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The politics and positioning of Priyanka Chopra

Priyanka Chopra is defying Indian stereotypes and making bold couture statements as she gears up for her Hollywood debut, 'Baywatch', later this month. Here's what she has to say

Priyanka Chopra at the Met Gala. Her custom Ralph Lauren trench coat gown made a bold fashion statement. Photo: Reuters
Priyanka Chopra at the Met Gala. Her custom Ralph Lauren trench coat gown made a bold fashion statement. Photo: Reuters

Priyanka Chopra is the cool girl. The Gillian Flynn ideal of the Cool Girl, in fact, a woman who tells smitten American magazines that she used to breakfast on Skittles and espresso, and one who walks out of meetings because of hot-dog cravings. After beating down terrorists as a super-fit FBI agent on Quantico, an on-screen lover reassures her that a burger is on its way. Chopra giggles after doing shots with Ellen DeGeneres, winks about bhaang to Jimmy Fallon before smearing the talk-show host with Holi colours, and—going by her Instagram—happens to be a formidable tequila partner for a gentleman called The Rock.

She is, mind you, the cool girl who knows what’s going on.

“I have to watch what I say here," Chopra laughed to Stephen Colbert, while talking about spyware and surveillance on The Late Show in February. “I’m here on a visa." It’s a good line coming from a foreigner gaining increasing visibility in the American press, but she doesn’t really need to watch her words—and she isn’t. Political correctness, in the current cultural landscape, lies in not being politically correct.

Quantico, the television show she stars in, has morphed over the last two years—in the words of creator Joshua Safran—from “a paranoid thriller" to “a sexy soap" to what he bravely calls “a West-Wing junior". Its FBI operatives now investigate subjects like fake news, and debate “Black Lives Matter versus the Thin Blue Line", while sinister white men say things like “I only believe that we should let our elected leaders lead" and protesters hold up “Not my President" placards.

Priyanka Chopra in her Ralph Lauren trench coat gown at the Met Gala. Photo: Getty Images
Priyanka Chopra in her Ralph Lauren trench coat gown at the Met Gala. Photo: Getty Images

The week before Chopra stormed the Met Gala wearing what I can only describe as a spectacular (and doubtless unwieldy) trench-cloak, she breezed through Mumbai, where I spoke with her on the phone. I asked if she’s concerned about just how political Quantico is becoming. She made me feel all-too-briefly like Colbert by recycling her visa joke, laughs, then launched forth with pride. “I’m thrilled to see how Quantico is literally ripping topics from the headlines to tell its story, to increase awareness and create a context for the overall political discussion." Given the show’s diverse ensemble cast, featuring several persons of colour—including hijab-wearing twins who pretend to be one person—it may be safe to assume that Quantico’s target audience isn’t made up of Donald Trump supporters to begin with. It is also important to note that certain potshots are now de rigueur. The American President has, in a way, become the world’s most common punchline, simultaneously the scariest and softest of targets.

‘Quantico’ has made Priyanka Chopra a bona-fide TV star in the US.
‘Quantico’ has made Priyanka Chopra a bona-fide TV star in the US.

Due to the way Trump polarizes debates, I believe artists are forced to run harder in the other direction—they become more liberal, more diverse, try to open up as many borders as they see closing around them. Chopra doesn’t agree. “I think that perspective is also a little tinted. Right now, things are very confusing in America, people don’t quite know where to look and what to expect. Nobody expected this, and they’re all learning how to deal with it."

Fair enough. In this feverish political climate, even the most obvious of jabs hold value—so long as they punch upward.

Bad girls go everywhere

“Priyanka’s basic texture comes from being fearless," says filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, who directed Chopra in what I would call her finest performance, Kaminey (2009). “She has confidence in herself and her craft, and tremendous commitment to the role. Once she decides she’s doing it, she’ll give it everything."

Chopra seeks out unusual roles. “As an actor, I’m not afraid of an ensemble cast," she says. “I don’t need a role to be all me-me-me. I had an eight-scene role in Kaminey. But you do a film because you want to be part of a good film, a special film. I take chances as an actor."

This doesn’t always pan out. “I’ve fallen on my face, and how," she laughs. Bhardwaj’s whimsical 2011 drama 7 Khoon Maaf, for example, was a critical and commercial failure. Yet it’s hard to fault her ambition. “The only reason she did the film was because she would play, for most of the film, a woman in her 50s," marvels Bhardwaj. “She was 20-something and wanted to take on that challenge. Who does that?"

