I confess, like many others, I harboured every prejudice in the book. Priyanka Chopra at the Global Skills and Education Forum* – seriously?!? I appreciate that glamour is important. You cannot get a message across if you do not have an audience to begin with. But celebrity is not content; it provides the visual, not vision. What would a ‘beauty queen-turned-Bollywood actress’ know about preparing kids for the future?
As it turns out, our 45-minute dialogue with her was the most impactful display of power, passion and purpose. She was on point and in tune throughout, turning the staunchest of cynics around. Preparedness for the future is about skills and education broadly defined. That includes outlook, ambition, attitude, grit, resilience, empathy, cross-cultural sensitivity and much more. Priyanka’s personal story displays dollops of these.
But her story is also in the telling.
She was at once articulate, playful, combative and engaging in a wide range of issues. Her answers were not superficial tweetables replayed from some briefing notes. We came at her in an improv setting from a variety of angles – from the role of talent, hard work and destiny to what defines a global citizen, and what it truly means to be a feminist. There were no platitudes. Every answer was grounded in personal experience and extrapolated from observations. During an extended Q&A with the audience, she stayed on the front foot, connecting and sparring with the questioner.
Once you remove the veil of prejudice, none of this is really a surprise.
If you look at her portfolio in totality, Priyanka Chopra is the most accomplished acting professional from the Indian film industry. No-one else, male or female, has simultaneously ruled the roost domestically and appeared as a protagonist or lead antagonist on mainstream screens in the west. While she has earned international acclaim for her role in Quantico, followers of her filmography at home point to the wide spectrum of roles in Aitraaz, Fashion, Mary Kom and Barfi.
As one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2016 and a social media following of over 70 million, Priyanka uses her reach for good. We heard her relate how seriously she takes this responsibility – shining the spotlight that comes to her (in her diamond-encrusted gown at the Emmys) onto the plight of refugees and displaced people.
I challenged her on her advocacy for global citizenship. Is it not the case that if you are a citizen of the globe, you are a citizen of nowhere? Her response is a keeper:
“I’m a global citizen because the world matters to me. Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be concerned with what is happening elsewhere. A global citizen is someone who is aware of his or her privilege. It is someone who understands that no matter where in the world you go, there will be someone who is worse off than you. That gives you responsibility”.
She underscores the point once again when a teacher in the audience asked what message she would give to school children. Her message is this:
“If you are already going to school, if you have access to books, you should understand that you are already privileged. Do not take your education for granted. Go to school, graduate, make a future for yourself because you can make a future for this world. We depend on kids who go to school. There are millions of kids in this generation who will not have that. Compensate for those who don’t get it. Make opportunities for those who don’t have it. Understand your privilege and change the world!”.
The centrepiece of our dialogue however, was her passionate defence of feminism and fair play between the genders. “Is feminism compatible with beauty paegants”?, I asked gingerly. “Isn’t feminism about giving women the ability to make their own choices without being judged”?, she shot back.
She went on to describe why #TimesUp is such an empowering movement. “It brought the globe together. It means that we’re not going to stay silent anymore – whatever, whichever whereever. You can’t tell anyone to not speak up against things. We’re not ok with that being normal. We stand up for our rights, we stand by each other and we have our brothers-in-arms who are standing with us”.
Women’s rights was a recurring theme during Q&A. Here is a sample: How do you deal with the presumption that the same activity makes a man ‘driven’ but a woman ‘bossy’? What do you have to say about the objectification of women in entertainment? What more can the government do to change attitudes to women? How should students mobilize against injustice? Would you call yourself an entrepeneur? How do you rate the education system in South Asia? How do we train students in the ‘skills’ of empathy, creativity and collaboration? How do you take isolated examples of positive stories and scale them elsewhere?
On each occasion, she is quick on the ball and punchy with her response. However, what provided the greatest entertainment and through that, great elucidation, was her feisty response to a gentleman who effectively made a charge of ‘reverse sexism’. The relish with which she addresses it is worth watching without intermediation. Take a look – at the 43-minute mark.
Priyanka Chopra has that X-factor that makes her not only suited but essential to gatherings such as the Global Skills and Education Forum. Realising this was most educational for me. Kudos to the Varkey Foundation for an insightful program!
The Global Education and Skills Forum was held on 17-18 March 2018 alongside the ceremony for the annual Global Teacher Prize which this year was won by Andria Zafirakou from Alperton Community School in Brent, London.
Lutfey Siddiqi is a Visiting Professor-in-Practice at the LSE and member of the voting academy for the Global Teacher Prize.