In 1970, a blonde wig-wearing Saira Banu played the Westernised daughter of Madan Puri, an Indian who moved to London and forgot his very Indian roots, in Purab Aur Paschim. The cigarette-smoking, miniskirt-wearing Saira—who loathes India—falls in love with the son of the Indian soil Manoj Kumar, and subsequently begins loving her home country and falls out of love with cigarettes and minis.
Four-and-a-half decades later, Bollywood’s uber babe Priyanka Chopra moved to Hollywood with her brunette mane, playing Alexandra ‘Alex’ Parrish, a tough FBI agent who is framed in the Grand Central bombing case. She tracks down her perpetrators, and becomes a CIA recruit. And unlike Saira, Priyanka lives with her white boyfriend. And she kicks butt.
Priyanka is at the pinnacle of success with her Hollywood debut Baywatch releasing globally. In the flaming red swimsuit-clad women lifeguards’ TV series turned into a movie, Priyanka plays a baddie. While she has the world at her feet, she is an Indian at heart—she loves Indian food and everything Indian.
Always ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ at heart, Priyanka—who had wanted to study Psychiatry or Engineering before the arc lights turned on her—says she has lived life on the forefront. “I’m a survivor and fighter. Whatever I am today is because of my fighter instincts, and my parents have brought me up that way,” she says. “If my films do well, I enjoy the success, but if they don’t, it saddens me and then I push myself harder.”
Life hasn’t been easy for her, but she worked her way from Bollywood to Hollywood. Experiments have never failed her—be it as a model on the ramp with Fashion, an autistic girl in Barfi, as Bajirao Mastani’s wife Kashibai or as Mary Kom the boxer. From being a beauty queen in 2000 to a pop sensation, she has crooned with Black Eyed Peas singer Will.i.am in ‘In My City’ and with rapper Pitbull in Exotic.
Today she radiates with success, and says there is much more to her. Gangajal, her last venture in Bollywood, received a lukewarm response. While there are rumours that she has quit India for Hollywood, Priyanka surprises everyone and announces that she is busy reading scripts and has zeroed in on a couple of Bollywood scripts.
The 34-year-old is busy spreading her wings in her homeland. She has turned a successful producer with her Purple Pebble Pictures making award-winning movies such as Ventilator with her mother Madhu Chopra and brother Siddharth. She has made a Bhojpuri venture Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi, a Punjabi one called Sarvann, and a Sikkimese-Nepalese film Paua (Guest). She recently announced her second Marathi movie, Kay Re Rascalaa.
She doesn’t have a strategy when it comes to work, and follows her basic instincts. She believes she has many more hurdles to cross and leaps to be made. “All I need is the love and support of my fans.” It’s been an exciting journey for her—from purab to paschim and back to purab.
‘I’m Trying Not to Do Typical Roles’
Priyanka Chopra, who has been globetrotting to promote her film Baywatch, is looking forward to more films in Bollywood now. She hasn’t signed any other Hollywood venture and is busy reading scripts in India and the US. She speaks to Shama Bhagat about Baywatch, her life and times and all other things. Excerpts:
What was the first thing you did on returning to India?
I met a lot of fans. I went to my new house in Juhu, stood in my balcony and breathed in fresh air. I arranged a few books and changed the sofa. Earlier, I didn’t get time to set my new house right.
What diet did you follow for your Hollywood movies?
I don’t eat western food as I don’t like it. I prefer Indian food. I have a cook with me for the past six years who makes Indian food for me. I was looking forward to Mumbai. I prefer the heat of the city. I can’t bear the cold. I try to eat healthy food. I have lots of proteins and no carbohydrates. I miss the hot phulkas. My genes are good and I have to thank my parents for that.
My father had abs till the age of 40. Now I am in my 30s and I work out. I try to wear different clothes and never stop myself from eating. I love to eat, so I enjoy the festival phase from November to January, and I put on three to four kilos. Then I have to lose them by exercising more.
Did you miss your mother?
My mother keeps coming to the US now and then. She just needs an excuse to be there. Sometimes she uses the reason of Purple Pebble Pictures (their film production company) to be with me.
Will there be a new season of Quantico?
I don’t know. They are yet to decide. After every season, they do a research on the most favourite show and TRPs. On that basis they decide whether they will continue with a new season or not.
You are playing a negative lead in Baywatch. Did you take inspiration from any of our villains here?
I have played negative roles in India in Aitraaz and Saat Khoon Maaf. We don’t have many heroines doing negative roles here.
This was very interesting as well as feminine and yet evil. We have all seen stereotypes. Whenever I walk on to the sets, I don’t want people to question. I try to play different characters. Our culture has songs and dance. We love to sing and dance on every occasion.
Which movies have you watched recently?
My working hours are crazy and I have so much work. We arrive at 5 a.m. and reach home at 9 p.m., so there are long hours of shooting. I don’t get time to watch movies.
Have you signed any films here? What plans now?
I never planned anything, things happened. I am an artiste and I want to go overseas. I loved Quantico. It was 13 episodes but became 26, and then 39.
One thing you don’t like about Hollywood?
I wish Hollywood was not punctual. That was a problem. The difference for me was television; 18 scenes a day. When I shot Baywatch, I felt it was like shooting for a Hindi film.
Will you promote Baywatch with your co-stars here?
There’s not much promotion time. The team is not coming to India. Dwayne (Johnson) is doing about four films. We will be doing the premiere in Miami and Berlin. I have been doing a lot of television interviews. We are doing as much possible for the movie.
Was there any prep work for the movie?
I take a lot of responsibility and they say I am very professional. We did readings and workshops, so we knew each other well. My first shot was in a white dress. I was alone and my director was amazing and fun. The weather was wonderful.
