Priyanka Chopra: The girl who leapt through time

  • Saudamini Jain, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 10, 2015 21:17 IST
She’s a top star in Bollywood. But not too many Americans had heard of her. That didn’t deter Priyanka Chopra from snagging the lead in an American TV show.

Nobody was expecting this. And certainly not in 2000 when Miss India Priyanka Chopra, all of 18 then, was crowned Miss World.

At the time, Priyanka wanted to become a clinical psychologist “to understand why people turn demented”. She also thought (and said) that India was home to two billion people (it wasn’t, we’re at 1.2 billion today). And most mortifying of all, when asked: “Who do you consider to be the most successful woman living today and why?”, she answered, “Mother Teresa.’’ (Mother Teresa had died three years before.)

When Priyanka was crowned Miss World in 2000, nobody could have imagined she’d be so successful. (AP Photo/Adam Butler)

What followed was incredulity and fury. “We Indians send out some bimbo and she returns with the prize, and we act like we’ve conquered the world,” Khushwant Singh wrote, “This one is singularly stupid.” An editorial in the Hindustan Times said that “perhaps Ms Chopra had taken the convent school line about the Holy Ghost a little too seriously.” The Indian Express headline was thus: India Breasts Tape Again in the World’s Great Bimbo Race.

But the “bimbo” has come a long way since. And in the last decade and a half, she’s been no stranger to criticism. Just last year, her Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything – in which Reddit users get to interact with celebrities) backfired on her. She was attacked for her accent, auto-tuning her music, endorsing fairness creams and for a road being named after her late father. But it is almost impressive at how unfazed she is. She coolly tells me, “I’m not running for President – everybody’s opinion doesn’t matter. Haters gonna hate and potatoes gonna potate. What are you gonna do?”

This interview was conducted on the phone, since Priyanka is in Montreal shooting for Quantico, the new American TV show in which she plays Alex Parrish, an FBI trainee accused of plotting the most devastating terrorist attack on New York since 9/11. Alex is half-Indian and has spent 10 years in India, which explains her halfway-there American accent –“I had to learn the accent. I have a dialect coach on set with me and she listens to all my lines every day and it’s quite a task,” says Priyanka.

The very first scene shows rubble – and amidst it, a wrist with a black bracelet wrapped around it: on it a metal “Om” – this is Alex Parrish. “The show begins with an Om because I wanted that for good luck,” Priyanka says.

On September 27 (October 3 in India) the show opened to a mostly good response. It rated a 7.6 on IMDb and a 7.8 on The New York Times said she was “the strongest human asset on the show” and Vulture said “She’s very compelling on screen”; Salon called her character “the Indian-American heroine I’ve been waiting for”.

“I’ve just come back to the set,” Priyanka says. “I’m going to walk in for the first time after the premiere. We’re shooting nine scenes, it’s going to be a long day! I’m promoting and shooting together. I don’t think I could’ve been prepared for the hours that we do.” A few minutes later, the call drops. When we reconnect, I hear excited chatter. I imagine a frenzy of people who, if all goes well and the show is renewed for more seasons, will work together for six months every year for many years. “We’re all away from home, so the cast has become very close. We meet every weekend, despite spending 15 hours a day together. Especially the girls.”

Quantico’s cast, especially the girls, is very close. (ABC/Guy D’Alema)

In the beginning, Chopra’s career didn’t sound very promising. At best, there were some average Akshay Kumar-starrers, like Andaaz and Aitraaz, but most were forgettable: The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, Plan...

And then came the hits one after the other: Krrish and Don (2006), Fashion and Dostana (2008), Kaminey (2009), 7 Khoon Maaf and Don 2 (2011), Agneepath and Barfi! (2012), Krrish 3 (2013), Gunday and Mary Kom (2014) and the upcoming Bajirao Mastani is already making waves... There were misses now and then (remember Love Story 2050?), but in this long impressive list, you can forgive the flops.

It was right in the middle of all this success, that Priyanka began planning her international career. Co-incidentally, this was also a time for some anti-Priyanka sentiment in Bollywood. Three years ago, the press was aflame with gossip about just how unpopular she was among the Bollywood wives. But she is quite likeable, says film critic Rajeev Masand: “She goes out of her way to charm a person. A lot of people find that suspicious – because they judge her based on the rumours.”

So it was perhaps as a consequence of the nasty gossip that Priyanka immersed herself in her work – and looked beyond Bollywood. Ask her about the vitriolic things said about her, and she says, “I don’t want to dwell on any of that. I like to tell myself, it’s over. And right now I want to think about the fact that my show opened to a huge premiere. I’m delighted with the support people in the audience and the Hindi film industry have given me.”

The downside of interviewing Priyanka Chopra is that she (like so many in Bollywood) tends to talk in platitudes. Working on the show has “been a wonderful experience”; ABC is the “frontrunner when it comes to doing different kinds of shows”; the Quantico cast is “a very fun group of people”. But there is some wisdom hidden in the clichéd responses.

Anjula Acharia-Bath, Priyanka’s overseas manager, has been called “the woman behind the woman” because she hasn’t been an ordinary manager. In 2010, Bath co-founded Desi Hits Universal, a venture funded by the Universal Music Group to find and promote South Asian talent. Music composers Salim-Sulaiman had recorded a demo with Priyanka, and sent it to Acharia-Bath. “I loved it,” the manager says. “I had actually seen Priyanka and Abhishek Bachchan in Bluffmaster years before. They did a song called Right Here Right Now. It was a hip-hop spoof – that’s when I first had my eye on her.”

