After writing Anything But Khamosh, the authorised biography of actor and politician Shatrughan Sinha, in 2015, seasoned film journalist and author Bharathi S Pradhan has turned her attention to a younger, more elusive and different kind of Bollywood luminary.
Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse charts the 35-year-old actress’s journey from the days before she won the Miss World pageant in 2000 to her steady rise in Hindi cinema thereafter and all the way up to her most recent foray into Hollywood. The 219-page book comes as Chopra continues to grab headlines as an actor and singer in Hindi cinema and Hollywood and a producer of movies across languages.
Is it too early to look back already?
“This is not a biography of Priyanka Chopra by any means,” Pradhan told Scroll.in. “It is just a story of a very, very inspirational winner. Also, it is not about how old the person is or the number of years he or she has been around, but about what she has to tell.”
The decision to document the life one of India’s most ambitious and successful actresses was taken after Pradhan heard Chopra’s speech ‘Breaking the glass ceiling’ at an event in December 2017. “I just found her entire journey so inspiring,” Pradhan said. “There have been so many setbacks in her life, but she has tackled each one of those so successfully. Where anybody else in her place would have either given up or stumbled or fallen, she is someone who would fall but get up and come back for the next round. It is the person that she is and her journey that made me want to write this book.”
Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse creates a profile of its subject through excerpts from interviews conducted with some of her collaborators. These include Pradeep Guha, the former head of The Times of India group, who mentored Chopra ahead of the Miss World pageant, Suneel Darshan, the filmmaker responsible for Chopra’s 2003 hit Andaaz, the director duo Abbas-Mustan, who cast her in one of the pivotal roles of her career in Aitraaz (2004), Madhur Bhandarkar, whose Fashion (2008) gave Chopra her first National Film Award, and Anurag Basu (Barfi, 2012) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Bajirao Mastani, 2015).
Pradhan did not interview Chopra or her family members for the book. “I never wanted to, I didn’t want to lose my independence in the bargain,” she said. “Also, I knew I was doing a very, very positive, a very good story. I’m sure nobody is going to have any objection to it because it is just a story of a winner.” Instead, Pradhan has woven in quotes from an interview conducted with Chopra many years ago.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who know her well,” Pradhan said. “All of them are very responsible people who have analysed her success and given me a sense of why she is where she is. I also know all of them really well. Subhash Ghai, for instance, is someone I’ve practically grown up with. I decided early on that I would concentrate on Chopra’s landmark films and talk to people about them. Basically about everything that was a turning point in her career or her life.”
Subhash Ghai’s eyes twinkled as he remembered, “One major thing that happened during Aitraaz was— Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse. Courtesy Om Books International.
that Rakesh Roshan who was making Krrish, called me home and gave me a nice meal too. He was tossing names around and wondering who to cast in the film when I suggested Priyanka. He asked me if I could show him some of the scenes from Aitraaz and I said ‘Yes’. So he and Hrithik went to Empire Studio where the mixing of Aitraaz was going on and saw some scenes of the film. After two days, Priyanka sent me a big bouquet of flowers with a note that read, ‘Thank you very much, it worked and I’ve signed Krrish.’ She got established as a heroine from there.”
Pradhan decided on the title of the book even before she sat down to write it. Dark Horse is a pun on Chopra’s unexpected success as well as the fact that she snubbed for the colour of her skin and her “unconventionally beautiful” looks early on in her career.
The chronicle is fashioned as the story of an underdog, but begins with a moment of victory. In 2000, 17-year-old Priyanka Chopra, contestant No 23, was on stage in the final round of the Miss India contest. “Who do you consider the most successful woman living in the world today?” asked one of the judges. “Mother Teresa,” Chopra replied, baring her ignorance of the fact that Teresa had died in 1997. “She gave a wrong answer – she didn’t do that purposely of course, she is a smart girl – and yet she won the crown,” Pradhan remarked.
Pradhan lists all that followed for the aspiring actress: a Bollywood debut that didn’t get off the ground, the unpleasant consequences of a “botched-up nose job”, alleged romantic entanglements with Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan and the impact these had on her career, and the steely and focused rise as an international star against all odds.
“I think her story is the blueprint for success and winning,” Pradhan said. “Read the book and learn how to get up after every stumble. That stumble may even be a fall, even if it is, just get up, dust yourself and get ready for the next round. It requires a whole lot of courage. It requires a whole lot of good luck for sure, but without that accompanying courage, the luck is not going to work.”
