The year was 2000. Priyanka Chopra, all of 18, had just moved to Mumbai after becoming Miss India (World). Having won the Miss World title as well, she had stars in her eyes and her sights set firmly on becoming a superstar. She even told a close friend that some day she’d be the face on all the billboards along a well-known stretch of Juhu Chowpatty.
Of course, that has happened multiple times during her 15-year-long career in the Hindi film industry but even Chopra could not have never imagined that some day, her face would be plastered on virtually every taxi top, billboard, city bus and subway station from New York to San Francisco.
After having acted in over 50 Hindi films, in a major professional gearshift, Chopra is now a star on American television, having been cast as lead in ABC’s Quantico. In a show The New York Times (NYT) termed as ‘Homeland meets the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre’, she is front and centre of an ethnically varied cast as Alex Parrish, an FBI trainee accused of plotting the most devastating terrorist attack on New York since 9/11.
Parrish is half-Indian, has backpacked across India and Pakistan, and wears an Om bracelet. But her ethnicity is incidental, and Chopra wouldn’t have had it any other way. “When ABC approached me with the talent development deal, the only thing I told them was that I want to play an ethically ambiguous character. Alex could be from anywhere in the world,” the 33-year-old actress tells Forbes India on the phone from Montreal, Canada, where the show is being shot. There’s no Apu-esque (from The Simpsons) stereotyping, she points out. “Growing up, I loved watching The Simpsons even though I would be quite annoyed by Apu. I didn’t know anyone who spoke like him.” But even so, while in high school in the US, Chopra was teased by mimicking Apu’s accent. “Somewhere that childhood trauma has stayed with me.”
ABC sent her over 20 scripts, of which Quantico stood out, she says. “Whether it’s the movies, TV or music, I love pop culture. Quantico is quintessential pop entertainment. It’s not saying ‘we are art, take us seriously’. At the same time, it doesn’t take your intelligence for granted.” As for Parrish, “I love the character. Alex is a driven modern woman. She is badass, flawed and so confident. It was interesting for me to play such a strong character week after week.”
Quantico premiered in the US on September 27 and in India on October 3. Created by Joshua Safran, a former executive producer on the popular Gossip Girl, the drama-thriller has been the biggest hit of ABC’s fall lineup and the channel has upped the show’s first season from 13 episodes to 22. It rated a 7.6 on IMDb and a 7.8 on TV.com. In the US, the show opened to mostly positive reviews, with Chopra proving a worthy lead; Quantico is also already airing in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia, South Africa and Brazil.
Add to this, a successful Bollywood release, Dil Dhadakne Do, already this year, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent Bajirao Mastani generating high-octane buzz before its December 18 release, and Chopra, who ranks 13th on the 2015 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List (compared to 12 last year), can have few complaints about 2015.
The defining feature for Chopra’s year, however, has to be her ‘crossover’ to the US. And this leg of Chopra’s journey started in 2012 when, along with her manager in the US, Anjula Acharia-Bath, she met ABC’s head of casting Keli Lee. A Korean immigrant, Lee is the force behind ABC’s ethnically diverse casting, whether it’s Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, Sofia Vergara in Modern Family and Kerry Washington in Scandal.
When Lee and the team from ABC flew down to Mumbai to meet the actress, Chopra was clear that she’d be interested only if the role was at par with her standing in the Hindi film industry. “There were TV shows and movies that were offered [to me] before this one as well. But I wanted a part that put me on the same platform as [I had in] India. I wanted to play a leading part. I didn’t want to settle for anything less.”
At the same time, while many of her Indian counterparts would have balked at the idea of having to audition for a role, Chopra was up for it. Her stardom was immediately evident to the producers. As an NYT article about the show notes, “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 into 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’.”
Since the promotions for Quantico began in August, Chopra has been enjoying being a newcomer all over again. “It’s really weird when people ‘discover’ me or what I have done before. They get pretty shocked. It’s fun to be a new discovery and yet to have the body of work that I have. I am very proud of the fact that I come from one of the most prolific film industries in the world. It is really cool to educate people here about Bollywood and to remove their stereotypical ideas of what Hindi films are like. People around me there now know that Bollywood is a lot more than song-and-dance.” Her Quantico co-stars are eagerly awaiting the release of Bajirao Mastani. “They want me to screen it for them here.”
With multiple projects on her hand, Chopra, who was talking to us as she drove to the sets of Quantico, has been in “a race against time”, she says. “The shoot’s been completely crazy. I have been having 16-hour days.” And then she also jets across continents with arduous regularity. Consider that while working on Quantico, she flew down to Wai, six hours outside Mumbai, for a weekend, to finish her bit for Bajirao Mastani in mid-October. In November, even as work on Quantico continued, she was promoting Bajirao Mastani and dubbing for Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal (2016). “I am exhausted but I have made commitments,” she says.
It doesn’t help that Chopra has had to manage both work and home while in Montreal. “She obviously doesn’t have any help there, so she’s been taking care of her home and cooking for herself. It’s been an interesting experience for her,” says her mother Dr Madhu Chopra.
But life in North America wasn’t always this pleasant for Chopra. When she was just 13, Chopra went to live with her aunt and uncle in Queens, New York, and Newton, Massachusetts. “I had a really tough time. Kids would call me Brownie. I spent quite a bit of time crying and wanting to come back home.” She did that after spending four years there.
Back home, she was considering an education in engineering when her mother sent her photos to the Miss India pageant. That changed everything. By the time she turned 18, Chopra was Miss World and then movies inevitably beckoned. “Entertainment was never an industry we even considered as a career option for Priyanka. It just happened,” says her mother.