What films did you watch there? Any latest Bollywood movies?
I didn’t have the time to watch movies.
The last time you said you have to make yourself known every time because you are brown skinned.
I’m okay walking into a room and saying ‘I am Priyanka Chopra, and I am an Indian actor’. You can’t be so entitled. Different people have different celebrities in different countries. Our achievements are big. Not many have seen my movies in the US. Their press welcomed me. They are loving, and so wonderful and encouraging. I can’t say about brown skin; I cannot generalise. Our representation in global cinema is so huge. I don’t feel small. I have been new here too, but you welcomed me.
You also used a lot of cuss words.
The first time I did I felt so embarrassed. Normally I don’t use cuss words. Vishal Bhardwaj had tried it during Saat Khoon Maaf, but I felt shy and my ears became red. I tried it
What kind of films are you planning as a producer?
We have six films on the floor. We will be doing a Sikkimese film for the first time. Sikkim doesn’t have a film industry and there are no Sikkimese films. I have tied up with the government. We are also planning to make a set-up there. I’ve got several HoDs to work on it where they will teach them how to make films. Once they have learnt the craft, they can do a lot of movies there. They have a lot of local actors. We are doing a Konkani film, a Punjabi film and a Bengali film.
A lot has been said that Indian actresses are following western trends and are aping Hollywood actresses.
We wear the same brands and we are fortunate that we wear international brands. All the girls—right from Sonam to Deepika, Anushka and others—are fashionable. I did Baywatch because I liked the script. I did it on my terms.
Why are Indian male actors not so popular with international films?
I don’t know why men don’t take up international films. I loved the (Baywatch) script and got an offer so I took it up. I want to do good work no matter which language the film is in. My Hindi and English are good.
Are you open to doing other language films now?
I have reached a position where people know me. It’s about the mindset. I never took up films because I want to be the flag bearer. I want to do good work.
What was it like working with Dwayne Johnson?
He’s wonderful and an awesome friend. He’s very special and smart.
Are men being paid more there too?
The world is dominated by men. There’s feminism and rights for equality. Everywhere in the world the men get paid more. That’s why male stars are given that reverence. Actresses should change our point of view. We have hit the Rs 100-crore mark. Kangana’s film made the Rs 100-crore mark.
As women, we are taking strides. Fashion (2008) got good reviews and box office results. People should come and watch good films. A fan-following will always be there. My fans watch my films. I’m sure there’s no disparity. Jennifer Lawrence had said women are paid less.
You were a member of the jury at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was the experience?
I did jury duty for the first time. I met actor friends who are like-minded colleagues, and we watched many short films and documentaries made by students. There was a film from India, but it didn’t win, and I was upset. There were lovely films from Israel, Italy, Venezuela. Whoopie Goldberg is very involved with Tribeca. They told me not many short films are made in India because everyone wants to make feature films.
Does disparity of Indian or Asian actors still exist in Hollywood?
I’m trying to change that. Indian talent or South Asian talent gets represented in global cinema. I want to take roles not written just for Indian actors. This Baywatch was written for a big Hollywood actor. After I was signed, my role was tweaked a bit.
I’ve been fortunate that I have got good roles here too. Slowly you are seeing a lot of actors not only from India but South Asians from Britain too. I hope that Indian talent does a lot more work. Like Latin Amercian actors took over Holiday. Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas were doing a lot of work. I hope as a group we do that there. I’m trying not to do typical roles.
Are you open to doing Broadway or theatre?
I’ve been asked to. I was offered roles but I don’t have guts. I am not so talented or well-grounded that I can do theatre or Broadway. I’m very scared.
A lot of actors and people from the industry are raising their voices against issues these days.
I have 17 million followers on Twitter, so why give any importance to opinion? My parents taught me to never fear to raise your voice and give your opinion when you want to. Everyone has an opinion and we are a democratic country.
When is your next single coming up? Have you heard Parineeti’s song?
She sang so well. My dad and her dad did a lot of shows. I felt so good as it reminded me of that. She’s done a great job. I’m doing so much work that I’m not getting time to record a single. I enjoy it and my mom is keen that I sing for certain films.
Your role was quite bold in Quantico.
I don’t think I’ve done any less in Hindi films. In Quantico, I have a boyfriend who is white. I don’t like sensationalising my sexuality. I’ve not done as much in Hollywood as I have done here.
Your journey is enriching. To whom do you give credit for it and what guidelines do you give to youngsters?
I’ve been in showbiz more than half my life. I’ve learnt everything on the job. I never followed a trend. I always liked to lead and like doing things for the first time. A lot of people gave me brickbats, but you have to take that and put it in the dustbin and look at the next milestones.
I’ve been very instinctive. I’ve looked at my milestones. I tell youngsters don’t look at the milestone and keep working hard. Knowledge is more important. You’ll make mistakes but you will learn from them. I don’t strategise anything. I’m very instinctive.
What do you want to say to your fans in the US?
Thank you for giving me so much support, and welcoming me and accepting me in a different country. I’ve been there for one-and-a-half years, so thank you so much.
Lights, Camera, Action
Priyanka will work with filmmaker Paul Bernon in his next film, A Kid Like Jake, alongside Oscar-nominated actor Octavia Spencer, Jim Parsons and Claire Danes. The movie will be directed by Silas Howard.
She’ll be seen in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s drama movie Gustakhiyan, which will showcase lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and poet Amrita Pritam’s love story
She will start prepping for the third season of the popular US TV series Quantico, in which she plays the role of Alex Parrish
There are talks of her portraying astronaut Kalpana Chawla in Viacom 18 Motion Pictures’ untitled biopic