India’s Angelina Jolie, Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, changed her body and hopes to change a few minds by playing Indian boxing champion Mary Kom in the self-titled biopic, which had its world premiere at TIFF Thursday.
“Yes it’s important for my career and I hope people like my work but beyond that I hope this film gives women and young people the ability to say ‘I have a dream and I’m going to take my life in my own hands and won’t let anybody tell me I can’t do it,’ ” said Chopra, who did a few interviews and a media conference during her scant eight hours in Toronto, before flying back to Mumbai after the Mary Kom screening.
A former Miss India and Miss World and one of India’s most in-demand actresses, 32-year-old Chopra trained hard to look the part of Kom, the five-time World Amateur Boxing champion and Olympic bronze medallist.
Videos of Kom’s fights “were my bedtime stories” as Chopra watched them over and over to learn the fighter’s style. The right-handed Chopra also had to learn to fight “like a southpaw” to match the left-handed Kom and ate a high-protein diet to bulk up while doing punishing workouts with heavy weights “to exhaustion.”
A training bag filled with weights went everywhere with Chopra so she could work out whenever she had a moment. She also carried treatments for muscle aches and injuries in the trunk of her car.
She was shooting two other films at the same time as Mary Kom and those directors weren’t happy that she’d come to the set “looking like a man.” Chopra had to wear sleeves on her costume “to hide the bulk,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice.
“My body hurt in places I didn’t know it could hurt.” Chopra said with a throaty laugh, proudly extending her hand to show fading dings across the base of her knuckles, along with an artfully designed diamond cocktail ring. “I wear my scars as my medals.”
Kom, who grew up in poverty in Manipur in northeastern India, was a scrappy street fighter who stood up to bullying boys as a teen and took on corrupt officials as an adult.
Mary Kom follows her through domestic travails, including a demanding trainer, disapproving father, marriage and motherhood, as she tries to balance home and boxing lives.
For Chopra, “the unstoppable” Kom was the one she was most anxious to please with her performance. “Mary helped me. I think she was surprised I pulled it off,” laughed Chopra, who was impressed with the odds Kom overcame to rise to greatness.
“When I first went to her parents’ house, the roof was made of plastic,” said Chopra. “They didn’t even have a roof over their head and out of that, the girl comes out and becomes a five-time world champion … and is still relevant after having three babies. She’s still representing.”
Chopra hopes the film, with its messages of empowerment, reflects societal changes, which she referred to as “a metamorphosis” in India.
“I think when it comes to women it’s a really interesting time not just in society but for films as well. Women are taking charge themselves,” she observed, adding she has begun her own film production company and has plans to bring small films made by new voices to the screen at home.
Mary Kom may be taking a new direction but it still sticks to proven Bollywood staples, including a dance number and five songs, including one performed by Chopra. She has an album coming out soon and has recorded with Cuban-American rapper Pitbull and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am.
“We embrace the song. We make musicals. It’s the culture that we are and that’s the language with which we tell stories and we explain it with music,” said Chopra. “That’s the uniqueness of Indian cinema.”
She comes across as an enthusiastic woman, plain spoken and anxious to share ideas and points of view. She’s also quite stunning, despite a punishing flight and some time stuck in Toronto traffic, wearing a simple black sleeveless dress and two-tone black and silver pumps.
On her right wrist, there’s a tattoo with the words: “Daddy’s lil girl.” It’s done in her father’s handwriting to remember the man who died just four days after she started filming Mary Kom in June 2013.
Chopra, who said she was “literally thrown into movies because of Miss World,” said she’s made her career her acting school, starring in fantasy and sci-fi hits that have generated record box office in India, as well as thrillers and dramas. She also voiced a racing plane in Disney’s 2013 animated movie Planes and played an autistic woman in the 2012 romantic comedy Barfi!
“That’s a conscious thing that I do,” she explained. “It has to do with the fact I get bored really easily. I don’t like to repeat myself. To compete with yourself is the greatest competition. Now after this movie, I’ll be thinking how do I top that?”
But she’s also thinking about something else. An early dinner has arrived and it’s hardly the sparse salad most actresses pick at during TIFF: it’s a tray with a massive Hero burger and box of fries and Chopra clearly can’t wait to tuck in before getting ready for the premiere of Mary Kom.
A fighter has to keep up her strength, especially before she steps into the TIFF ring.