditi isn’t the cliché grief-stricken mother we usually see. How did you avoid falling into these traps?
PCJ: There was no avoiding; that’s who Shonali is. She’s not a cliché of any sort. It’s just the way she thinks, she could not have thought of a cliché. She’s not capable of it (laughs).
In fact I sometimes saw her (Aditi) as a cliché, initially when we started talking about it. And that’s when I knew I made the right choice. The film I wanted to do, I wanted an immersive experience. I’m a very director’s actor, I love my directors. I talk to them, I rely on them, I feed off them, obsess around them. I love my directors and it’s that collaboration that gives me so much joy to create.
When we were talking initially, we were talking about the aging process and the looks of Aditi’s character. So I said to Shonali “Alright, so when we’re 45 to 55, she should put on weight how women do, we should add prosthetics, make her older…” and Shonali snapped at me. She was like “Excuse me! I’m 53. I’m not overweight, I do yoga every day, I get facials. Why do women, whenever they age, have to be portrayed as frumpy when there are women in the world that are not? Why is this the stereotype of an aging woman, compared to men who age with character and pizzazz?” I sat back and checked myself. I am the one who’s always so progressive. I always thought I was. But it’s amazing to meet other women who can teach you to be even more open-minded. I checked myself completely and realized she was fully right. My mother is literally that person. My mother is Aditi. She loves getting dressed up, coming out looking her best.
SB: She looks young. She looks like your sister!
PCJ: A lot of people say that. I don’t know how I feel about it (laughs). She feels very happy about it.
The unconscious biases that society sets for us, they influence filmmakers too. So it was great to have a filmmaker on my side who wasn’t influenced by biases, in fact she opposed them. That’s why Aditi is as
“unconventional” as she is, but she’s not. She’s a very conventional modern day woman who likes to be the best she can be, which is the actual message we should be giving our kids.
SB: An opposite cliché of that is that a head of the festival said she loved the film, but I could see she had a “But…” So I asked her, and she said “I guess it’s because you were doing a big Bollywood film, but in the second half of the film, Aditi’s too glamorous. Is it because of Priyanka?”
PCJ: The cliché that the actress would want to be glamorous.
SB: The younger Aditi, if you notice, is just with a ponytail, taking care of her baby. You see she’s not glammed up at all in how she dresses and how she is. But later on, she does become more glamorous. That is Aditi. Her motto was “When life is shit, look like a million bucks. Go buy makeup, baby!” She bought makeup for her daughter. She did a makeup class for her daughter.
PCJ: It was all about feeling your best, whatever it takes.
SB: Every day, even when Aisha couldn’t even raise her body from the bed, she would stand in front of her cupboard and ask “Okay, baby, what would you like to wear today?”, do makeup, dress up Aisha. Usually nobody takes that much trouble with an invalid who is absolutely under the sheets bed-ridden. But that was Aditi.
So I was like, you’re saying realism is a character who doesn’t have makeup? You’re so wrong. My real living character, as she aged, put on more and more makeup and became more and more glamorous.
PCJ: Also, it’s such a primitive thought to think that makeup is so important that if you’re not wearing makeup, you’re acting, or if you’re wearing makeup that’s too glamorous, it’s not acting. What does makeup have to do with acting? It’s the movement of my face, not what I have on it.
That was another cliché which they always think, that the actress must have said she doesn’t want to do it. In fact for older Aditi, I was the one who was saying it should be really dowdy, and she (Shonali Bose) said no, look at me, look at Aditi! It’s so funny how people think that, but it was such a conscious choice on Shonali’s end to make sure she was unconventional, because conventional is boring.
SB: Priyanka noticed one thing, that as Aditi is a young person she has long hair and as she ages she has short hair. This was subconscious on my part, but when I was in my 20s till I was 38 I had long hair, really beautiful long hair that she (Priyanka Chopra) has when she’s playing younger Aditi. And then when I had her hitting 48-50, I had her have short hair. I streaked my hair blue when I hit 50.
PCJ: Most women that I know end up cutting their hair as they get older because they can’t be bothered. My mom did it, she (Shonali Bose) did it. I can’t be bothered with waist-down hair. So we created that for Aditi as well, especially taking from Shonali.

