For anyone who has been following Priyanka Chopra’s career graph, it has been a year of triumph for the 33-year-old actor.
Thirteen years in the film industry with nearly 60 films to her credit, Chopra has emerged as one of the most buzzing entertainers in India and, now, in the United States of America. Thanks to her top-lining act the television drama Quantico, Chopra is now a recognisable face in America, toasted as much for her acting abilities as for her sensuality. It’s quite a feat, especially when you consider how Asian actors in the West are usually cast as ethnic stereotypes or anointed regional brand ambassadors for luxury brands, fit only to walk the red carpet at film and fashion events.
The well-received series is the fruit of a few years of persistent efforts on the part of the actress to get a Louboutin hold in the American entertainment industry. An endorsement of the Guess jeans brand earned Chopra some eyeballs thanks to a glamourous shoot by singer and photographer Bryan Adams, while her musical adventures with Pittbull and will.i.am did not help her break any new ground. However, her trendy American accent and the “ethnically ambiguous” character of Alex Parrish in Quantico more than compensated for her average vocal talents and “exotic” appeal.
In an email chat with Scroll.in, Chopra, who has been wrapping up the season finale for Quantico while simultaneously promoting the December 18 release of the period movie Bajirao Mastani, insists that there have been not one but several turning points in her life. “Every few months or years,” she said. “Being successful isn’t a destination but a journey. Of course there are some failures but I personally think you have consistent turnarounds.”
The last few months have been extraordinary for Chopra, whose filmography has had its peculiar lows and highs. On one hand, she has done a surprising number of cameos in films and on the other, she has taken up challenges such as playing a serial killer in 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) and an autistic woman in Barfi! (2012).
As recently as three years ago, Chopra was in the eye of a storm for her link-up with Shah Rukh Khan. Her publicity machinery struggled to ebb the flow of damaging reports about the alleged affair (denied by both stars) and fallouts with some of the most influential filmmakers and lobbyists in the film industry. Coupled with her father’s demise due to cancer, Chopra was certainly not in a happy place.
But the actress, who has rarely let down her fiercest critics even in dismal movies, exhibited serious grit and resilience and turned the tabloid wheels in her favour. Beginning with a new public relations team (Raindrop Media) that stepped in for crisis management as well as an image makeover, Chopra played the legendary pugilist Mary Kom in the movie of the same name in 2014. Chopra’s performance punched a big hole into the theory that her career was over.
Not to be underestimated
How much of Chopra’s resilience because of canny planning and how much is just pure instinct? “Upwards and onwards… that’s what I always say,” Chopra said. “I am passionate about what I do and I’ll never give that up without a fight. Life is full of ups and downs and I learnt early in life to pick myself up after a fall and march right on. It’s pure instinct. I don’t know any other way.”
Indeed, from being a social pariah, she was back in the thick of things, partying, working and clicking pictures with the very people who had allegedly cast her out. In 2012, Chopra was a brief but striking presence in Agneepath (2012) and put in an endearing performance in Barfi! Despite losing out the tailor-made lead role in Happy New Year (2014) to Deepika Padukone, she was back in the arena as Mary Kom and was in top form in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015).
According to those who have worked with the star in various capacities, Chopra stands apart from her peers by her hunger to stay on top of her game. “The size of the fight in her slim frame is bigger than the biggest stars,” says a former work associate who did not wish to be named. “And that can be a double-edged sword in this industry where women, no matter how much they get paid, and how good they are at their work, are expected to kowtow to the male stars.”
The “roller coaster experience” of Quantico has come at the right time for Chopra, who now has to deal with the likes of a seemingly invincible Padukone and a resurgent Kangna Ranaut back home. A great deal of the credit for her global breakthrough goes to angel investor Anjula Acharia Bath, who had been looking for an Asian star to make significant inroads into the American entertainment industry.
“Anjula has been a very important part of my journey internationally,” Chopra said. “She was the initiator of my foray into music internationally and her role has grown since then has evolved into my international manager, leading the charge on all my projects internationally.” Chopra fondly calls Bath “Anj” and said, “She understands completely what I want to achieve for myself.”
That, as anyone who has been part of Chopra’s travelling office, will tell you, is the key – to be in sync with what the actor wants for herself. And often, it is much bigger than a headline or a photo op.
A Bollywood star in Hollywood
At the moment, Chopra is straddling the worlds of Hindi cinema and American television rather well (she heaps praises on her team in the US and India that work seamlessly together). This means shuttling between continents, time zones and world views and remaining a formidable presence in India even though she is physically in the US.
Chopra’s story is different from that of Frieda Pinto, the other Indian actor to have recently built a career for herself in Hollywood. Pinto works mainly in international productions, while Chopra has debunked the theory that a bonafide Bollywood star cannot fit into American show business. Casting directors and agencies working on big-ticket American productions insist that producers look for actors who fit the script, rather than stars who come with baggage. Even Anil Kapoor has played mostly himself in both his Hollywood outings, Slumdog Millionaire and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.
Chopra, who faced racial bullying as a teenager during the years she spent in the US in the 1980s, says she did not have to change any bit of herself in order to fit in. “I am what I am and I have never seen the need to change myself to suit anyone,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough to have worked with people whether in music and now in TV in the US who respected who I was and what I’ve achieved and have treated me in that manner. As for fitting in… I am a professional first and foremost… I take what I do very seriously.”
The perks of being an Indian celebrity are not valid on the studio floor, she added. “No matter where I’m working, I leave all the bells and whistles that come with being a celebrity outside the door,” she said. “When I’m on set, on stage or in a recording studio… work is worship… nothing else matters. Wherever I walk the bells and whistles follow. It’s just how it’s always been.”
For the first few weeks after Quantico first aired, all people would talk about were her plump lips. “What can I say…. I’m a little amused and flattered!” Chopra said. “I seem to be competing with my own lips and hair for attention in the US!”
The actress, who has homes in Mumbai and Los Angeles and works sometimes up to 16 hours a day, confesses to being lax about her health. “In my case it’s always been a case of ‘cure instead of prevention’, which basically means that I work till I drop,” she said. “I’ve always been like that… I take my health for granted unfortunately and most often than not I work myself to the point of exhaustion. For me, sleep is my biggest ally and cure for ailments… a few hours of good sleep and I’m raring to go. At some point…hopefully soon, I hope to change this and start taking care of myself.”
In India, Chopra has not announced any new movie after Bajirao Mastani, in which she co-stars with Ranveer Singh and Padukone. But there are some big announcements in the offing, both in terms of films and endorsements. For the time being, it is all about jet-setting between commitments and continents. “I go where my work takes me,” Chopra said to the tinkling of bells and whistles.