Chopra says she “never planned anything. I only grabbed the opportunities that have come my way”. There were many of those but the early years still weren’t easy on her. Despite being a part of hits like The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003), Andaaz (2003) and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004), her mother recalls years of bullying and tears. “Directors and choreographers would bully her. They would tell her that she couldn’t be an actress and that she wasn’t up to the mark.” Chopra reacted to the bullying in the only way she knew. “She started working harder than anyone around her.”
The film that instilled confidence in Chopra and made the industry take notice of her acting chops was Abbas-Mustan’s Aitraaz (2004). “At the time we signed her, Priyanka had done only typical heroine roles—with eight scenes and four songs. To play Sonia Roy, we needed someone who had a lot of sex appeal and wasn’t afraid to do a grey character,” recalls Abbas Burmawalla, one half of the director duo.
In the film, which had a story inspired by Hollywood blockbuster Disclosure, Chopra plays the wife of a business tycoon who accuses a former lover (Akshay Kumar) of rape. Aitraaz was the first on a long list of bold choices—think Fashion (2008), Barfi! (2012) and Mary Kom (2014)—she has made over the years. “People told Priyanka that no one will ever cast her as a romantic lead after she played such a negative character,” Abbas remembers. But she won critical acclaim for the role as well as multiple awards, including Filmfare’s Best Performance in a Negative Role and Best Villain at the Screen Awards.
Almost a decade after he shot with her, the director remembers Chopra exceeding everyone’s expectations and her professionalism (“for a 7 am call time, she’d be ready in costume by 6.45”) but it’s her food habits that have a special place in his memories. “Unlike most actresses, she is not a fussy eater. She wouldn’t demand exotic salads. She’d sit with the rest of the crew and eat what everyone was eating. It was so refreshing to see an actress relish chicken masala and kebabs.”
Tarun Mansukhani, who directed her in Dostana (2008), was impressed by her focus. “Regardless of what is happening in her life before she comes on your set, once she is there, she is your character. There are no meetings or phone calls for anything else. Her focus is absolute. She gets so immersed in the character that she’ll tell you if there is something that her character will or will not do.”
When Jimmy Iovine, former chairman of Interscope Records and present head of Apple’s music business, met Chopra at Monkey Bar in midtown Manhattan, he thought he was meeting “a girl from the Lower East Side”. “She knew and understood pop culture so well. I knew she was a huge star from India but she could have easily been a 30-something American girl.” Iovine, who has worked with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, U2, Lady Gaga and Eminem, signed Chopra on to his record label because “she was the complete package”. “I was looking for someone from the East who can cross over to the West.”
This happy balance has helped Chopra mesh with the pop cultural fabric in the US. It started with music where she collaborated with the likes of Pitbull and will.i.am. Her first single ‘In My City’ was the theme song for the 2013 season of NFL Network’s Thursday-night games. The same year, she joined the long line of models like Claudia Schiffer, Adriana Lima and Kate Upton as a Guess girl. Her Guess campaign was shot by ’90s pop music icon Bryan Adams. “The great thing about Priyanka is that she is such a wide variety of skills that you can use any one of them. She can hold her own on a stage with the likes of Bill Clinton and Steve Wozniak… she is stunningly beautiful and can sing, dance and act,” says her manager Acharia-Bath.
While Chopra is wearing her trailblazer tag well, it calls for navigating tough terrain. Straddling different continents includes multiple trans-Atlantic flights, jet lag and exhaustion. “Every day, I kick myself to work. My first and last thought every day is just how exhausted I am. But I have made a choice and I have to stand by my choices.”
“I wish she couldn’t work this hard,” says her mother.
Chopra laughs when we tell her this. “Yes, she keeps telling me to stop and enjoy the now. But hard work is all I know. I have never had to depend on anyone to get where I am. Having said that, it’s not like I am rushing into something to prove a point. I am just expanding as opportunities come my way. I enjoy being the best possible professional version of me that I can be,” she says.
She does get two hours to herself at the end of a work day and that is her downtime. “I get into bed, have dinner and watch TV. Right now I am obsessed with Empire, Jane the Virgin, Castle and Limitless.” This is also when she connects with her over-11 million followers on Twitter.
The frenetic pace is easier to cope with when you are driven, and Chopra is driven—by her need to be remembered. “I just want to leave a legacy, whatever it might be.” This means, she will do whatever it takes. In high school, for instance, she wanted to participate in a play but that would mean missed classes, make-up classes and so on.
“Essentially doing that play would throw my whole schedule out of gear. I asked dad what I should do. My dad asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted both. So he told me to make it happen. It was just as simple as that.”
In this effort to have it all, her father, the late Dr Ashok Chopra, a doctor in the Indian Army, was her biggest ally. “He pushed her to be the best that she could be. He was her biggest strength and weakness. Every day, when she’d come back from work, she would head straight to him to tell him all that had happened. They were inseparable,” says her mother. It’s been two years since he passed away and “Priyanka just immersed herself in work. It was almost as if she didn’t want to come home. She spent the first year pretty much out of Mumbai. I don’t think she knew how to process her grief. I think she was just so angry with her father for abandoning her,” says Dr Chopra. Priyanka agrees: “Working around the clock helps me not have to deal with my issues. I can just dive into work and forget all my problems.”
Also, experience has taught her to be more philosophical. “Time has a way of sorting things out,” she says, is what would be her advice to her frantic 18-year-old self. “Just keep walking and you’ll get there somehow.”