Priyanka Cho­pra

HAVE DRIVE , WILL WIN

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS -

ONE-FIFTH OF THE WORLD’S POP­U­LA­TION IS SOUTH ASIAN. AND IT’S REP­RE­SENTED IN THE GLOBAL FILM IN­DUS­TRY BY ONE WOMAN

THE STORY GOES THAT PRIYANKA TOLD THE AMER­I­CAN BROAD­CAST­ING COM­PANY (ABC) THAT SHE WOULD DO QUANTICO ONLY IF SHE SAW HER FACE ON BILL­BOARDS. “WHY NOT?” SHE RE­TORTS. Priyanka Cho­pra cre­ated more than a buzz with the skin-coloured swim­suit in her mu­sic sin­gle Ex­otic (left), and her navy blue swim­suit in Quantico

P RIYANKA CHO­PRA’S giv­ing no quar­ter in 2017. The ac­tress ended last year by mov­ing up to No. 16 on IMDb, the world’s largest In­ter­net movie database, ahead of Leonardo Di­Caprio, Jen­nifer Lawrence, Emma Watson and even Johnny Depp in the pop­u­lar­ity stakes. And to No. 8 on Forbes’ list of high­est-paid celebs in the world. She joined UNICEF’s global good­will am­bas­sadors Jackie Chan and David Beck­ham. Time magazine put her on the cover as one of its ‘100 Most In­flu­en­tial Peo­ple of The World’. And LinkedIn counted her among its 500-plus global in­flu­encers. She was the cover girl on at least 15 in­ter­na­tional mag­a­zines. She pre­sented awards at the Os­cars, the Bill­board Mu­sic Awards and the Em­mys, re­ceived the Peo­ple’s Choice Award for Favourite Ac­tress in a New TV Se­ries, ap­peared on the most sought-af­ter Amer­i­can talk shows, on red car­pets and bill­boards, had dinner with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the White House, and got a Padma Shri and her sec­ond Dadasa­heb Phalke Award. She also be­came a so­cial me­dia trend­set­ter and gamechanger in the dig­i­tal space, broke the In­ter­net, ruled it, and in­dis­putably owned 2016.

WOMAN OF SUB­STANCE

And her un­be­liev­able march con­tin­ues; her fan fol­low­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally has reached gazil­lions. Like her char­ac­ter Alex Par­rish in the Amer­i­can TV se­ries Quantico, who moved from the FBI to the CIA in the sec­ond sea­son of the thriller, Priyanka is tak­ing no pris­on­ers in 2017. She’s not ruth­lessly ag­gres­sive or un­com­pro­mis­ing in pur­su­ing her ob­jec­tives. She’s just plain de­ter­mined. Priyanka gave me a past­ing when I raised this in a cut and thrust con­ver­sa­tion I had with her at Film City when she was down in Mum­bai for the fes­tive sea­son not long ago. It was her last in­ter­view be­fore she re­turned to LA to host the Golden Globes and win her sec­ond Peo­ple’s Choice Award – this time for Favourite Dra­matic TV Ac­tress. Im­pressed with her stag­ger­ing pop­u­lar­ity, Seth Gor­don and Dwayne John­son, the di­rec­tor and lead­ing man of her Hol­ly­wood de­but film, Bay­watch, re­spec­tively, shot more scenes with Priyanka last week af­ter wrap­ping up her role as the siz­zling hot vamp Vic­to­ria Leeds in the com­edy-drama in De­cem­ber.

Here’s a Bol­ly­wood ac­tress, whose last Hindi film was the pre­dictable po­lice drama Jai Gan­gaa­jal in March 2016, sud­denly wit­ness­ing a me­te­oric rise on the global en­ter­tain­ment scene. I asked Priyanka, was this sheer am­bi­tion on her part? And per­se­ver­ance, be­lief, ta­lent, abil­ity... or pure luck? “I like to win,” she replied huskily, “so I don’t know what luck means. I don’t like los­ing in any­thing. I don’t know if that means I’m am­bi­tious. I’m very driven. Hav­ing am­bi­tion is great, but I won’t kill any­one to get some­thing. I’m some­one who be­lieves that the best per­son for the job should get the job. I be­lieve a lot in merit, in ta­lent, in get­ting a job be­cause of merit, I work very hard at that and

to­wards that. I don’t know any other way of get­ting a job than that.”

I have in­ter­viewed Priyanka be­fore, many times, but then she was a desi girl. The fe­male lead of Bol­ly­wood films like Dostana,

Fash­ion, Agneepath and Barfi. And our Q&A ses­sions were hardly worldly-wise. But one year in the US, in which she be­came the most prom­i­nent In­dian face in Amer­i­can show business, changed all that. Priyanka sparkles in her con­ver­sa­tion now, daz­zles. She speaks bril­liantly and with au­thor­ity; her grasp of the business of global en­ter­tain­ment is amaz­ing. She was al­ways sexy and suc­cess­ful, now she’s also chic and con­fi­dent. The for­mer Miss World is now “a girl who speaks her mind in a world where women shouldn’t be so outspoken”.

