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TIFF: Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom — Two Indian Women Americans Need to Know

One of India’s most beloved actresses puts on the gloves to play Indian boxing champ Mary Kom.

Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, or Angelina Jolie existing in a cultural blind spot where you wouldn’t recognize them in a police line-up. That’s the relationship of most Americans to Priyanka Chopra, one of the most beloved, highest paid, and critically respected actresses in India. Heard of her? Here’s a popularity metric: Tom Cruise currently commands 4.7 million Twitter followers. Chopra has 6.8 million. She’s a big deal — whether you know her or not.

Chopra has done it all. She acts, she sings, she produces, she’s outspoken on women’s issues, she writes op-eds, and she’s won enough awards for the list to warrant its own Wikipedia page. This week, the actress took a break from ruling over Bollywood to make a brief appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her latest film, Mary Kom, premiered to global audiences. Like Chopra herself, the film tells the story of on an Indian woman that Americans might not know, but probably should.: five-time World Amateur Boxing champion Mary Kom.

Schmaltzy sports dramas are not exclusive to Hollywood. Where there are big stars, there are uplifting biopics recreating memorable feats of human endurance and strength. Mary Kom does for Indian female boxing what Invincible did for American football. The history books paint Kom as an instant underdog. As a teenager struggling with poverty and gender issues in the Northeastern district of Manipur, the fledgling fighter turned to boxing for self-defense before adapting her fisticuff skills to sport. The film faithfully traces her path back from obscurity. Chopra, 32, portrays Kom from her teen years through her many championships.

Mary Kom is as much a tribute to Chopra’s physical potential as it is to Kom’s accolade-filled career. Chopra underwent four months of intense training before slipping on Kom’s boxing gloves. It shows. While director Omung Kumar’s approach is glossy and sentimental, Chopra executes fight choreography with pure electricity. Like a zen master, movie Mary’s coach instructs her to fight with both brain and brawn. Chopra has the ferocity to enact that plan, packing punch with her uppercut and her pissed off death stares. Still, there’s nothing quite like watching one of the real Mary Kom’s fights. Kumar’s slow-motion, uber-serious approach undercuts his subject’s rapid fire style.

The real life Mary — born Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom — has written an autobiography, making details of her life story available for reaping. The hardships Chopra’s fictional Mary endured likely occurred in a less stagey manner. Kom did fight off creepy guys with her boxing skills. She did disobey her parents, who forbade her from boxing as it was “un-ladylike,” and she was the victim of racism throughout her career, like many Northeastern Indians. (Worth noting: Chopra’s casting caused a major stir, as the Jamshedpur-born actress looks nothing like Kom. The boxer doesn’t seem to mind — as the film prepares to open in India, she’s elated by the finished results.) When real life becomes too repetitive, Mary Kom mixes in underground street fights, will they/won’t they romance and training montages punctuated by a Hindi pop soundtrack to spice up the career trajectory. This is blockbuster, after all.

Mary Kom Photo

Actress Priyanka Chopra and her real-life counterpart Mary Kom. 

It’s thrilling to watch Chopra’s Mary punch her way to success Rocky style, but it’s even more fun to watch her plow through gender standards to return to the athletic profession after becoming a mother to twins. Mary defines her own womanhood in Mary Kom. She averts arranged marriage. After tying the knot with a man she loves, the boxer bows out of wrestling at the peak of her career so she can start a family on her terms. When she feels the urge to kick butt once again — the way Chopra plays it, Mary doesn’t take an interest in boxing, she’s called it to like its a word from God — she sets up a punching bag outside her nursery. Whatever it takes, Mary fights for everything she wants to be in the world. No didactic lessons or embellished speeches required. Just good ol’ fashioned working hard.

Mary Kom is a confectionary true story, more Karate Kid than Million Dollar Baby, but it feels urgent and vital in a world that keeps women jumping hurdles for equality. If Mary Kom and Priyanka Chopra aren’t on your radar, the disparity between male and female-led movies in India may not be either. Industry trades hail 2014 has a major breakthrough for Bollywood, citing films like Vikas Bahl’s Queen, Revolver Rani, Kill the Rapist?, Ithinumappuram, Kahaani, and Yellow as a forceful erosion of an industry dominated by men. As Chopra introduced TIFF audiences to Mary Kom, the film readied release in its home country on 3000 screens, rare even for movies with male stars. On its opening day, the biopic earned 7.50 crores, nearly $1.2 million, the biggest opening ever for a film with a female lead.

Maybe it’s time to follow Priyanka Chopra on Twitter.

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