‘The Sky Is Pink’ has a feeling of empathy to it. Was that a conscious goal on your part?
SB: I don’t think you can consciously have empathy. Firstly, when I write my characters they are three-dimensional, complex characters. That itself is grounding any actor in embodying a full image. We’re used to women being pretty stereotyped in how they are, not just superficially. Even when you have strong women in Hollywood films, there’s not that many layers. Aditi has so many layers.
I love all my characters when I’m creating them and then the actors embody those, so they have to connect and have empathy, even if the person has a gray shade. Sometimes a character may have a gray shade and you still have to have empathy that why did that person make that manipulative and difficult choice. You have to go into the skin of that character and Priyanka is so terrific at doing that. She was completely in the skin, thinking, working, acting as that person.
You should have self-love, so then even when you’re embodying a character, you love that person. Even when they are making decisions that you as a real person may not have made that choice. But when you’re in that character, if you are really as an actor able to embody that character fully as she was, as all the four actors were, then it’s just going to come across empathetically in that sense.

How does working with a director like Shonali Bose, who has a vision like that, impact how you approach your work?
PCJ: I normally work with a lot of insight and I look for people like her. I can’t work with people who don’t have insight. It’s too much of my time, too much of my energy. I leave a part of my soul in every character that I’ve played. I’m very invested.
I cannot work on a superficial film; I will not be able to. And maybe I’m saying this after having the luxury of being in films for 15 years where now I have the ability to pick and choose who I work with, when I want to work, with the kind of people I want to work with. That’s extremely important to me.
I see my movies as a piece of art, every one of them. Different kinds of art; art is subjective. So the person you choose to collaborate with has to be your partner and has to be on the same level, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t disagree. Disagreements, I feel like, create more color and more interesting textures in characters. We disagreed many times, but eventually what came out of our disagreements was better. That can only come if you have mutual respect, and it’s very important for me to respect the director I work with. And Shonali I do.

We keep talking about how ‘The Sky Is Pink’ is Priyanka Chopra’s return to Hindi Cinema, but you’re also attracting a lot of international viewers. What do you want them to take away from the film?
PCJ: To me, that was a conscious choice, and so was it for Shonali. We knew that the movie we were making was a global sentiment. We knew it was something universally people can relate to. And my personal quest always has been to be able to take artists and entertainment from India and bring it to a global platform, just like I did with myself. So I want to use myself as a conduit to be able to bring entertainment, entertainers, storytellers from India and stories from India and bring them to a global platform.
When I started in America, I had to do the opposite. I had to come into America and be ethnically ambiguous so that America knew me, and global entertainment was like “Oh okay, this is not that different, we’ll get to know you”. And now slowly, it took me a couple of years, I’ve reached a place where a lot of the work I’m doing is like that. The movie I’m doing with Netflix – ‘The White Tiger’, was one of my favourite books about ten years ago, is about an Indian story. Even the movie I’m making with Mindy (Kaling) is a comedy with Universal Studios in Hollywood, but it’s about an Indian wedding that came from my wedding. So it’s very, very important for me to do that and with ‘The Sky is Pink’ I knew that Shonali’s vision, the way she thinks, the way she speaks is a very global language of storytelling. It is a very conscious choice and I’m very glad that Cameron Bailey and TIFF supported our vision with this movie, felt what we felt, and brought us into the Gala presentation. But from here we want to take it to different parts of the world as well. As much as India is important to us, which it tremendously is, I really, really want, in my ideal world as an actor and as a co-producer on this film, I would love for Indian cinema-goers in India to be able go to watch this and relate to it and I would love for international cinema-goers, who may or may not know Hindi as a language or Hindi films, to watch the film and do the same thing. That would be my ideal, best case scenario.
SB: We totally had this vision, and for me it was specifically a challenge that can I make a Shonali Bose film like ‘Margarita with a Straw’ (2014) and ‘Amu’ (2005) but with stars, because the moment you have stars who are actors, it takes it to another level. This was an experiment to see can I still do that, can I make Cameron (Bailey) as thrilled as he was with my two previous films that I love and make the ordinary film watcher in India thrilled as well?
Now our trailer is at 23 million hits in two days already so let’s see what happens with the film but that’s really for me the exciting thing, to take something that has these brackets put with “Bollywood”, but is an authentic powerful and honest film with a major global star in it who’s a brilliant actor. And that’s what can take it to the world stage and cross over in a big way but as an Indian film. That’s what’s exciting for us.

‘The Sky Is Pink’ will release on 11th October in theatres worldwide. The documentary about Aisha Chaudhary, directed by Nilesh Maniyar, is currently in post-production.