Baywatch, Chopra’s Hollywood debut, releases in the US on 25 May and in India on 2 June, smack in the middle of blockbuster season, right alongside Wonder Woman. The film is headlined by The Rock (real name Dwayne Johnson) and Zac Efron, while several actresses don the now iconic lifeguard swimsuits. Not Chopra, however. Like in Aitraaz, her 2004 breakout where she stood apart from established superstars Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor by playing the villain, here too Chopra will be the antagonist. It’s going to be The Rock versus Chopra.

“I loved that it was the part of a villain," Chopra says about the role of Victoria Leeds, the Baywatch character originally written for a male actor. “I wanted to do a mainstream summer movie, like one of our masala movies, because those are the kind of movies I enjoy watching the most, and for my first film I definitely wanted something big and splashy. And I didn’t want to just be ‘the exotic brown girl’ or something predictable. Baywatch is an ensemble film, but being the villain let me do my own thing while all the lifeguards did their own thing."

Not being known merely for being the brown girl in the ring matters to Chopra, as it should. Other Indian actresses have charmed the West over the years—famed film critic Roger Ebert called Aishwarya Rai “the most beautiful woman in the world" in his review for Taal, clarifying, in the next sentence, “I am not exaggerating"—and there has certainly been some pandering, with more than a hint of exoticism in the ways they made their presence felt. Rai draped a sari around Oprah Winfrey; Deepika Padukone showed James Corden how to do the Lungi Dance.

Priyanka Chopra, on the other hand, had a chicken hot-wing eating contest with Jimmy Fallon.

Is this part of a concerted effort to appear less unfamiliar and be someone the American audience can relate to? “Yeah," agrees Chopra immediately. “Because that’s what the modern Indian girl is. She can wear jeans or a sari or shorts. She’s intelligent, she’s aware, she can engage you on your own level. I think people need to see us for who we are, not who they expect us to be."

“She definitely is making more of a mark here in the States than, say, Aishwarya Rai ever did," agrees Stephanie Zacharek, chief film critic for Time magazine, on email. “Earlier in the 2000s, I recall seeing Aishwarya’s image on billboards in Queens (New York), where there’s a large South Asian population, but not really anywhere else in the city. But Priyanka’s face is very familiar—so familiar that I couldn’t really tell you how I know it. Magazines, movie posters, TV ads: She seems to be everywhere, advertising products I most certainly wouldn’t buy, but I sure remember her face!"

Chopra’s timing couldn’t be better. American entertainment is seeking out diverse actors and appears to be battling whitewashing controversies with every other film. A list of Oscar nominees featuring exclusively white actors didn’t make headlines earlier—it has happened on many occasions before—but the shift in cultural perception made an all-Caucasian photograph of the nominees unacceptable in 2016, when the #OscarsSoWhite movement broke through and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to take remedial action.

Hollywood’s highest-paid actors have almost always been white men—George Clooney to Jack Nicholson, and in recent times, Robert Downey Jr—with the occasional white woman having a great year. Change is afoot. According to the 2016 Forbes ranking, the best-paid performer in American cinema is Dwayne Johnson, Chopra’s co-star, at $64.5 million. The Rock is half Black Nova Scotian, half Samoan, and not only does he have blockbuster biceps, but he’s unfailingly bankable, a global superstar with a knack for rejuvenating any franchise that has him aboard.

A still from ‘Baywatch’, which hits US theatres on 25 May.

As can be evidenced from Indian-American performers who are becoming increasingly influential in the entertainment landscape—like Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and comic Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, who, just this weekend, performed a highly acclaimed set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—there is an increasing role for immigrants and people of colour in the American dream.

“Hollywood is trying, slowly and not always successfully, to push for more diversity in casting," writes Zacharek. “And I think Priyanka is simply coming along at the right time. If she has even just a reasonably successful career in Hollywood, good for her. At least the door is opening slightly, and it will open further for others."

When not in Rome

Don’t expect Chopra to make the visa joke on Indian television.

“These are two different societies, and they are culturally so different that they shouldn’t be compared," she says, sighing as she deftly avoids being drawn into saying anything about India that anyone—anyone at all—may decide to brand as intolerant. One can’t blame her. The Indian outcry against celebrity statements gets more ludicrous by the day, what with Kajol issuing a public apology for putting up a video of a beef dish last week, or Indian users harassing Miranda Kerr, Snapchat chief executive officer Evan Spiegel’s fiancée, because he allegedly called India a poor country.

“We can’t say anything at all in India any more," laments Bhardwaj. “Every day things get worse for artistic expression." He’s speaking with me from New York, where he’s working on the music for a Broadway adaptation of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, and it may not be a coincidence that our artistes are taking up projects abroad. “When in Rome," as Chopra says about being able to make edgy, political jokes in America, “you can be a Roman."

