When I first saw Priyanka Chopra in her debut film Thamizhan (2002), I didn’t even make an effort to learn her actual name. It didn’t matter to the 14-year-old fanboy who was transfixed by the antics and accomplishments of Vijay’s Surya. I grew up hearing that female actors come with a shelf-life. I was told, irrespective of how talented they are, most female actors just vanish from the film scene. And, hence I did not want to take the trouble of learning the actor’s name, just to forget it soon.
In my defence, she didn’t have anything worthwhile to do in Thamizhan. It was an unambitious, hero’s arm candy role. Her presence in the film was irrelevant until there was a dance number or a lame romantic scene.
Priyanka Chopra’s Priya was the quintessential Tamil heroine. She was cast in a mould that was perfected in the bygone-era and which would be later replaced by the ‘loosu ponnu’ archetype.
Priya can’t make eye contact with the boy she likes. She is shy while speaking to Surya. Paradoxically, Priya is not expected to carry her reservations into the duet numbers. Her plain and single tone dresses (just like her character) make way for short and trendy clothes in the song sequences. The timid girl lets her hair down and matches steps with her man before she goes back to being the underconfident, nervous and unambitious damsel.
After a point in the film, Priya loses Surya’s full attention as the hero finds his calling in teaching the law to common people. But, Priya has no higher calling or purpose to fulfil in her life. She just hangs around the sidelines, waiting for the hero to take a break from his work so she could entertain him. In her desperation for Surya’s attention, she once walks into his office uninvited. He doesn’t give two hoots about her presence and continues with his work. But, a determined Priya eventually seduces him into singing “Ullathai Killathe,” which was actually sung by Vijay and Priyanka.
Yes, Ullathai Killathe was her first recording before she became world popular with “Exotic.” Apparently, it was Vijay who persuaded her into singing the song after he heard her hum on the sets.
Priya’s timidity, which we know now, goes against every grain of Priyanka Chopra’s actual go-getter personality. Fresh off her Miss World victory, Priyanka thought Thamizhan will be a good launchpad for her acting career. And she was spot on.
Filmmaker Dharmesh Darshan saw Priyanka in one of the songs from Thamizhan. He recommended her name to his brother Suneel Darshan for the latter’s production Andaaz (2003). And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Priyanka Chopra is celebrated as India’s biggest crossover success in Hollywood. Beat that.