The other thing was her cosmopolitan looks. She doesn’t look typically South Asian. Priyanka admits, “I get a lot of Puerto Rican. I guess with me doing what I’m doing now, people will realise I’m Indian.” She has an international appeal, says Acharia-Bath, adding, “It’s kind of like Saif Ali Khan – he’s got a bi-cultural sensibility that I also think can translate globally.”

Bath is responsible for all of Chopra’s international ventures: her music (her singles, Exotic with rapper Pitbull, In My City featuring The Black Eyed Peas’ – and the song that nobody talks about but is the best of the lot: Erase with the DJ duo The Chainsmokers), her campaign for Guess as the brand ambassador, the 2013 animated Disney film Planes (she lent her voice to Ishani, a pan-Asian racer plane) and Quantico.

It couldn’t have been easy. “Here is an A-list actor, who had the courage and ambition to become a newcomer again in another industry,” says film critic Anupama Chopra.

“The commitment this girl was willing to put in was unprecedented,” says Masand. “Bollywood actors expect to be treated the same way abroad. If you expect the world to lay out a red carpet for you, it’s not going to happen – they don’t even know you!”

Aishwarya Rai (in Mistress of Spices) was already a superstar and probably didn’t want to start from scratch.

There was a time when one had imagined that Aishwarya Rai would take Hollywood by storm. But that somehow didn’t quite happen. Masand cites Shah Rukh Khan as an example. “Years ago – when he was shooting Yes Boss (1997) I think – Shah Rukh told me that he had been offered the villain’s sidekick in a Bond film. I told him, ‘It’s a great way to break into Hollywood’. But he said, ‘Why would I ever want to be a villanous sidekick in a Bond film when I can be a superstar in a Bollywood film?’”

It’s why Freida Pinto is a success story in the West. “She was willing to climb the ladder – perhaps because, as a newcomer, she’d have had to do that in Bollywood as well. The only other person to do that is Priyanka – while she’s still one of the top actresses,” says Masand.

Two states: Freida Pinto (with Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire) is a success story in the West because she was a newcomer willing to climb the ladder.

At first, when I ask her about it, Priyanka shrugs off her anonymity. “I’ve known how to be in the public eye since I was 17. It’s just another country I’m doing it in.” she says. You were Miss India then, I point out. “But there was a time when people didn’t know me also, right? And I had to introduce myself to people. It feels exactly like that.” But starting over? She doesn’t admit to feeling disconcerted easily. But finally says, “I’ve worked for 13 years in one of the most prolific film industries in the world and then, to come to a completely new country, without familiarity... It was a little scary.”

In 2012, at a dinner party, Priyanka and her manager Acharia-Bath met Keli Lee, ABC’s head of casting. “We ended up talking a lot,” says Priyanka. “She told me what she’d done, I told her what I’d done. We had a really fun night together. Then Keli came to Mumbai when I was shooting Gunday and spoke to me about this talent deal for ABC like they’d done for Sandra Oh [Grey’s Anatomy] and others.”

Chopra read 26 scripts. “I picked four – ABC has made some phenomenal pilots this year, I’m very excited about them: Wicked City, Family… It was really fun sitting here and reading them. Quantico was my top choice, it was also ABC’s top choice for me. And Josh Safran [the creator] and Mark Gordon [executive producer] wanted me in this show as much.”

So, for the first time in her life, Priyanka auditioned for a role. A story in NYT notes that “Joshua Safran, the show’s creator, wasn’t sure what character Ms Chopra intended to read for when she arrived wearing a designer dress and carrying a designer handbag. ‘She walked in the room, and it was like the molecules shifted in that way that superstars have,’ he recalled. ‘I was very confused because I didn’t know who she was, but we all sat up straighter.’”

Safran was first skeptical because she was too glamorous. “So was Anurag Basu for Barfi!,” says Priyanka. “He came to my house and met me and said he didn’t think I could do Barfi ! because I was too glamorous. And I said, give me five days, let me work with you and after that if we both feel it won’t work out, we won’t do it.”

She is glitzy though – she has all the trappings of a global superstar. She travels with Team PC, her entourage (she told NYT: “When we walk into a room, it’s like Ocean’s Twelve”). Team PC, her manager Acharia-Bath tells me, is her core management team in America. “It started with Dana Supnick [PR], Natasha Pal [who handles her digital strategy] and myself. We always see Jimmy Iovine [the international music honcho] as part of our team because he’s been a mentor and biggest supporter from day one.” Then there are the agents, the business manager, some friends and the legal teams.

The American Vogue, last month, ran a piece titled Riding the Subway With Bollywood Superstar Priyanka Chopra: “Chopra still enjoys the benefits of relative anonymity in New York City, but when we boarded the train, people stared anyway. Perhaps because she was accompanied by an entourage of six or so people, including one very large bodyguard. Perhaps because the 33-year-old’s striking beauty literally turns heads. Or maybe something about her presence just screams movie star.” The story quoted her saying, “My team always says that once you travel with me, you don’t want to travel by yourself anymore.”

But like Anurag Basu, who realised that Chopra could in fact play an autistic girl with ease, Quantico’s Safran and Gordon understood that she could be very accessible on screen.

An article in Salon says “ABC bent over backward to give Chopra what she wanted with Quantico; the actress secured the lead role in her own drama but will still be free to act in Indian films.” So she is working on Bajirao Mastani and Jai Gangaajal – “and my music, you’ll hear about it soon – I’ve been such a bad mother to my music.”

Some time in the future, she’d like to do roles that transcend race – “maybe a Danish girl” – and, “turn the world colourblind.”

Follow @SaudaminiJain on Twitter

From HT Brunch, October 11

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