In the fifth season of Koffee with Karan, host Karan Johar had a question for his guest Priyanka Chopra during the rapid-fire round, “What is the benefit of having one foot in Hollywood and one foot in Bollywood”. With a smile on her face, Priyanka had replied, “I guess I get to straddle the world”. This remark had then been touted as one of the standout moments of the fifth season of the show.
By then, Priyanka had already debuted with her hit-show Quantico where she played the role of FBI trainee turned detective Alex Parish. She had also pretty much taken America by a storm with her much lauded appearances at the MET Gala, and subsequent appearances on major talk-shows such as Ellen, Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live. There were rumours about her having affairs with multiple Western celebrities as the Indian star went about presenting and walking red carpets at major award shows including the Oscars. But even then, at that very moment of utter abandon, viewers everywhere could hardly have imagined the largely tangible empire this woman was single-handedly going to make across the globe.
At the very peak of her career Priyanka Chopra, one of the leading actresses and finest artistes of our times, made the decision to change base – leave India and set up camp in America. She was even at that time one of the highest paid actresses in our country, with career choices that indeed were entertaining, if not outright daring. Following her Miss World win, she broke on the scene with her performance in the lukewarm Andaaz, for which she won the Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut. But it was only with her performance in Aitraaz that she began to grab eyeballs. Doing the role of a seductress was a choice actresses avoided at the beginning of their career, trying to avoid the very probable risk of getting slotted into a certain type of roles. But even more than that, there was the fear of doing what would be traditionally perceived as a “negative, vamp” role.
In walked Priyanka with her performance as Sonali Roy in Aitraaz. In this one role that got her much needed critical acclaim and a barrage of awards, she played the role of a villainous femme fatale – a corporate woman who accuses her employee of sexual harassment. Chopra was fantastic in her portrayal of a scheming woman who goes to every end possible to achieve her ulterior intentions. Over the years, she got slotted as an actress who was only capable of essaying “glamour roles”. But despite these choices, which even in many cases resulted in films that tanked at the box office, Chopra was clearly an actress who was willing to experiment and take chances.
Opportunity presented itself with Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, where Chopra took up the role of a struggling fashion model. Cast opposite Kangana Ranaut, in one of her most memorable performances, this film marked the true arrival of Chopra, the actress, upon the scene. Bhandarkar, in true Bhandarkar fashion, made a middling film that gave its leading lady enough meat to chew on. Earlier, his films had allowed Tabu and Konkona Sen Sharma to deliver outstanding turns in Chandni Bar and Page 3 and Priyanka took up the challenge. In Fashion, which if you think about it is little more than an underdog story, she paired her glamour quotient with the demands of playing the emotional intensity of a small-town girl caught in the glitz of the fashion world. Fashion did not shed any dramatic new light on the lives of the women who appear on billboards of everything we desire, but it played to Priyanka’s need of the hour. She was likeable as an archetype and yet she imbued the same with amazing sincerity and depth.
But the potency of her sexuality was yet to fully exploited. In Vishal Bharadwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf, a dark comedy where she played the role of an Anglo-Indian woman who in the search for true love ends up murdering all seven of her husbands due to singular fatal flaws in all of them. The film, which yet again cast her in the role of the femme fatale, saw her this time navigate, with lesser flash, an interiority of darkness that she had not done before. It not only established her thereby as a director’s actress but also as someone who despite a mainstream presence was not unflinching to explore indie spaces and ideas – exhibiting great maturity and evolution as an artiste on her end.
In her next two critically lauded ventures, the actor quit playing characters with such intense shades of darkness and instead portrayed an unseen innocence in her next. She portrayed the autism-ridden lover of Ranbir Kapoor in Barfi! a film which won her ample praise and accolades. For many months, Priyanka spent researching for the role in mental health institutions, speaking to and observing patients ridden with the condition. She got the chance to play the Bhansali heroine when she was cast as Kashibai, the first wife of Peshwa Bajirao, in the film Bajirao Mastani. Chopra, who was accredited as a show-stealing performer in the film, was phenomenal in the way she employed her eyes to convey the depth of the tragedy her character finds herself in – torn between her love for a man and respecting his choice of polygamy. Even in a dance number gloriously shot by Sudeep Chatterjee, dressed up by Maxima Basu and performed by Deepika Padukone alongside her, people remembered and talked for the longest time not about Bhansali and his signature top shots – but of the low angle tilt (almost blink it and miss it) of Priyanka portraying the agonising pain of Kashibai – just through her eyes alone.
