Aseem Chhabra’s Priyanka Chopra The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star is the second unauthorised biography of the movie star and producer after Bharathi S Pradhan’s Priyanka Chopra Dark Star. Chabbra’s book traces Chopra’s rise and rise from middle-class origins to global stardom through the American television show Quantico. In edited excerpts, Chhabra digs up the back story of how Chopra’s manager, Anjula Acharya, swung the deal that made the Hindi film actor a household name across America.
People can try and chart the course of their lives and careers, but there are always unexpected events which trigger things forward, perhaps even in the direction where one may not have thought of going. In Priyanka Chopra’s life, that chance happening was in 2012 when at a dinner party, she and Anjula Acharya met with Keli Lee, a casting executive at ABC—the Disney-owned American television network.
Priyanka Chopra first took baby steps into American pop culture with her singles, but it is not clear if she was aiming for network television after that. However, she had a pat answer when she was asked why she had considered television to be her first acting vehicle in the US. ‘I want to go wherever my work takes me. I want to be able to tell stories globally, entertain globally.’
Keli Lee—the ABC executive at that dinner party—had something in common with Anjula. Korea-born, Lee came to the US when she was two years old. ‘As a young Korean girl growing up in the US, I learned about American culture through watching television programmes,’ Keli told Forbes.com. ‘At the time, there was very little diversity on television and no one who looked like me or my family on television.’
Keli joined Disney/ABC, rose through the ranks, and then, in 2001, she launched a programme called ABC Discovers: Talent Showcase, an initiative to find people of colour and other races to be represented on television shows. Her team auditions thousands of potential actors of different ethnicities and along the way they have discovered the likes of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Golden Globe-winner Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat), Chadwick Boseman (lead in Marvel’s Black Panther), and Cornelius Smith Jr (Scandal). Keli is also the brain behind some of the biggest recent diversity-focused castings on television— Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), Sofía Vergara (Modern Family) and Kerry Washington (Scandal).
Keli remembers the dinner in 2012 and making that rare discovery. ‘Even in Hollywood, it’s not every day that a global superstar like Priyanka walks into a room,’ she told Forbes.com. ‘And even rarer to meet someone who has the total package of beauty, intelligence, talent, warmth, vulnerability, generosity and charitable spirit. I knew she belonged on ABC.’
Keli and Anjula remained in touch, while Priyanka was in India shooting her films. The conversation went on for some time and, finally, Keli flew to India with Anjula to talk further with Priyanka. Priyanka was shooting for Gunday at that time and Keli again charted out the possibilities for her, giving examples of Sandra Oh, Sofía Vergara and Kerry Washington. Priyanka made a few things clear to Keli. ‘I didn’t need to do anything unless it happened to be the right thing,’ she was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying. ‘So I told her, the only way I would do it is if you find me a show and a path which first will put me in the same position that I am in India.’
In December 2014, Priyanka’s team announced that she had signed a one-year TV development deal with ABC. Priyanka released an official statement emphasizing on how she had always been a fan of ABC’s shows and the network’s efforts of reflecting diversity through its characters, and how she felt honoured ‘by the opportunity to share my talent with a game-changing network’. Sheila Marikar would later remark that her February 2014 piece in The New York Times may have triggered the ABC deal. ‘What Anjula told me was after my article came out, she used the article as a bargaining chip between ABC and FOX,’ Sheila says. ‘They were competing with a development deal with Priyanka and suddenly there is a Times’ Style section piece about how she is the next big “it” girl in America. Anjula presented the article saying, “Hey The New York Times is saying this. Which one of you wants to sign a development deal with her?”’
The one-year deal meant that either ABC would develop a project for Priyanka or cast her in an existing project. Priyanka was handed twenty-five scripts for pilot shows to read. She picked four and said Quantico was her top choice. And later, she said it was also ABC’s top choice.
From Caucasian male to Alex Parrish
Quantico was created by Joshua Safran whose previous works include the hit shows Gossip Girl (CW network) and Smash (NBC). In September 2014, trade publications announced that Safran had signed a deal with ABC for the show Quantico. The show was described as Homeland meets Grey’s Anatomy. The show revolved around a group of diverse FBI recruits who go through twenty-one weeks of training to become special FBI agents at Quantico, the agency’s academy in Virginia. The show was designed to engage the audience by giving them clues about a potential terrorist among the recruits.
Joshua partly roped in his impressions about a family member who may have been a CIA agent. But at the time of the writing of the show, Alex Parrish—the role Priyanka Chopra plays—was supposed to be a Caucasian male character. ‘Well of course,’ says Eric Deggans, TV critic at National Public Radio (NPR), when I mention to him that there was a possibility that Alex Parrish would have been a white man. Eric talks to me from his office in Florida. His writings often focus on race and diversity in American media. ‘Every good part starts with a white man,’ he adds.
And then the day came when Priyanka went to audition for the role in the presence of Joshua Safran and producer Mark Gordon. This is the first time the star of Fashion, Bluffmaster! and Dostana was going to audition for a role. She showed up wearing a designer dress and carrying a fashionable handbag. Joshua was confused—not sure what character she was going to read. ‘She walked in the room, and it was like the molecules shifted in that way that superstars have,’ Joshua later recalled in an interview with The New York Times. ‘I was very confused because I didn’t know who she was, but we all sat up straighter.’
Joshua’s idea of Alex Parrish was a character hardened by tragedy. He never imagined Alex as a bombshell. But on meeting Priyanka, he realized that Alex could also have sense of humour and a heart. ‘One of the things we talked about was, “Is she so glamorous that she can’t play this regular person?”’ Producer Mark Gordon told The Times. ‘What we quickly came to realize is that she’s a huge star internationally, but she’s actually quite regular.’
While Priyanka obviously looked South Asian, Quantico’s producers put her through extensive accent training. The American accent she tried to acquire was a matter of much debate, mocking and ridicule in India. It was almost like despite months of anticipation of seeing Priyanka Chopra—the first major Indian actor to appear on a network television show— many Indians were waiting for her to fail and they found her failure in her accent.
People acquire accents for various reasons. In Priyanka’s case, one reason was because she had lived in the US as a teenager, then, she also had to sing her singles sounding like an American. Now this major role on a television show required her to speak like an American. But sadly, her Indian critics were unforgiving.
Priyanka clarified that the accent training was hard for her, especially rolling her ‘Rs’ as Americans tend to do. And when the criticism in India hit her hard, she made a joke of it. Speaking in her mostly normal Indian accented English with a bit of Americanism thrown in, she made fun of the situation on Late Night With Seth Meyers, ‘This is my fake accent, my Indian accent is a fake accent.’
Excerpted with permission from Priyanka Chopra The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star, Aseem Chhabra, Rupa Publications.