Fur­ther proof of that came when Priyanka, a UNICEF global good­will am­bas­sador, slammed Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­cent sweep­ing refugee ban in the US by de­scrib­ing it as a “po­lit­i­cal witch-hunt” that had deeply af­fected her. Tongue firmly in cheek, she went on The Late Show with Stephen Col­bert af­ter that and added that “she had bet­ter watch her mouth” about Amer­i­can gov­er­nance be­cause she “is in the US on a visa” her­self !

I met her on the set of an ad film in Film City. Priyanka was stun­ningly made up and clutch­ing an um­brella. She was shoot­ing an ac­ci­dent scene on a wet road in stu­dio rain. By­standers stood along­side an am­bu­lance with flash­ing lights in frozen hor­ror. She was on a bus­man’s hol­i­day. Do­ing sev­eral brand en­dorse­ments at one time, en­joy­ing a few days of sun and surf in Goa, then go­ing to Guwa­hati as am­bas­sadress of As­sam Tourism, sit­ting on the fi­nal edit of Sar­vann, her stu­dio Pur­ple Peb­ble Pic­tures’ de­but in Pun­jabi cin­ema, at­tend­ing some par­ties, a Bol­ly­wood awards cer­e­mony, and hav­ing ‘kof­fee’ with Karan Jo­har.

I be­gan on the wrong note by ask­ing which Hol­ly­wood ac­tors’ names are on her phone and what she’d sent them for Christmas. “I’m not go­ing to show you!” Priyanka shot back spirit­edly. “Out of the ques­tion. That’s not go­ing to be my claim to fame. I didn’t call any­body for Christmas, ex­cept my as­sis­tant who had the day off. I’m not good at that. And I’ve been busy. But I did so for Di­wali. I sent gifts and flow­ers to all my friends there. Most of my col­leagues know what Di­wali is now. I made a deal. I send for Di­wali and I get for Christmas.”

Her mother, Dr Madhu Cho­pra, had told the Bol­ly­wood press while an­nounc­ing Sar­vann that Priyanka was grounded in In­dian val­ues; that she was a true-blue Pun­jabi girl at heart, and re­li­gious as well. But Priyanka, I know, speaks no Pun­jabi. Yet she has pro­duced a re­gional fea­ture film in that lan­guage. As she had done in Bho­jpuri and Marathi ear­lier in 2016, and was plan­ning a chal­leng­ing one in Nepali next. Which is pretty am­bi­tious for a Bol­ly­wood ac­tress with no Hindi film in hand. Does she con­verse with the Pun­jabi cab­bies in LA, I asked.

“I don’t use cabs,” she an­swered fros­tily. “I don’t speak Pun­jabi. My mom is from Bi­har; she’s half Kash­miri and half Malay­alee. My dad was from Pun­jab. But he didn’t speak to mom in Pun­jabi be­cause she doesn’t un­der­stand it. She speaks seven lan­guages, but not Pun­jabi. Our house was two states. There was no lan­guage medium. We spoke English and Hindi. I was raised in the US and Bareilly. But my cousins Pari­neeti and Man­nara speak Pun­jabi be­cause they were raised in Am­bala and Delhi. In LA, when I shoot on lo­ca­tion, there are al­ways 400 peo­ple stand­ing around. Many In­di­ans among them. At the most, they call out, ‘ Sat Sri Akaal, Priyanka.’ They know I don’t speak Pun­jabi.”

GIVE ME MORE

What hap­pened to her in the US with Quantico, I asked, be­cause that’s where it all be­gan. She took huge strides and left a global foot­print as the name and face of the Amer­i­can TV show that left her Bol­ly­wood ca­reer far be­hind. The story goes that Priyanka told the Amer­i­can Broad­cast­ing Com­pany (ABC) that she would do Quantico only if she saw her face on bill­boards. She made it clear that she was no small ac­tor and was used to see­ing her face on Bol­ly­wood posters. “Why not?” she asked, slap­ping at a mos­quito that was ir­ri­tat­ing her.“There was no prece­dent to it. Has there been an In­dian ac­tor in the lead be­fore in any Amer­i­can film or TV show? Not that I can re­mem­ber. Was Kabir Bedi the lead in Odyssey?” You mean Oc­to­pussy, the James ilm of 1983, I cor­rected her.

