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The making of desi girl Priyanka Chopra from Indian to international

One-fifth of the world’s population is South Asian. And it’s represented in the global film industry by one woman, Priyanka Chopra. On Brunch’s 13th anniversary, we celebrate with this phenomenal woman

brunch Updated: Feb 26, 2017 10:45 IST
Mark Manuel
She’s not ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising in pursuing her objectives. Priyanka Chopra is just plain determined
She’s not ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising in pursuing her objectives. Priyanka Chopra is just plain determined (Abheet Gidwani)

Priyanka Chopra’s giving no quarter in 2017. The actress ended last year by moving up to No. 16 on IMDb, the world’s largest Internet movie database, ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson and even Johnny Depp in the popularity stakes.

And to No. 8 on Forbes’ list of highest-paid celebs in the world. She joined UNICEF’s global goodwill ambassadors Jackie Chan and David Beckham. Time magazine put her on the cover as one of its ‘100 Most Influential People of The World’. And LinkedIn counted her among its 500-plus global influencers. She was the cover girl on at least 15 international magazines.

She presented awards at the Oscars, the Billboard Music Awards and the Emmys, received the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Actress in a New TV Series, appeared on the most sought-after American talk shows, on red carpets and billboards, had dinner with President Barack Obama at the White House, and got a Padma Shri and her second Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

She also became a social media trendsetter and gamechanger in the digital space, broke the Internet, ruled it, and indisputably owned 2016.

Priyanka Chopra is the flavour of the season, a season that simply refuses to end. Interestingly, she’s also a reader of

Woman of Substance

And her unbelievable march continues; her fan following internationally has reached gazillions. Like her character Alex Parrish in the American TV series Quantico, who moved from the FBI to the CIA in the second season of the thriller, Priyanka is taking no prisoners in 2017. She’s not ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising in pursuing her objectives. She’s just plain determined. Priyanka gave me a pasting when I raised this in a cut and thrust conversation I had with her at Film City when she was down in Mumbai for the festive season not long ago. It was her last interview before she returned to LA to host the Golden Globes and win her second People’s Choice Award – this time for Favourite Dramatic TV Actress. Impressed with her staggering popularity, Seth Gordon and Dwayne Johnson, the director and leading man of her Hollywood debut film, Baywatch, respectively, shot more scenes with Priyanka last week after wrapping up her role as the sizzling hot vamp Victoria Leeds in the comedy-drama in December.

Here’s a Bollywood actress, whose last Hindi film was the predictable police drama Jai Gangaajal in March 2016, suddenly witnessing a meteoric rise on the global entertainment scene. I asked Priyanka, was this sheer ambition on her part? And perseverance, belief, talent, ability... or pure luck? “I like to win,” she replied huskily, “so I don’t know what luck means. I don’t like losing in anything. I don’t know if that means I’m ambitious. I’m very driven. Having ambition is great, but I won’t kill anyone to get something. I’m someone who believes that the best person for the job should get the job. I believe a lot in merit, in talent, in getting a job because of merit, I work very hard at that and towards that. I don’t know any other way of getting a job than that.”

I have interviewed Priyanka before, many times, but then she was a desi girl. The female lead of Bollywood films like Dostana, Fashion, Agneepath and Barfi!. And our Q&A sessions were hardly worldly-wise. But one year in the US, in which she became the most prominent Indian face in American show business, changed all that. Priyanka sparkles in her conversation now, dazzles. She speaks brilliantly and with authority; her grasp of the business of global entertainment is amazing. She was always sexy and successful, now she’s also chic and confident. The former Miss World is now “a girl who speaks her mind in a world where women shouldn’t be so outspoken”.

The

Further proof of that came when Priyanka, a UNICEF global goodwill ambassador, slammed President Donald Trump’s recent sweeping refugee ban in the US by describing it as a “political witch-hunt” that had deeply affected her. Tongue firmly in cheek, she went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert after that and added that “she had better watch her mouth” about American governance because she “is in the US on a visa” herself!

I met her on the set of an ad film in Film City. Priyanka was stunningly made up and clutching an umbrella. She was shooting an accident scene on a wet road in studio rain. Bystanders stood alongside an ambulance with flashing lights in frozen horror. She was on a busman’s holiday. Doing several brand endorsements at one time, enjoying a few days of sun and surf in Goa, then going to Guwahati as ambassadress of Assam Tourism, sitting on the final edit of Sarvann, her studio Purple Pebble Pictures’ debut in Punjabi cinema, attending some parties, a Bollywood awards ceremony, and having ‘koffee’ with Karan Johar.

