“I want to turn the world colour blind”

In 2000, she was called a bimbo – but that was a life­time ago. Here’s how Priyanka Cho­pra nav­i­gated her way through Bol­ly­wood and kick­started her in­ter­na­tional ca­reer

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - by Sau­damini Jain

She’s a top star in Bol­ly­wood. But not too many Amer­i­cans had heard of her. That didn’t de­ter Priyanka Cho­pra from snag­ging the lead in an Amer­i­can TV show. Could this be the start of a new in­ter­na­tional showbiz ca­reer for the glam­orous ac­tress?

NO­BODY WAS ex­pect­ing this. And cer­tainly not in 2000 when Miss In­dia Priyanka Cho­pra, all of 18 then, was crowned Miss World.

At the time, Priyanka wanted to be­come a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist “to un­der­stand why peo­ple turn de­mented”. She also thought (and said) that In­dia was home to two bil­lion peo­ple (it wasn’t, we’re at 1.2 bil­lion to­day). And most mor­ti­fy­ing of all, when asked: “Who do you con­sider to be the most suc­cess­ful woman liv­ing to­day and why?”, she an­swered, “Mother Teresa.’’ (Mother Teresa had died three years be­fore.)

What fol­lowed was in­credulity and fury. “We In­di­ans send out some bimbo and she re­turns with the prize, and we act like we’ve con­quered the world,” Khush­want Singh wrote, “This one is sin­gu­larly stupid.” An ed­i­to­rial in the Hin­dus­tan Times said that “per­haps Ms Cho­pra had taken the con­vent school line about the Holy Ghost a lit­tle too se­ri­ously.” The

In­dian Ex­press head­line was thus: In­dia Breasts Tape Again in the World’s Great Bimbo Race.

But the “bimbo” has come a long way since. And in the last decade and a half, she’s been no

stranger to crit­i­cism. Just last year, her Red­dit AMA (Ask Me Any­thing – in which Red­dit users get to in­ter­act with celebri­ties) back­fired on her. She was at­tacked for her ac­cent, au­to­tun­ing her mu­sic, en­dors­ing fair­ness creams and for a road be­ing named af­ter her late fa­ther. But it is al­most im­pres­sive at how un­fazed she is. She coolly tells me, “I’m not run­ning for Pres­i­dent – ev­ery­body’s opin­ion doesn’t mat­ter. Haters gonna hate and pota­toes gonna potate. What are you gonna do?”

This in­ter­view was con­ducted on the phone, since Priyanka is in Mon­treal shoot­ing for

Quantico, the new Amer­i­can TV show in which she plays Alex Par­rish, an FBI trainee ac­cused of plot­ting the most dev­as­tat­ing ter­ror­ist at­tack on New York since 9/11. Alex is half-In­dian and has spent 10 years in In­dia, which ex­plains her half­way-there Amer­i­can ac­cent –“I had to learn the ac­cent. I have a di­alect coach on set with me and she lis­tens to all my lines ev­ery day and it’s quite a task,” says Priyanka.

The very first scene shows rub­ble – and amidst it, a wrist with a black bracelet wrapped around it: on it a me­tal “Om” – this is Alex Par­rish. “The show be­gins with an Om be­cause I wanted that for good luck,” Priyanka says.

On Septem­ber 27 (Oc­to­ber 3 in In­dia) the show opened to a mostly good re­sponse. It rated a 7.6 on IMDb and a 7.8 on TV.com. The New

York Times said she was “the strong­est hu­man as­set on the show” and Vul­ture said “She’s very com­pelling on screen”; Sa­lon called her char­ac­ter “the In­dian-Amer­i­can hero­ine I’ve been wait­ing for”.

“I’ve just come back to the set,” Priyanka says. “I’m go­ing to walk in for the first time af­ter the pre­miere. We’re shoot­ing nine scenes, it’s go­ing to be a long day! I’m pro­mot­ing and shoot­ing to­gether. I don’t think I could’ve been pre­pared for the hours that we do.” A few min­utes later, the call drops. When we re­con­nect, I hear ex­cited chat­ter. I imag­ine a frenzy of peo­ple who, if all goes well and the show is re­newed for more sea­sons, will work to­gether for six months ev­ery year for many years. “We’re all away from home, so the cast has be­come very close. We meet ev­ery week­end, de­spite spend­ing 15 hours a day to­gether. Es­pe­cially the girls.”

In the be­gin­ning, Cho­pra’s ca­reer didn’t sound very promis­ing. At best, there were some av­er­age Ak­shay Ku­mar-star­rers, like

An­daaz and Ai­traaz, but most were for­get

ta­ble: The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, Plan... And then came the hits one af­ter the other: Kr­rish and Don (2006), Fash­ion and Dostana (2008), Kaminey (2009), 7 Khoon Maaf and Don

2 (2011), Agneepath and Barfi! (2012), Kr­rish 3 (2013), Gun­day and Mary Kom (2014) and the up­com­ing Ba­ji­rao Mas­tani is al­ready mak­ing waves... There were misses now and then (re­mem­ber Love Story 2050?), but in this long im­pres­sive list, you can for­give the flops.

