Priyanka Chopra: The star strategist
At 33, the actor is confidently scripting her own definition of what it means to be an Indian film star, and finding unprecedented success on a global stage
The voice on the phone is of a woman charged with the warmth of success; its tempo rides on passion and pluck. “I want to leave behind a legacy. I believe in working very hard,” she says. “I want to be bloody good at every opportunity life offers me. Failure is not an option.” These sentences pop up at different moments in the conversation, but when stacked up in retrospect, they reveal the steel that defines Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra’s current, fulsome phase as a “global celebrity”.
It is midnight in India and mid-morning for Quantico’s FBI recruit Alex Parrish, shooting in Montreal, Canada, for the remaining episodes of the ABC TV series that will go on air in March. Just a fortnight ago, the role won her The People’s Choice Award for best actress in a new TV series in the US. She accepted the award laughing and blushing, one hand on her mouth, a blink-and-you-will-miss-it Miss World flurry followed by an I-am-the-global-superstar-from-India radiance. For the 33-year-old Hindi film star, it vindicated her career leap: from film to TV, from India to the US, from the routine conquests of a Hindi film star to risking her roots for a culturally different professional milieu. Born in Jamshedpur, stirred in Bareilly, minted in Mumbai, firing guns in Montreal, accepting a trophy in Los Angeles dressed in a Vera Wang silver and gold sequin dress, nude nails and silver stilettos.
“An award is an award, it is my encouragement as an artiste, but I am excited that I got the People’s Choice Award in another country and it is the people who actually consume my show who voted for me,” says Chopra. Her emphasis on “hard work” returns, this time more reflective. “As a child I had an acute fear of failure. Call it that or an addiction to hard work,” she says, adding that she works all the time, giving everything of herself in every assignment.
This refrain on building a legacy is in itself an instance of goal-oriented celebrity management. “I have never seen Priyanka as a talent I just ‘manage’, I have always seen her as a strategic partner,” says Chopra’s international manager Anjula Acharia-Bath, an expert on diversity in global popular cultures and a partner at Trinity Ventures, a venture capital firm, on email. Acharia-Bath, who co-founded the media company Desi Hits! (it folded up in 2014) and featured on Billboard’s “International Power Players” 2014 list, says she was stunned by the actor’s business acumen and creative drivewhen she first came to India to share her vision with Chopra on making her an international star.
Eventually, the two signed a deal in 2010 and Acharia-Bath got Chopra numerous high-profile assignments: The US’ National Football League (NFL), clothing brand Guess, Disney, the audio company Beats By Dre. She also introduced her to Keli Lee, executive vice-president, talent and casting, Disney ABC TV Group. In an interview last year, Lee told Mint that “we (she and Acharia-Bath) wanted to get the first Bollywood star on to TV screens in America and around the world.” She spoke of Chopra as “a certified breakout star”.
After a series of negotiations between Chopra, Lee, Acharia-Bath, legal and other clearances that took more than a year, through time zone and work culture differences, Chopra signed Quantico. Lee had reportedly sent her 25 pilot scripts. The role of FBI’s Alex Parrish’s appealed most to the actor.
“Brilliantly educated” is an unusual compliment for a star who never completed her college education. “After high school in the US and a brief stint in a Mumbai college, Miss India-World happened and her life took over,” says the Mumbai-based Natasha Pal. She has worked with Chopra for 10 years in various capacities; from managing her public relations to enhancing the digital strategy of Brand PC.
Digital savviness is a pet theme for Chopra. “I am a tech freak,” she says. “I love gadgets. Technology is a very important part of my life. That’s why I wanted to become an engineer, to find out how things work. The best gifts to give me are not shoes and bags but gadgets.” When a new gizmo appears on the market, Chopra has to have it: She currently has six Apple Watches, a 360 Camera, multiple iPads and a new iPad Pro, vinyl players on which she listens to Jimi Hendrix and David Guetta, and a few IO Hawks skateboards. “I glide around the river on an IO Hawk,” she says.Rs.4-7 crore per endorsement, making her one of the highest-paid Bollywood female actors of 2015. Chopra’s team refuses to divulge her professional fees for films or endorsements.
“Initially there were a lot of hits and misses but her style has evolved to be hip, urban and slightly edgy, with a rock ‘n’ roll influence,” says Rajani. Think leather-trimmed hugging jackets, cleavage-revealing goth dresses, form-fitting silhouettes, pointy pumps, pouty lips, bangs, slick ponytails, and black eye make-up with heavy lashes. “She owns her sexuality, there is a music vibe to her dressing. She is not girlie, vintage, coy or feminine”.
And while Team Chopra is reluctant to confirm if she has indeed been signed for Baywatch the film, it’s evident that her bikini act in Dostana and its sexier interpretation in her 2013 music video, Exotic, with American rapper Pitbull has added “exotic”—a hot-selling descriptor in the West—to her résumé.
Chopra’s current celebrity heft is not the only reason why film directors like her. Director Prakash Jha emphasizes this while discussing Jai Gangaajal, slated for release in early March. “I have a reputation of working with stars who can act. Priyanka has acquired a persona, she can get under the skin of a character, bringing a uniqueness to her roles,” says Jha. Chopra plays Abha Mathur, a police officer, in the film. “I never direct my actors too much, but I talk to them a lot, giving them physical and psychological information on the roles they play,” says Jha, explaining that he worked on the internal challenges and undercurrents of Chopra’s role with her. “Priyanka was a revelation. She understands the economy of acting. She works intuitively on the character formation in her mind, she feels the moment,” he adds.
Pal says Chopra’s instinct reflects her “creative pulse”. “Once a decision is taken in her mind, the team steps in to weigh in all the details. Priyanka is a thorough professional and every commitment she makes is treated with the same seriousness to ensure that she can deliver as promised,” she says.
Chopra’s army background (her father, the late Ashok Chopra, was a doctor in the Indian Army), would have contributed to a certain work ethic. Saran adds that “Priyanka kept herself untouched by scandal for the longest time”. The naming of a road leading to her house in Mumbai as Lt Col Ashok Chopra Marg in 2014 raised questions that her celebrity status had influenced the decision. She managed to duck the protests in the print and social media.
This very Instagram account also reveals a more vulnerable, wistful side. “Her heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high,” she posted once. And at another time, “Sing me no songs of daylight, for the sun is the enemy of lovers, sing instead of shadows and darkness. And memories of midnight”, quoting the Greek poet Sappho.
So what’s “Daddy’s li’l girl” really like? Someone vulnerable needing nurture or someone who becomes a protector herself? “A little bit of both,” she says, taking her “all-is-good” guard off for a moment. Prodded upon her inner life, she admits she doesn’t like silences, and that she loves to be surrounded by “hundreds of friends and family all the time”.
Whether Chopra will be able to script the saga of celebrity strategy into a best-selling memoir will depend to a large extent on how she hones her multiple talents, rather than going with a finger-in-many-pies game plan. “I am not exhausted with any aspect of my life. I love being in front of the camera, before an audience. But yes, between music and acting, I think I am driven more towards acting at the moment,” she concedes.