I began on the wrong note by asking which Hollywood actors’ names are on her phone and what she’d sent them for Christmas. “I’m not going to show you!” Priyanka shot back spiritedly. “Out of the question. That’s not going to be my claim to fame. I didn’t call anybody for Christmas, except my assistant who had the day off. I’m not good at that. And I’ve been busy. But I did so for Diwali. I sent gifts and flowers to all my friends there. Most of my colleagues know what Diwali is now. I made a deal. I send for Diwali and I get for Christmas.”

How does a desi girl go from being Indian to international? Priyanka Chopra on the drive needed to adopt changing values...

Her mother, Dr Madhu Chopra, had told the Bollywood press while announcing Sarvann that Priyanka was grounded in Indian values; that she was a true-blue Punjabi girl at heart, and religious as well. But Priyanka, I know, speaks no Punjabi. Yet she has produced a regional feature film in that language. As she had done in Bhojpuri and Marathi earlier in 2016, and was planning a challenging one in Nepali next. Which is pretty ambitious for a Bollywood actress with no Hindi film in hand. Does she converse with the Punjabi cabbies in LA, I asked.

“I don’t use cabs,” she answered frostily. “I don’t speak Punjabi. My mom is from Bihar; she’s half Kashmiri and half Malayalee. My dad was from Punjab. But he didn’t speak to mom in Punjabi because she doesn’t understand it. She speaks seven languages, but not Punjabi. Our house was two states. There was no language medium. We spoke English and Hindi. I was raised in the US and Bareilly. But my cousins Parineeti and Mannara speak Punjabi because they were raised in Ambala and Delhi. In LA, when I shoot on location, there are always 400 people standing around. Many Indians among them. At the most, they call out, ‘Sat Sri Akaal, Priyanka.’ They know I don’t speak Punjabi.”

Give me more!

What happened to her in the US with Quantico, I asked, because that’s where it all began. She took huge strides and left a global footprint as the name and face of the American TV show that left her Bollywood career far behind. The story goes that Priyanka told the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) that she would do Quantico only if she saw her face on billboards. She made it clear that she was no small actor and was used to seeing her face on Bollywood posters. “Why not?” she asked, slapping at a mosquito that was irritating her.“There was no precedent to it. Has there been an Indian actor in the lead before in any American film or TV show? Not that I can remember. Was Kabir Bedi the lead in Odyssey?” You mean Octopussy, the James Bond film of 1983, I corrected her.

The story goes that Priyanka told the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) that she would do Quantico

“Yes,” she said, giving me a dangerous look. “He wasn’t even the lead villain in Octopussy. So I was wondering, I was not sure how the world would react to an Indian actor playing the lead and carrying the show. I was very nervous at that time. But Quantico got such an incredible reception that I now feel better.”

The American terrorism thriller TV series got more than that. Quantico got Priyanka’s name in lights across the US of A. “I didn’t see that coming,” she admitted. “The show is just one season old and it’s already gone to 56 countries. It’s awesome to see the reception I got. I go to obscure countries, well – not obscure, but countries where I don’t expect anyone to know about me or my show, and find people of different races and nationalities familiar with the work I’ve done in Quantico, countries like Japan, France, where it’s the No. 1 show, Germany, China, where they have my face on buses, it’s so cool to see that kind of reception.”

The ultimate vindication that Quantico and her character connected globally is her two People’s Choice Awards. “It is what any actor aspires for because it is a true reward for the choices we make,” she agreed. Is that a soul-satisfying experience? “Oh no-no,” Priyanka said dismissively. “There’s so much to do. Just one show is not going to make my claim to fame. That’s not setting concrete down. Look at it this way, we are one-fifth of the world’s population, correct? I mean Indians or people of South Asian descent. But when you see global entertainment, do you see representation of that? Hardly! As many people as we are, as much as we watch TV, we don’t have representation in the globe and that’s where the world needs to go. Hopefully, with what I’ve been able to achieve, I’ve made a dent in that department where other people of Indian or South Asian descent get opportunities as main parts because of our sheer potential. It’s my mission. Bollywood’s the biggest film industry in the world. We make 900 films a year despite the fact that we speak only Hindi. Our reach is incredible. Why should we not have that global representation? So there’s so much to do, one show is not a big deal, let’s see what the journey is going to be. I don’t need to script anything… it’s all happening on its own; 2017 has only just begun and there are many stories left to unfold. Some I know and some that will just happen. Such is the prerogative of destiny’s child!”

