Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feet

Whether it's acting in American serials and Hollywood films, or playing her role as the Unicef's Goodwill Ambassador, Priyanka Chopra is creating ripples in the West. And she says this is just the beginning

Published: Jan 2, 2018 09:13:26 AM IST
Updated: Jan 3, 2018 11:05:45 AM IST

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feetImage by: Rohan Shrestha

Priyanka chopra is notching up one milestone after another in the West. The Miss World-turned-Bollywood star-turned-global celebrity was recently ranked eighth on Forbes’s list of the World Highest-Paid TV Actresses, with an annual income of $10 million. Chopra, who was appointed as the Unicef’s Goodwill Ambassador in 2016, also found herself in the 15th spot on Forbes’s list of the most powerful women in media and entertainment.

Acutely aware of the stardom that she wears, Chopra, 35, says the fear of failure or not being recognised in another country did not even occur to her. “There was none because in my mind I never went anywhere. People go to Lonavala [a popular hill station around 80 km from Mumbai], I go to Los Angeles. It’s like that… I treat the world as a very small place,” the actor tells Forbes India over a half-an-hour call from her New York residence.

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Chopra isn’t exaggerating. Hers is one of the most successful crossover stories by an Indian actor. The first season of Quantico (2015-16), an American TV series in which she plays FBI agent Alex Parrish, enjoyed a robust viewership of 8.05 million, according to data from Nielsen Company. The viewership dipped to 4.53 million in Season 2 (2016-17), but Chopra’s popularity remained undiminished. She bagged two People’s Choice Awards (PCA) for her role in Quantico: One in 2017 (Favourite Dramatic TV actress) and another in 2016 (Favourite Actress in a new TV series), becoming the first South Asian actor ever to win a PCA.

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feetPriyanka Chopra as Unicef’s Goodwill Ambassador
Image by: Getty images

Her popularity has ensured a constant stream of offers. At present, she is busy with the third season of Quantico that is being shot in Montreal, Atlanta and New York. That apart, she stars in two Hollywood films, A Kid Like Jake (scheduled for a 2018 release) that also features Homeland star Claire Danes and Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory, and Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson.

The international projects have kept the Jamshedpur-born actor away from Bollywood—she was last seen in Jai Gangaajal in 2016—but her production house, Purple Pebble Pictures (PPP), continues to churn out small-budget, content-driven regional cinema like the Marathi film Ventilator (2016), which won three National Awards. And more such films in India are on the anvil.

“I am right at the Beginning Of My Hollywood Journey. I have not cemented my ground yet...It Is Not Easy.”

Having worked hard for over a decade to make a mark in the Indian film industry, Chopra knows that she’s only scratched the surface of the potential the global platform offers. “I am right at the beginning of my [Hollywood] journey. I have not cemented my ground as yet; it took me many years in India to do it too… when you come from somewhere else, it’s so unexpected… you just do the best that you can and it is not easy, especially in a different country,” says the National Award-winning actor with 2.07 crore Twitter and 2.04 crore Instagram followers.

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feetIn a still from Quantico

Among the difficulties that Chopra encountered while blending in a new place was getting used to the “US pop culture”. “That was the hardest part,” she explains. “People would crack jokes and I would not understand them. I didn’t understand pop culture that well, having not spent enough time there (just 2-3 years of shooting for movies). Even in Quantico, I played an American girl, not a girl from India; she was born and raised in America. So, every Sunday, I had to convince a completely new country about having an American girl [in their lives]… that was tough.”

However, even in that unfamiliar territory, Chopra banked on her familiarity with the country where she spent her teenage years. “That was the edge for me,” she points out. At the age of 12, Chopra went to live and study with her aunt and cousins in Massachusetts, Iowa and New York. She returned to India when she was 17. “I was already tuned in to listening to [late American rapper] Tupac Shakur.”

What would have helped her further is her frequent travels to the US since 2011 to record music through a contract with Interscope Records, whose best-selling artists include Lady Gaga and Eminem. “It was so cool being in the studio with rapper and RedOne and meeting Bono and Bruce Springsteen,” says Chopra, also a trained Western classical singer.

She has sung three singles—‘In My City’ with, ‘Exotic’ with Pitbull and the cover version of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’—besides featuring in singing collaborations with American DJ duo The Chainsmokers, rapper DMX and Australian DJ Will Sparks. And it was her music that opened the doors to American television for her.

At one of the music parties in Los Angeles, Chopra met Keli Lee, the then executive vice president (casting) and now managing director (international content and talent) at Disney-ABC Television Group. She even discussed the possibility of a project with the actor’s agent before flying down to India later. “I was shooting for Gunday (2014) when Lee came to the sets and said she wanted to sign me as a talent, giving me the option of a television show after reading the scripts,” Chopra recalls. “I was sceptical about doing television in the US, but they came with a very sweet deal.”