“I have never known her to seek validation or recognition for how hard she works,” underlined Hrithik. “Priyanka always came across as a fun person, always cheerful,” he stated. “And amazingly spontaneous as an actor. Painfully hard working, without being pretentious about it. She, I assume, was taught by her parents to never allow herself to be seen as needy or dependent or weak. This quality of hers struck me as something out of the ordinary for a girl, hell, even for a guy those days,” he chuckled.— Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse. Courtesy Om Books International.
All of Pradhan’s interview subjects have the most flattering things to say about Chopra, whether it is her ambition, her reaction to failure, her hard-working nature, her rootedness or her emotional and benevolent side. Pradhan considers this a testament to the extraordinariness of her subject.
“Most people are friendly with each other only when a project is going on,” Pradhan said. “But Chopra’s friendships aren’t like that. She is somebody who has kept in touch with people even if she has done only one film with them. Sitting in New York, she’ll make sure to send an invite to Abbas-Mustan for a screening of her Marathi production Ventilator in Mumbai. She’s just marvellous and there’s so much to learn from her life.”
Chopra’s filmography is the reference point for most of Pradhan’s analysis, and this includes even productions that did not set the box office registers ringing. “For instance, a film that may not have done well like 7 Khoon Maaf was actually a turning point in her career,” Pradhan said. “It added to her repertoire as an actor.”
The book is littered with anecdotes from the sets of Chopra’s films that fleetingly cast some light on the person behind the poster. If one were to look for a role that comes closest to describing Chopra the person, which one would it be?
“I think it would be Kashibai from Bajirao Mastani,” Pradhan said. “I’ve written about her tumultuous equation with a director like Sanjay Leela Bhansali. She did Mary Kom [Bhansali’s production] when she wasn’t even on talking terms with him [it is believed that Chopra was angry that Bhansali gave the lead role in Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram Leela to Deepika Padukone after offering it to her first]. But soon after, Priyanka agreed to do an item number in the very film in which she was supposed to have played the lead. She was always someone who saw the larger picture – for whom the film came before her.”
A character like Kashibai embodies that sense of endurance, benevolence and resilience, Pradhan added. “Kashibai knew how to make the most of the situation,” Pradhan said. “Despite all the odds stacked against her, she could do a Pinga.”
It is through a discussion of Chopra’s films that Pradhan also addresses the rumours about Chopra’s rumoured relationships with her married co-stars, Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan. Pradhan does not make too much of those anecdotes. “There are just passing, very brief references to those phases of her life,” Pradhan said. “They are not the crux of the book. That’s not where you linger. Nobody I spoke to spoke about those things. Nor did I ask them. What I’ve done is made a reference to the fact that these stories were going around.” The only ex-lover Pradhan interviews is Chopra’s first boyfriend, Aseem Merchant.
Suneel Darshan didn’t go back to Priyanka for another film. And Priyanka never did a film with Akshay again. It would’ve felled a weaker woman.
“I met her at a party immediately after her split from Akshay and she was in tears,” recalled journalist Jyothi. “I hate to fail,” said Priyanka to her audience. “Tubs of ice creams, tissues, tears, dramebaazi (theatrics), my mother...one thing that’s as certain as day and night is that you will fail. But it’s what you do after, that’ll define where you go. When something I’ve invested my heart and my soul in, which I do with everything I do, I don’t just wallow in self-pity. I roll around in it, I wrap myself around it, self-pity, self-pity, self-pity, it’s not a pretty sight...Then I get up, cry a bit, dust myself off and dive straight back into life.”— Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse. Courtesy Om Books International.
Had Chopra wanted an authorised biography, Pradhan would have been happy to have written it too. “But I don’t know her,” Pradhan reasoned. “I know a lot about her journey. I know people who know her. But she’s not somebody whom I can call a friend or anything like that. I don’t even think she would recognise me if she saw me on the street.”
Has the process of writing a book brought her closer to her subject?
“That wasn’t my goal,” Pradhan said. “I wasn’t even trying to get to the person behind the poster. You say she is elusive? That didn’t even strike me. I have no idea.”
Pradhan is clear that everyone “right from Priyanka and her mother” to the average reader will love the book because of its positivity. “I have no plans at all for anything negative,” Pradhan said when asked about what she would do if Chopra reacted adversely to the book.