Beyond convention

PeeCee won rave reviews and a National Award for her acting chops in

Baywatch will release in May 2017. Its first trailer last year had Priyanka on the screen for just one second. But the second trailer and teaser at the start of 2017 was entirely on her dangerously hot character, Victoria Leeds. Priyanka has played the antagonist only once before, in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2011 dark Bollywood comedy 7 Khoon Maaf, in addition to a grey character in the 2004 film, Aitraaz. Is Victoria a negative character?

She gazed at me incredulously and said, “Baywatch is rated a comedy. I play a comic villain. I’m not a serious villain. The character is evil. But ostentatious. Not real. In a comedy world how can the villain be? I’m the Boss Bitch on the Beach. And you know what’s amazing about this character? It was written for a guy and got converted to a role for a girl, with me. That’s what excited me, that’s one of the big reasons I’m playing this part. It’s my first Hollywood film and I wasn’t going to be the conventional exotic babe standing behind the guy. There’s no way I was going to do that. I haven’t done it in Hindi films either. I always look for quality in films. I look for parts that intrigue and excite me, no matter how small they are. Take Kaminey (Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2009 caper starring Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka), I had just eight scenes, but my part was so amazing and made such an impact. Like my character Victoria Leeds in Baywatch will have.”

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which can be as hidebound as our Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), gave Baywatch an ‘R’ rating. Which means the film possibly has strong language, violence, nudity for sexual purpose and drug abuse, and can be viewed by those under 17 only when they are accompanied by an adult. Is Priyanka in any such scenes? She certainly wasn’t awkward in the make out scenes of Quantico.

Priyanka Chopra created more than a buzz with the skin-coloured swimsuit in her music single

She looked at me like I have lost it. “Have you seen Hindi films recently?” she asked caustically. “The ‘U/A’ films, I’m not even talking ‘A’ films. I’m not assessing them, but what have you seen? Quantico is an ABC-Disney series. They have mandates about what they can’t show. All you see is shoulders up and knees down. Why is it such a big deal if I do a make out scene? I did it in India also. Not more nor less. Is it because I’m doing it in America now? Why these double standards? No, don’t call it an Indian mindset. It’s a very chhota mindset. I’m not an Indian in the show. I’m playing an American Indian who was born and brought up there. So obviously I’ll play that character which is of a modern, unapologetic American girl. What people choose to see is completely different from what they are actually seeing. But why is this question not asked of men who show their bodies and do sex scenes in Hindi cinema? Aap ne toh bada sex dikhaya! Poori body dikhayi! Women are looked at with such small minds when people need to applaud them for their achievements. There’s a lot more happening in Bollywood today than my show. The only difference I can see is that the guy I’m making out with is not Indian!”

The global Indian

The interview went like a ping-pong match. Everything I gave her, Priyanka returned with more topspin and force. The ad-filmmaker at Film City waited impatiently. He sent word to her vanity van that his cast on the set, all drenched to play the rainy day scene, was now shivering!

Since she was going to host the 2017 Golden Globe Awards and had presented at the Oscars, the Billboard Music Awards and the Emmys in 2016, I brought up a subject that has become a hot potato in Bollywood. The authenticity of Hindi film awards. People have always believed they are suspect. And now even Bollywood actors have started expressing their distrust about the rating system. How genuine is it in Hollywood?

She took the question in her stride. “I’ve attended as a presenter and spectator,” Priyanka reminded me. “I don’t know the inner workings of the awards and how they are decided. But from what I’ve been given to understand, the votes/ballots are tabulated by professional accounting firms and the sealed envelopes of the winners are only opened on stage. At the end of the day, awards are subjective and it all depends on who the jury is.”

It was unfair to keep trying to trap her into choosing or differentiating Bollywood from Hollywood, but I asked Priyanka if there is anything back in India that would make her chuck everything she had worked so hard to achieve globally and return home for good. 

She tut-tutted impatiently: “I didn’t ‘chuck’ anything to achieve a global career and that includes my home country, India. I don’t need to make a choice because I can do both. If you work hard and smart, there’s a lot you can do. I successfully managed to do Bajirao Mastani, Quantico and Baywatch and I will continue to do similar things. I’m a Hindi film actor first, don’t forget.”

In 2017, it will be hard to remember, I told her.

From HT Brunch, February 26, 2017

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