Senior journalist Jyothi Venkatesh is perhaps the only one around who remembered going to the mahurat of a B-grade film called Good Night Princess even before Priyanka left for the Miss World pageant. It was to be made by Atlee Brar, who played a small-time villain in a Dev Anand film, with Pooja Batra as the heroine and Miss India World in ‘a good role’.

“The spotlight was on Pooja Batra and I noticed this young girl sitting by herself,” said Jyothi. “So I went up to her and asked her her name. She said, ‘Priyanka Chopra.’ I asked her why she didn’t wait for a better debut and she said, ‘I’m from Bareilly. Everything’s so new for me out here.’”

Fortunately for Priyanka, Good Night Princess didn’t progress beyond the initial flutter and she went on to become Miss World. “We stayed in touch,” recalled Jyothi, “and when she finally signed The Hero, she called up and told me about it.

“It’s true that Priyanka is not the most beautiful girl around,” he remarked. “To begin with, she was dark and a little plump too. But her winning trait was her ability to do a reality check on herself. She knew her flaws and worked hard to overcome them. Look at Lara Dutta. She debuted at the same time as Priyanka; it was Advantage Lara at that time. But she faded away while Priyanka grew from strength to strength.

Priyanka Chopra in her first studio shoot. Image credit Dainik Bhaskar/Om Books International.
Priyanka Chopra in her first studio shoot. Image credit Dainik Bhaskar/Om Books International.

One of the many films that she shot for and heartachingly watched as it got shelved was Vijay Galani’s untitled film with big-ticket director Mahesh Manjrekar at the helm. The mahurat shot featured her with Bobby Deol, then a busy hero.

“The media was there in full strength and Prakash Jaju, her secretary, kept asking me to go and meet her,” Galani went back in time. “So I went to her room where she was doing her make-up and that’s when I realised why Jaju had been egging me to go meet her. She’d just had some nasal surgery done in London where the bridge of her nose had collapsed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had a little bit of shooting here in Film City and then a long schedule planned in London. How could we shoot with the heroine’s nose looking the way it did?

“But Priyanka herself wasn’t one bit perturbed,” remarked Galani. “She was absolutely confident that it was a temporary situation and that the nose would settle down in a month’s time, definitely by the time we left for London.”

Galani got into a huddle with Mahesh Manjrekar who assured him that he’d manage the first schedule at Film City. “I’ll take long shots, don’t worry,” said the director to the worried producer...They shot for a few days during which time Priyanka would go to Film City and sit with Galani and the team in an office there to discuss the film.

But a month later, the nose was still a problem.

By then a few other factors also kicked in. Mahesh Manjrekar who had signed a spate of films after Vaastav, began to deliver one flop after another. Within weeks his market value crashed.

The Deols too were not comfortable. Bobby was antsy about his heroine’s nose and he promised to adjust the money he’d been paid by Galani against another film.

What was important to note was that although he didn’t make a film with her, Vijay knew she would turn out to be a fine actress. “In those five to six days that she worked with me, we knew that she was a powerful actress. Bahut achcha kaam kiya (She put in some excellent work),” applauded Galani who missed the opportunity to be the man who launched Priyanka Chopra.

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The Hero Love Story of a Spy (2003).

“People in this industry exaggerate limitlessly,” observed Jaywant Thakre, the expert who had done the make-up on Priyanka’s face on that fateful evening when Vijay Galani and director Mahesh Manjrekar had their mahurat and had been aghast at their heroine’s nose. The bridge that had collapsed, costing her seven films from which she was ejected, was not such a big deal, said Thakre. “What are we make-up artistes for if not to camouflage such elements?” he questioned. “When I did the make-up for Shilpa Shetty during Dhadkan, there was a cut clearly visible across her nose (after cosmetic surgery). It was my job as the makeup man to take care of it and nobody saw that cut in the film. Between the make-up man and the cameraman, such things can be easily handled. Priyanka’s nose was also manageable. It wasn’t the kind of disaster that the media and the industry made it out to be.”

Jaju had also boasted that when all the producers were dropping her, Anil Sharma too was on the verge of following suit when he (Jaju) pleaded with him to retain Priyanka in his film The Hero. The filmmaker had given in but had whittled down her role from the main lead to a secondary one.

Demolishing the report that he’d demoted Priyanka from main lead to second, Anil underscored, “That’s a fake story. When I signed her for The Hero, I didn’t have a script ready. We were only sure that Sunny Deol would play the title role, nothing else was finalised. When Priyanka was signed, it was talked of as a Sunny-Priyanka film. But the script hadn’t been written and when it was, it happened to have two girls in it, both opposite Sunny. Preity played one role, Priyanka the other.”

“After signing her, I’d gone to the US and Canada for three or four months. When I came back and started working on the script, I began to hear that she’d had some surgery done, that she wanted pouting lips like Julia Roberts. I hadn’t met her for a while because after my first few meetings with her, I was confident that she would be a very good actress, I knew that I wouldn’t have to slog over her performance… But when I returned, I met Pravinbhai of Time (then a popular production house) and he told me that she’d been dropped from three or four films. He also put a photograph before me. Of a girl in a bathing suit coming out of the pool. I told him, ‘This is not Priyanka, this is someone else. This girl is really awful looking while Priyanka is a pretty girl with a beautiful smile.’ He insisted that the girl in the photograph was Priyanka. I was shocked, so I called her and she came to meet me with her mother...

When I looked at her, I burst out angrily and asked her, ‘Where was the need to do all this?’ Mother and daughter got very emotional at this meeting and they explained that she’d had surgery done, it would take six to seven months for the nose to heal. Since she’d been dropped from three or four other films, they were going back to Bareilly and they returned my cheque to me. Yes, that was a very dignified thing to do. They were very decent, cultured people,” he noted appreciatively.

“I was also emotionally moved. So I told them not to return to Bareilly right away. I told them that I’d do a screen test with her. I called Pandhari dada (veteran makeup man), sent for cinematographer Kabir Lalji, decided on her look with short hair and took a screen test.

“She was determined, unmein kshamta thi (she had the ability), that’s why she succeeded. As a filmmaker, I had only the small role of presenting her on the screen in the right way,” he pointed out. “The first scene I filmed on her featured Priyanka in a long shot with Kabir Bedi. They were playing father and daughter and she gave her shot like a seasoned artiste. Kamaal ki performer hamesha se thi (She was always a fantastic performer). I used to tell her that she had very seductive eyes and a lovely husky voice. I knew she’d do very well. Par kitni door kaun jata hai yeh toh Ishwar hi bata sakta hai (But how far a person will go is something only god can tell you). By god’s grace, her choice of films also turned out well for her.”

Excerpted with permission from Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse, Bharathi S Pradhan, Om Books International.