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feetWith Dwayne Johnson in Baywatch

Immediately after, Chopra went to Los Angeles, and chose Quantico from the four scripts that she had liked. That series not just brought her to television screens in America but also opened up newer avenues. In 2017, she acted with professional WWE wrestler and Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson in the Paramount Pictures movie Baywatch, based on the popular 1990s television serial with the same name. It slumped at the box office with a domestic gross collection of $58.1 million in the US and Canada against a product cost of $69 million. However, the actor says the experience was worth it. “It was fun and, in fact, shooting it was like shooting for any Bollywood movie—lots of crew and big sets,” says Chopra.

The tepid response to Baywatch hasn’t deterred Chopra’s resolve to take risks. It’s an approach that she swore by even when she was finding her feet in Bollywood. Consider this: Just a year after making her debut as an actor, she opted to play a negative role in Aitraaz (2004) portraying the wife of an elderly business tycoon who falsely accuses her ex-lover of raping her. The role was fraught with risks and not something that a ‘typical actor’ would have opted for, at least then, and especially in her first few films. “While shooting for the movie, people warned me that it was a wrong career move and that I would get stuck with vamp-type roles. It scared me like hell,” she recalls. But the movie was well-received and Chopra, in particular, was lauded with several awards.

She faced a similar predicament when she was approached for Fashion (2008). The beauty queen was to essay the role of a small-town girl who becomes a supermodel in the Madhur Bhandarkar film. “I was told that girls did women-centric roles only towards the end of their careers to win awards. I was advised to work with big stars and do Hollywood tent-pole type movies,” says Chopra. “I was afraid ki phir se gadbad kar di (that I took a wrong decision again), but the fact is that I did not know any better.” But her belief in herself turned out to be true. She bagged the National Award for Fashion and proved her critics wrong.
In a career spanning nearly 15 years, 52 movies and 53 awards, including India’s fourth-highest civilian award, Padma Shri (2016), the actor continues to rewrite the rules with her unique choices. “When I was younger, I never saw a long-term plan. I am not from the film community; my career has always been full of risky choices and I took decisions off the paved path. My greatest risk was me not knowing that I was taking a risk,” Chopra tells Forbes India.

Priyanka Chopra: The world at her feetImage by: Kevin Winter / Getty images

Among the other brave choices that she took in Bollywood was working on diverse and challenging projects like Krrish (2006, India’s first superhero franchise), Barfi! (2012, in which she played an autistic girl) and Mary Kom (2014, a biopic on the Olympic medal winner). Filmmaker Rakesh Roshan, who directed Chopra in Krrish and Krrish 3, says: “She has a rare mix of sex appeal and Indianness. I saw two reels of Aitraaz and realised that she was talented.”

But talent alone can’t take you places. The sweat and toil that goes behind the scenes often goes unnoticed and that, claims the actor, forms an integral part of her preparation. “I have no specific plan or a formula, but there is a ridiculous amount of discipline that goes into it,” she says.

“My career has Been Full Of Risky Choices. The greatest was not knowing that I Was Taking A Risk.”

As a go-getter, Chopra has seen the highs and lows that come along with fame. The actor, therefore, has a message for today’s youth: “We live in a digital world where anyone can have an opinion. Someone’s opinion is not fact. It does not matter; focus on your strengths and not your inhibitions.” That’s the way Chopra has lived her life, brushing aside social media trolls, and focusing on her work. “I am here to work. People who like me, stay around me and people who do not like me, don’t have to,” she says.

Though based in the US for most part of the year and occupied with her international commitments, Chopra is keenly involved in her production house as well. PPP has several projects in the pipeline, including Sikkim’s first ever movie Pahuna, a Konkani-Hindi venture called Little Joe, a Marathi-Bengali biopic called Nalini and two Bengali films, Brishtir Oppekhyayy and Bus Stop E Keu Nei.

She may have won the world with her varied feats, but Chopra says she does not know what the future holds for her. “I just know that it is at a very interesting point where I have been able to break concrete a little bit by doing mainstream characters in international TV or movies. That’s the direction I want to be able to go in,” she says.

We are nearing the end of the interview, and Chopra needs to head back to her trailer. But we manage to ask her this last question: If she had to walk away from the arc lights, what would she want to be remembered for? She pauses for a while and says slowly: “As an achiever, someone with integrity and as a girl who had big dreams and just went after them.” She seems to have done well on that front already.

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(This story appears in the 05 January, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)