It was right in the mid­dle of all this suc­cess, that Priyanka be­gan plan­ning her in­ter­na­tional ca­reer. Co-in­ci­den­tally, this was also a time for some anti-Priyanka sen­ti­ment in Bol­ly­wood. Three years ago, the press was aflame with gos­sip about just how un­pop­u­lar she was among the Bol­ly­wood wives. But she is quite like­able, says film critic Ra­jeev Masand: “She goes out of her way to charm a per­son. A lot of peo­ple find that sus­pi­cious – be­cause they judge her based on the ru­mours.”

So it was per­haps as a con­se­quence of the nasty gos­sip that Priyanka im­mersed her­self in her work – and looked be­yond Bol­ly­wood. Ask her about the vit­ri­olic things said about her, and she says, “I don’t want to dwell on any of that. I like to tell my­self, it’s over. And right now I want to think about the fact that my show opened to a huge pre­miere. I’m de­lighted with the sup­port peo­ple in the au­di­ence and the Hindi film in­dus­try have given me.”

The down­side of in­ter­view­ing Priyanka Cho­pra is that she (like so many in Bol­ly­wood) tends to talk in plat­i­tudes. Work­ing on the show has “been a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence”; ABC is the “fron­trun­ner when it comes to do­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of shows”; the Quantico cast is “a very fun group of peo­ple”. But there is some wis­dom hid­den in the clichéd re­sponses.

An­jula Acharia-Bath, Priyanka’s over­seas man­ager, has been called “the woman be­hind the woman” be­cause she hasn’t been an or­di­nary man­ager. In 2010, Bath co-founded Desi Hits Uni­ver­sal, a ven­ture funded by the Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group to find and pro­mote South Asian tal­ent. Mu­sic com­posers Salim-Su­laiman had recorded a demo with Priyanka, and sent it to Acharia-Bath. “I loved it,” the man­ager says. “I had ac­tu­ally seen Priyanka and Ab­hishek Bachchan in Bluff­mas­ter years be­fore. They did a song called

Right Here Right Now. It was a hip-hop spoof – that’s when I first had my eye on her.”

The other thing was her cos­mopoli­tan looks. She doesn’t look typ­i­cally South Asian. Priyanka ad­mits, “I get a lot of Puerto Ri­can. I guess with me do­ing what I’m do­ing now, peo­ple will re­alise I’m In­dian.” She has an in­ter­na­tional ap­peal, says Acharia-Bath, adding, “It’s kind of like Saif Ali Khan – he’s got a bi-cul­tural sen­si­bil­ity that I also think can trans­late glob­ally.”

Bath is re­spon­si­ble for all of Cho­pra’s in­ter­na­tional ven­tures: her mu­sic (her sin­gles,

Ex­otic with rap­per Pit­bull, In My City fea­tur­ing The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am – and the song that no­body talks about but is the best of the lot: Erase with the DJ duo The Chainsmok­ers), her cam­paign for Guess as the brand am­bas­sador, the 2013 an­i­mated Dis­ney film

Planes (she lent her voice to Ishani, a pan-Asian racer plane) and Quantico.

It couldn’t have been easy. “Here is an A-list ac­tor, who had the courage and am­bi­tion to be­come a new­comer again in another in­dus­try,” says film critic Anu­pama Cho­pra.

“The com­mit­ment this girl was will­ing to put in was un­prece­dented,” says Masand. “Bol­ly­wood ac­tors ex­pect to be treated the same way abroad. If you ex­pect the world to lay out

“I’m not run­ning for Pres­i­dent – ev­ery­body’s opin­ion doesn’t mat­ter. Haters gonna hate and pota­toes gonna potate. What are you gonna do?”

a red car­pet for you, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen – they don’t even know you!”

There was a time when one had imag­ined that Aish­warya Rai would take Hol­ly­wood by storm. But that some­how didn’t quite hap­pen. Masand cites Shah Rukh Khan as an ex­am­ple. “Years ago – when he was shoot­ing Yes Boss (1997) I think – Shah Rukh told me that he had been of­fered the vil­lain’s side­kick in a Bond film. I told him, ‘It’s a great way to break into Hol­ly­wood’. But he said, ‘Why would I ever want to be a vil­lanous side­kick in a Bond film when I can be a su­per­star in a Bol­ly­wood film?’”

It’s why Freida Pinto is a suc­cess story in the West. “She was will­ing to climb the lad­der – per­haps be­cause, as a new­comer, she’d have had to do that in Bol­ly­wood as well. The only other per­son to do that is Priyanka – while she’s still one of the top ac­tresses,” says Masand.

