In February 2016, I was at the Munich airport, browsing through the neatly stacked shelves of glossy magazines at the bookstore, when a familiar face caught my eye: Priyanka Chopra, looking glamorous on the cover of the US edition of Elle.
She was one of only a few women of colour, and the only Indian, in the several rows of impossibly attractive faces. I remember feeling a rush of pride. Before getting on the plane, I tweeted: "Bookstore at Munich airport selling #Elle magazine with @priyankachopra on cover. Am irrationally thrilled! #BollywoodZindabad."
Priyanka Chopra Jonas is, as her character Sweety says in the 2009 film Kaminey, a 'single piece'. She is the architect of a narrative that has no precedent in Indian cinema. Over the years, she has continually expanded her horizons and gone from a triple threat to a multiple threat: she's an actor, a singer, a beauty queen, a producer, an influencer and a philanthropist.
Her journey is remarkable because it includes two ascents-after winning the Miss World title in 2000, she made the time- honoured transition into Bollywood. Her parents were doctors and she had no connections in the business, but she willed and worked her way into becoming both an A-list star and a National Award-winning actor.
And then, in her early thirties, when it seemed like her Bollywood career had peaked (like film industries around the world, Bollywood is notoriously ageist), Priyanka simply shifted the goalpost. She started over, as a newbie in Hollywood, and became the first Indian star to build a successful mainstream career in Hollywood.
This is not the trajectory heroines in Hindi cinema usually follow. Bollywood leading ladies inhabit a paradoxical space. They are an integral part of the fantasy factory. The most successful are outsized stars who drive box office collections, have legions of fans and, occasionally, shape narratives before work on a project begins.
Every era has had stellar female actors, from Nargis, Nutan, Meena Kumari and Madhubala to Hema Malini and Rekha to Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit to Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt. But they are also, to varying degrees, second-class citizens, functioning in a deeply patriarchal system. Bollywood, like film industries everywhere, is run by men.
At the start of my career, I would routinely find myself on sets where the leading lady, her mother, her hairdresser and I were the only women in a crew of over 100. None of us questioned this. The few women in positions of power (mostly actors) used their clout to further their careers, demanding full-bodied roles and even propelling films at the box office (Raja in 1995 was acknowledged as a hit engineered by Madhuri and not by the hero, Sanjay Kapoor).
But I can't recall conversations about the status of women in the business. In fact, when an actress became successful enough to sell a film solo (as Madhuri did), the biggest compliment the industry paid her was calling her the female Amitabh Bachchan. Decades later, this would be repeated when Vidya Balan was nicknamed the Fourth Khan (after Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir).
(Excerpted from 'A Place in my Heart' by Anupama Chopra with permission from Penguin Random House)