It is, therefore, no surprise that Chopra is awaiting word on the future of Quantico—she isn’t sure if it will be renewed after this second season—before signing any Indian film. Her priorities seem to be in place, though she keeps stating how she is a two-country, two-industry girl and how she could never, ever abandon Hindi cinema.

She has, in fact, branched out into more industries. Ventilator, her first Marathi-language production which released in 2016, picked up three trophies at the 64th National Awards on Wednesday—Best Director, Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Directed by Rajesh Mapuskar, the film includes among its cast film-maker Ashutosh Gowariker—someone who came on board as an actor only on Chopra’s insistence. Before this, her company produced a Bhojpuri film, Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi, making it clear that Chopra, while a Hindi language actress, is a producer aware of the potential offered up by regional cinema.

“I still get offered many typical brown-girl roles," she complains about the majority of the work coming her way in the US, and clearly feels a marked need to stay away from the typical. It is a fine time—finer than before, at least—to be a brown performer in television and cinema, but Chopra’s goalposts are high. When asked about the performers she admires and would like to emulate, she doesn’t mention Kaling or Ansari. “I really like what Dwayne is doing," she says, singling out co-star Johnson, wrestler, actor, singer, producer, the multimillionaire multi-hyphenate. “I love his work ethic."

It confounds me that Chopra hasn’t been cast as a comic-book superheroine yet.

She’s got the look, the action skill-set, the intriguing unfamiliarity and, with each passing billboard, the visibility, to headline a mainstream American superheroine franchise—while allowing a Hollywood film to immediately make deeper inroads into the Indian market and reach every corner of the diaspora. That, and she’s the cool girl. It adds up.

In a manner of speaking, she has tested Marvel waters by giving her voice to Kamala Khan, the shapeshifting Pakistani-American superheroine called Ms Marvel, in a video game called Avengers Academy last year. Also, a recent feature by the website Heroic Hollywood pegs Chopra as their top choice to play Catwoman in a new set of films, and they make a strong case.

There are two reasons I believe Chopra hasn’t already signed on to becoming some kind of mutant or flying team member: because it is, belatedly and finally, only with Wonder Woman that a superheroine is getting her own movie, and Chopra may rightly be holding out for a stage as big as the ones male actors play on. And because she may be waiting for something wickeder. Better to be a Bond villain than a Bond girl, after all. Perhaps the only reason Chopra isn’t a superheroine already is that she would rather break bad.


Not very PC

A sampling of our favourite instances of PC not being PC

“I don’t think a lot of Indian actors like the term Bollywood. Because I think around the world, the word Bollywood has been reduced to, like, a Zumba class. It is. You stop someone, you ask, ‘Hey! Do you know what Bollywood is?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, I just take a Bollywood class’."

—The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

“I am really happy being a drama queen, and this is how it’s done... thank you to the people. Thank you to all who have accepted me and liked my show. I’m really psyched, can I do a little wiggle?"

—People’s Choice Awards, after being voted Favourite Dramatic TV Actress

“I don’t know how many women can say that they got to intimidate The Rock," Chopra said. “And I really do. I’m so mean to them, both Zac [Efron] and him, all the lifeguards. It’s delectable."

—Talking about Baywatch on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon


How Priyanka Chopra charmed America

Four moments that show how well Chopra has adapted to the demands of entertainment TV

Chicken hot-wings with Jimmy Fallon, March 2016

On the Tonight Show, Chopra demonstrated that a) she was entirely at ease with US late night TV banter and b) that Fallon had made a mistake by challenging a part-Punjabi to a chicken wings-eating contest. Photo: Getty Images

The Emmys and that red dress, September 2016

At the 2016 Emmys, Chopra walked out to present with Tom Hiddleston. Just before she reached the lectern, she twirled, allowing her flowing red dress to gracefully arc: a precisely calibrated move that only someone with true star wattage could pull off. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Tequila with Ellen DeGeneres, October 2016

Chopra bridged the gap between late-night US audiences and daytime ones by appearing on Ellen. She seemed as much at ease as she was with Kimmel or Fallon, downing a tequila shot, getting a cheer by declaring “India loves Ellen”, and talking forthrightly about her beauty pageant days.

The Tonight Show: Holi edition, March 2017

Fallon’s inherent silliness rubs off on Chopra again. The host is given a crash course in Holi, including a glass of thandai (minus, as Chopra puts it, “magical substances”) and a messy, manic face-painting battle. It also showed just how smoothly Chopra could play up the “Indian” and “global” parts of her persona. Photo: Getty Images

—Uday Bhatia

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