At first, when I ask her about it, Priyanka shrugs off her anonymity. “I’ve known how to be in the public eye since I was 17. It’s just another coun­try I’m do­ing it in.” she says. You were Miss In­dia then, I point out. “But there was a time when peo­ple didn’t know me also, right? And I had to in­tro­duce my­self to peo­ple. It feels ex­actly like that.” But start­ing over? She doesn’t ad­mit to feel­ing dis­con­certed easily. But fi­nally says, “I’ve worked for 13 years in one of the most pro­lific film in­dus­tries in the world and then, to come to a com­pletely new coun­try, with­out fa­mil­iar­ity... It was a lit­tle scary.”

In 2012, at a din­ner party, Priyanka and her man­ager Acharia-Bath met Keli Lee, ABC’s head of cast­ing. “We ended up talk­ing a lot,” says Priyanka. “She told me what she’d done, I told her what I’d done. We had a re­ally fun night to­gether. Then Keli came to Mum­bai when I was shoot­ing Gun­day and spoke to me about this tal­ent deal for ABC like they’d done for San­dra Oh [ Grey’s Anatomy] and oth­ers.”

Cho­pra read 26 scripts. “I picked four – ABC has made some phe­nom­e­nal pilots this year, I’m very ex­cited about them: Wicked City, Fam­ily… It was re­ally fun sit­ting here and read­ing them.

Quantico was my top choice, it was also ABC’s top choice for me. And Josh Safran [the cre­ator] and Mark Gor­don [ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer] wanted me in this show as much.”

So, for the first time in her life, Priyanka au­di­tioned for a role. A story in NYT notes that “Joshua Safran, the show’s cre­ator, wasn’t sure what char­ac­ter Ms Cho­pra in­tended to read for when she ar­rived wear­ing a de­signer dress and car­ry­ing a de­signer hand­bag. ‘She walked in the room, and it was like the mol­e­cules shifted in that way that su­per­stars have,’ he re­called. ‘I was very con­fused be­cause I didn’t know who she was, but we all sat up straighter.’”

Safran was first skep­ti­cal be­cause she was too glam­orous. “So was Anurag Basu for Barfi!,” says Priyanka. “He came to my house and met me and said he didn’t think I could do Barfi! be­cause I was too glam­orous. And I said, give me five days, let me work with you and af­ter that if we both feel it won’t work out, we

won’t do it.”

She is glitzy though – she has all the trap­pings of a global su­per­star. She trav­els with Team PC, her en­tourage (she told NYT: “When we walk into a room, it’s like Ocean’s Twelve”). Team PC, her man­ager Acharia-Bath tells me, is her core man­age­ment team in Amer­ica. “It started with Dana Sup­nick [PR], Natasha Pal [who han­dles her dig­i­tal strat­egy] and my­self. We al­ways see Jimmy Iovine [the in­ter­na­tional mu­sic hon­cho] as part of our team be­cause he’s been a men­tor and big­gest sup­porter from day one.” Then there are the agents, the busi­ness man­ager, some friends and the le­gal teams. The Amer­i­can Vogue, last month, ran a piece ti­tled Rid­ing the Sub­way With Bol­ly­wood Su­per­star

Priyanka Cho­pra: “Cho­pra still en­joys the ben­e­fits of rel­a­tive anonymity in New York City, but when we boarded the train, peo­ple stared any­way. Per­haps be­cause she was ac­com­pa­nied by an en­tourage of six or so peo­ple, in­clud­ing one very large body­guard. Per­haps be­cause the 33-year-old’s strik­ing beauty lit­er­ally turns heads. Or maybe some­thing about her pres­ence just screams movie star.” The story quoted her say­ing, “My team al­ways says that once you travel with me, you don’t want to travel by your­self any­more.”

But like Anurag Basu, who re­alised that Cho­pra could in fact play an autis­tic girl with ease, Quantico’s Safran and Gor­don un­der­stood that she could be very ac­ces­si­ble on screen.

An ar­ti­cle in Sa­lon says “ABC bent over back­ward to give Cho­pra what she wanted with

Quantico; the ac­tress se­cured the lead role in her own drama but will still be free to act in In­dian films.” So she is work­ing on Ba­ji­rao

Mas­tani and Jai Gan­gaa­jal – “and my mu­sic, you’ll hear about it soon – I’ve been such a bad mother to my mu­sic.”

Some time in the fu­ture, she’d like to do roles that tran­scend race – “maybe a Dan­ish girl” – and, “turn the world colour­blind.”

Quantico’s mak­ers were skep­ti­cal of some­one so “glam­orous” play­ing a reg­u­lar per­son. But so was Anurag Basu for Barfi!

NOW AND THEN Quantico’s cast (top), es­pe­cially the girls, is very close; When Priyanka was crowned Miss World in 2000, no­body could have imag­ined she’d be so suc­cess­ful

TWO STATES Freida Pinto (with Dev Pa­tel in Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire; be­low left) is a suc­cess story in the West be­cause she was a new­comer will­ing to climb the lad­der; Aish­warya Rai (in Mistress of Spices; be­low right) was al­ready a su­per­star and prob­a­bly...

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