At the peak of her career, playing supporting acts was a bold choice. But Priyanka did not put it past herself when she yet again got cast with Ranveer Singh, this time as his sister in Dil Dhadakne Do. In the role of Ayesha, the elder of the family who sold her jewellery to start her own business, Priyanka almost added a meta layer to her performance. As a woman, who had gone from strength to strength, taking on challenges and facing them all alone – in an industry teeming with fraught peer equations. Despite her status as a reigning star, her decision to take on supporting roles, in as recent as Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, Priyanka left a standing mark as a foreign bred woman of Indian origin who is simply unable to put up with the misogyny and classist tendencies of her husband’s household back in India. It was a small role and one that could have easily come off as flashy, but it was only to the credit of Chopra that the character remained imbued with a sense of quiet dignity despite the many scenes which required her to be hysterically throwing raging tantrums.
But even as Priyanka slowly made her transition into the West, all the while actively filming here in India, she also entered a world of entrepreneurial activities, actresses in India had rarely done before at a scale thus. She invested her money in the dating app Bumble, largely facilitating its launch here in India and also eventually went on to invest in real estate start-up, the Apartment List. Recently she expanded her business into beauty products as well by launching an entire range of high-end vegan hairstyle products, alongside opening a restaurant for premiere Indian cuisine in Manhattan.
With a premature autobiography also sitting on the shelves as a bestseller, Chopra currently stands as one of the most powerful women in the world. Her work as UN Goodwill ambassador has also been grabbing eyeballs with close media attention to the many trips she has made to African countries in the past two years. In hindsight, Chopra’s trajectory is nothing short of the fully realised American Dream in the modern world. But most people who were for the longest while, inheritors of the American Dream in the New World, popularised the idea of coming from nothing and breaking into a fortune of everything imaginable. But the case with Chopra has and always will be different.
The decision to make a move to America came at the peak of her career, when she already was reigning supreme in an empire in India she had taken years to build. Yet, she was not making a move as part of indie projects, like Indian actresses have done before. Priyanka walked the carpet of no premiere festival or sat on the International Jury of another. But what she did was directly present at the Oscars, in America under the Trump administration – in the same year Asghar Farhadi refused to attend the ceremony as a sign of protest against the travel ban of several Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. Even before Meghan Markle created controversy across the sea. Priyanka was in attendance at her fairytale-esque wedding to Prince Harry.
She truly came to personify a woman who had everything to lose, and who gambled for more. It was a gamble that paid off and how. With her marriage to celebrity singer Nick Jonas, Priyanka now is part of one of the biggest families in the Western world of entertainment. With regular appearances on haute-couture shows across important fashion weeks, she has now established herself, completely in her own right, as a bona-fide force to be reckoned with. With everything at stake she emerged as a true victor in a race, very few have ever dared to take. In a country of immigrants, with increasing hostility towards immigrant minority populations and violence against gender and sexual minorities, the idea of a brown woman wielding such huge power is in equal measure daunting and exciting. Not since the days of Oprah Winfrey perhaps, has a woman of colour this widely been celebrated in America. Although her skin if often the trigger point for conversations – the travails of battling racism and sexism on her journey to make it big in America, it never really ends up becoming a no-go point. People eventually move beyond the same and acknowledge her for the work she has been consistently producing, and promising to deliver in the coming years. Through the same, Priyanka promises to serve till the end of time as a prototype for the small-town girl who made it happen in a way no other did in the New World.
Today, Priyanka has sustained blows as heavy as being seriously being accused of being a global scam artist. But through it all, she stands tall. She swerved clean of falling into the trap of just being a popular celebrity wife with red carpet appearances. Today, she continues to work for productions alongside people as renowned as Richard Madden and Mindy Kaling, while also having projects lined up in her own country. Her absolute embodiment of this modern feminist American Dream is nothing short of being awed at. But also, it shows the versatility of her own personality – something she continues to hold onto even after so many years. Her background in science and engineering reflects in her deep rooted beliefs in the power of innovation to change and spearhead the world in the coming years. The fact that she has now moved beyond her straightjacket role as an actor and embraced her existence as a producer, creator and entrepreneur as well shows that this is a woman who is absolutely not scared of anything. Despite a few cinematic misfires in the Hollywood scene, she is here to stay.
Do you think they will play Desi Girl when this woman actually bags an Oscar? Perhaps we will see that day soon!