“Yes,” she said, giv­ing me a danger­ous look. “He wasn’t even the lead vil­lain in Oc­to­pussy. So I was won­der­ing, I was not sure how the world would re­act to an In­dian ac­tor play­ing the lead and car­ry­ing the show. I was very ner­vous at that time. But Quantico got such an in­cred­i­ble re­cep­tion that I now feel bet­ter.”

The Amer­i­can ter­ror­ism-thriller TV se­ries got more than that. Quantico got Priyanka’s name in lights across the US of A. “I didn’t see that com­ing,” she ad­mit­ted. “The show is just one sea­son old and it’s al­ready gone to 56 coun­tries. It’s awe­some to see the re­cep­tion I got. I go to ob­scure coun­tries, well – not ob­scure, but coun­tries where I don’t ex­pect any­one to know about me or my show, and find peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races and na­tion­al­i­ties fa­mil­iar with the work I’ve done in Quantico, coun­tries like Ja­pan, France, where it’s the No. 1 show, Ger­many, China, where they have my face on buses, it’s so cool to see that kind of re­cep­tion.”

The ul­ti­mate vin­di­ca­tion that Quantico and her char­ac­ter con­nected glob­ally is her two Peo­ple’s Choice Awards. “It is what any ac­tor as­pires for be­cause it is a true re­ward for the choices we make,” she agreed. Is that a soul­sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence? “Oh no-no,” Priyanka said dis­mis­sively. “There’s so much to do. Just one show is not go­ing to make my claim to fame. That’s not set­ting con­crete down. Look at it this way, we are one-fifth of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, cor­rect? I mean In­di­ans or peo­ple of South Asian de­scent. But when you see global en­ter­tain­ment, do you see rep­re­sen­ta­tion of that? Hardly! As many peo­ple as we are, as much as we watch TV, we don’t have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the globe and that’s where the world needs to go. Hope­fully, with what I’ve been able to achieve, I’ve made a dent in that depart­ment where other peo­ple of In­dian or South Asian de­scent get op­por­tu­ni­ties as main parts be­cause of our sheer po­ten­tial. It’s my mis­sion. Bol­ly­wood’s the big­gest film in­dus­try in the world. We make 900 films a year de­spite the fact that we speak only Hindi. Our reach is in­cred­i­ble. Why should we not have that global rep­re­sen­ta­tion? So there’s so much to do, one show is not a big deal, let’s see what the jour­ney is go­ing to be. I don’t need to script any­thing… it’s all hap­pen­ing on its own; 2017 has only just be­gun and there are many sto­ries left to un­fold. Some I know and some that will just hap­pen. Such is the pre­rog­a­tive of des­tiny’s child!”

BE­YOND CON­VEN­TION

Bay­watch will re­lease in May 2017. Its first trailer last year had Priyanka on the screen for just one sec­ond. But the sec­ond trailer and teaser at the start of 2017 was en­tirely on her

“WHY IS IT SUCH A BIG DEAL IF I DO A MAKE OUT SCENE? IS IT BE­CAUSE I’M DO­ING IT IN AMER­ICA NOW? I DON’T CALL THIS AN IN­DIAN MIND­SET. IT’S A CHHOTA MIND­SET!” PeeCee won rave re­views and a Na­tional Award for her act­ing chops in Fash­ion

dan­ger­ously hot char­ac­ter, Vic­to­ria Leeds. Priyanka has played the an­tag­o­nist only once be­fore, in Vishal Bhard­waj’s 2011 dark Bol­ly­wood com­edy 7 Khoon Maaf, in ad­di­tion to a grey char­ac­ter in the 2004 film,

Ai­traaz. Is Vic­to­ria a neg­a­tive char­ac­ter? She gazed at me in­cred­u­lously and said, “Bay­watch is rated a com­edy. I play a comic vil­lain. I’m not a se­ri­ous vil­lain. The char­ac­ter is evil. But os­ten­ta­tious. Not real. In a com­edy world how can the vil­lain be? I’m the Boss Bitch on the Beach. And you know what’s amaz­ing about this char­ac­ter? It was writ­ten for a guy and got con­verted to a role for a girl, with me. That’s what ex­cited me, that’s one of the big rea­sons I’m play­ing this part. It’s my first Hol­ly­wood film and I wasn’t go­ing to be the con­ven­tional ex­otic babe stand­ing be­hind the guy. There’s no way I was go­ing to do that. I haven’t done it in Hindi films ei­ther. I al­ways look for qual­ity in films. I look for parts that in­trigue and ex­cite me, no mat­ter how small they are. Take Kaminey (Vishal Bhard­waj’s 2009 ca­per star­ring Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka), I had just eight scenes, but my part was so amaz­ing and made such an im­pact. Like my char­ac­ter Vic­to­ria Leeds in Bay­watch will have.”

The Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica (MPAA), which can be as hide­bound as our Cen­tral

oard of Film Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (CBFC), gave Bay­watch an ‘R’ rat­ing. Which means the film pos­si­bly has strong lan­guage, vi­o­lence, nu­dity for sex­ual pur­pose and drug abuse, and can be viewed by those un­der 17 only when they are ac­com­pa­nied by an adult. Is Priyanka in any such scenes? She cer­tainly wasn’t awkward in the make out scenes of Quantico.

She looked at me like I have lost it. “Have you seen Hindi films re­cently?” she asked caus­ti­cally. “The ‘U/A’ films, I’m not even talk­ing ‘A’ films. I’m not as­sess­ing them, but what have you seen? Quantico is an ABC-Disney se­ries. They have man­dates about what they can’t show. All you see is shoul­ders up and knees down. Why is it such a big deal if I do a make out scene? I did it in In­dia also. Not more nor less. Is it be­cause I’m do­ing it in Amer­ica now? Why these dou­ble stan­dards? No, don’t call it an In­dian mind­set. It’s a very chhota mind­set. I’m not an In­dian in the show. I’m play­ing an Amer­i­can In­dian who was born and brought up there. So ob­vi­ously I’ll play that char­ac­ter which is of a mod­ern, un­apolo­getic Amer­i­can girl. What peo­ple choose to see is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from what they are ac­tu­ally see­ing. But why is this tion not asked of men who show bod­ies and do sex scenes in i cin­ema? Aap ne toh bada sex

aya! Poori body dikhayi! Women ooked at with such small minds n peo­ple need to ap­plaud for their achieve­ments. e’s a lot more hap­pen­ing ol­ly­wood to­day than my show. The only dif­fer­ence I can see is that the guy I’m mak­ing out with is not In­dian!”

THE GLOBAL IN­DIAN

The in­ter­view went like a ping-pong match. Ev­ery­thing I gave her, Priyanka re­turned with more top­spin and force. The ad-film­maker at Film City waited im­pa­tiently. He sent word to her van­ity van that his cast on the set, all drenched to play the rainy day scene, was now shiv­er­ing!

Since she was go­ing to host the 2017 Golden Globe Awards and had pre­sented at the Os­cars, the Bill­board Mu­sic Awards and the Em­mys in 2016, I brought up a sub­ject that has be­come a hot potato in Bol­ly­wood. The au­then­tic­ity of Hindi film awards. Peo­ple have al­ways be­lieved they are sus­pect. And now even Bol­ly­wood ac­tors have started ex­press­ing their dis­trust about the rat­ing sys­tem. How gen­uine is it in Hol­ly­wood?

She took the ques­tion in her stride. “I’ve at­tended as a pre­sen­ter and spec­ta­tor,” Priyanka re­minded me. “I don’t know the in­ner work­ings of the awards and how they are de­cided. But from what I’ve been given to un­der­stand, the votes/bal­lots are tab­u­lated by pro­fes­sional ac­count­ing firms and the sealed en­velopes of the win­ners are only opened on stage. At the end of the day, awards are sub­jec­tive and it all de­pends on who the jury is.”

It was un­fair to keep try­ing to trap her into choos­ing or dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing Bol­ly­wood from Hol­ly­wood, but I asked Priyanka if there is any­thing back in In­dia that would make her chuck ev­ery­thing she had worked so hard to achieve glob­ally and re­turn home for good.

She tut-tut­ted im­pa­tiently: “I didn’t ‘chuck’ any­thing to achieve a global ca­reer and that in­cludes my home coun­try, In­dia. I don’t need to make a choice be­cause I can do both. If you work hard and smart, there’s a lot you can do. I suc­cess­fully man­aged to do Ba­ji­rao Mas­tani, Quantico and

Bay­watch and I will con­tinue to do sim­i­lar things. I’m a Hindi film ac­tor first, don’t for­get.”

In 2017, it will be hard to re­mem­ber, I told her. brunch­let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twit­ter

“QUANTICO IS AN ABC-DISNEY SE­RIES. THEY HAVE MAN­DATES: ALL YOU SEE IS SHOUL­DERS UP AND KNEES DOWN.... AND WHY IS THIS QUES­TION NOT ASKED OF MEN WHO SHOW THEIR BOD­IES IN HINDI CIN­EMA? AAP NE TO BADA SEX DIKHAYA! POORI BODY DIKHAYI! WOMEN ARE LOOKED AT WITH SUCH SMALL MINDS WHEN PEO­PLE NEED TO AP­PLAUD THEM FOR THEIR ACHIEVE­MENTS.”

From left: Priyanka in a still from her film Mary Kom; in the foot-tap­ping hit, Desi Girl from the film Dostana; at the Miss World pageant in the year 2000; and at the Golden Globes last month

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