TORONTO—Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra knows her latest film may not be what most international audiences might expect from Indian cinema—there are no flashy dance numbers, no dolled up female leads and few wild action sequences.
But the 32-year-old actress hopes “Mary Kom”—which is based on real-life events—will help break stereotypes while telling an inspirational story.
“I think a good story appeals to anyone. Yes, we do have a language barrier with Indian films, but the fact that this movie is a real story about a girl who is a youth icon today is relevant,” Chopra said in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie premiered on Thursday.
Based on the life of Olympic medallist and five-time world boxing champion Mary Kom, the film follows the struggles faced by the daughter of a rice farmer who didn’t want his little girl to take up the sport.
“That’s a story of someone who is unstoppable and it doesn’t matter if she’s Indian, it doesn’t matter which part of the world she comes from, that’s a story that will appeal to anyone that has a dream,” said Chopra.
“I think it goes beyond the barriers of countries and languages, it’s just a really inspiring, good story.”
Chopra, a former Miss World and one of India’s most in-demand actresses, was drawn to the film because she likes to “push the envelope a little bit.”
“I don’t want it to be stereotyped into women-centric or a niche film just because it’s different,” she said of her latest project.
“The stereotype of it is that ‘oh, it’s a girl on the poster.’ Second, it’s a boxer—girls boxing? What?…All those stereotypes of what should be a good Hindi movie, this is not all of that. But it’s a good Hindi movie.”
Chopra admits she didn’t know much about the woman she portrays on the big screen before she took on the film, but worked hard to play her role accurately.
The actress travelled to the real Kom’s hometown, living with her and her family—the boxing champion is a mother of three and still an active athlete—to absorb as much of her character’s mannerisms and personality as possible.
It was at that point that Chopra learned that despite her prowess in the boxing ring, Kom was also a devoted mother and wife.
“She’s someone who celebrates her femininity and I love that about her,” the actress said. “She loves shopping, she loves cooking, she’s a proud homemaker, loves being a mom, but at the same time, she’s a beast in the boxing ring, which in India at least, is a very very male sport.”
The biggest challenge in playing the character convincingly, however, came from the fact that Chopra looks nothing like the real-life Kom, who is from north east India and has physical features often associated with southeast Asian women.
“I didn’t have the crutch. Half the battle is won if you look like the person you’re playing. I didn’t have that,” Chopra explained, noting that she faced criticism early on when chosen for the role.
“I had to adopt every aspect of her. Not just change my body type—I had physically changed, I’m very petite, I had to become much bigger—I had to learn the dialect, the way she speaks, I had to understand her fears.”
That issue turned into something of a revelation for Chopra as the movie was made, with the film also exploring some of the exclusion felt by Indians from Kom’s home state of Manipur.
“She said to me, ‘I would much rather have Priyanka Chopra playing me than someone who is Korean, or with South east Asian features because when the national anthem plays, Priyanka will understand what I’ve felt more than someone who looks like me,’” Chopra said.
“My eyes and my cheekbones probably don’t look like her but everything else is completely Mary.”
“Mary Kom” opens in theatres on Friday.