The lack of South Asian role models in Western pop culture had always nagged Acharia-Bath, who made it a mission to help the Bollywood star become a household name in the US. With Quantico, she's already halfway there
It took her more than five years, but with Priyanka Chopra’s debut on ABC’s new drama Quantico, which opened in the US on 27 September and launched in India on 3 October, Anjula Acharia-Bath finally achieved her goal—to get a desi artist into mainstream America.
And it doesn’t get more mainstream than Sunday night prime time and the largest billboard on Sunset Boulevard.
Acharia-Bath, 43, is now a full-time partner at Trinity Ventures, a venture capital firm (whose investments include Starbucks Corp. and FitBit Inc.), where she looks for investments that can be made into global brands. More importantly, she’s the woman behind that woman.
It was Acharia-Bath who signed on Chopra in 2010 and worked to get her deals in every slice of entertainment in the Western world—starting with contracts to cut songs with leading American pop stars, a chance to perform at the National Football League (NFL), the pinnacle of American sport, to be the brand ambassador for Guess, the fashion brand for the all-American girl and, finally, the lead role on prime-time TV.
Petite and always impeccably turned out, Acharia-Bath’s focus in life has been to introduce the Western world to South Asian talent. She can trace her need to do that to growing up in England in Buckinghamshire in the late 1970s, the child of immigrant parents from Punjab, who was often at the receiving end of the active racism common those days.
“The biggest thing I felt was the way we were perceived and presented on TV was so derogatory and grossly misrepresented," says Acharia-Bath, the agitation clear in her voice several decades later. She particularly remembers a TV show called Grange Hill in which one of the characters, an Indian girl, came from a family that was portrayed as being so conservative that if the girl’s father spotted her talking to a boy, he would take her to a doctor to get her virginity checked. “I’d be bullied in school even harder the next day than I already was."
Part of the problem was that there weren’t any South Asian role models in mainstream pop culture. “No one had broken through," she says.
It was a thought that stayed with her.
Fast forward to 2006, Acharia-Bath and her husband Ranj Bath, another British-Indian she met at a university in London and bonded with over the lack of any South Asian artists in Western mainstream pop culture, started Desi Hits with a third co-founder, to do just that. For years, Bath had been deejaying in his spare time, mixing bhangra beats with hip-hop.
The couple moved to California in 2000 with Ranj Bath’s job as a marketing manager at Intel and realized people there didn’t have access to that genre of music. They started Desi Hits as a podcast (this was in the pre-iPhone and pre-app era, of course), which, within weeks, was downloaded 250,000 times.
The couple quit their jobs and raised $6 million in two rounds from Trident Capital (which had invested in Mapquest, among others), Draper Fisher Jurvetson (which has Baidu, Hotmail, Tesla Motors and Skype in its portfolio) and the hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co., and created a website that straddled Hollywood and Bollywood, recording and distributing content from both movie hubs.
Along the way, they also received a $750,000 combined investment from two media moguls—Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Records and the man who created Beats Electronics that was later sold to Apple Inc. for $3 billion (Acharia-Bath counts Iovine as a mentor), and Israeli venture capitalist Aviv (Vivi) Nevo, a major shareholder in Time Warner Inc.
And it succeeded. Some of the artists they brought together to work were Britney Spears and Sonu Nigam (to do a desi version of I Wanna Go), Rihanna and Culture Shock (to do Rude Boy) and Lady Gaga with brothers Salim-Sulaiman (to perform Born This Way), among others.
In 2010, they set up a joint venture with Universal Music Group to create a new label, Desi Hits Universal, fully funded by the record label giant. The deal came equipped with the full suite of services that are available to any other artist on Universal’s roster—songwriters, album production and an entire marketing machine.
A marquee sign-in under this label was Chopra.
Iovine had already dealt with Bollywood when he signed the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 and had the idea of getting American pop group, the Pussycat Dolls, to perform the title soundtrack—Jai Ho—with A.R. Rahman, proving there was a market for something different, some fusion, something South Asian. But those combinations were all one-hit wonders.
“We had had some disruptors from South Asian pop, but it would then go away," says Acharia-Bath.
It wasn’t about just finding South Asian talent. But finding someone who would understand American pop culture as well.
“Big opportunities come, but you need someone to take them through the madness. Anjula was very patient and saw it through to where we are right now," says Natasha Pal, who was Chopra’s manager in India and now handles her digital strategy. “They are two different markets; things do happen differently and she was a great bridge for us."
But it was not easy going.
“You are dealing with a huge star who is used to having a lot of things done for her in a certain way," says Acharia-Bath. “But at the same time, you are working in an environment where people didn’t know who she was. There was constant explanation."
“My job is to go into every meeting before PC and explain who she is, and explain the gravity of her, so when she walks in, they know who she is," says Acharia-Bath.
Her iPad was her best accessory—to show YouTube clips of Chopra’s movies (the most oft-used clips were from Barfi!, in which Chopra plays an autistic woman). Or she would get Chopra to tweet a story done about her. With some 30 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, it made an impact and magazine editors would sit up and take note. And her final sales pitch to all was quite simple: Chopra’s going to bring you a massively different fan base—she’s going to bring you one-fifth of the world’s population.
Hard to ignore when put like that.
Planting the idea
With Iovine’s backing, she started with music. Chopra did her first song In My City with Will.i.Am of the Black Eyed Peas (in 2012), following that up with Exotic with American rapper Pitbull, a year later. In between, Acharia-Bath and Interscope worked with the NFL, the most popular sports league in the US, to run Chopra’s In My City.
They finally offered the graveyard slot—the pre, pre-game show, before pop singer CeeLo. NFL brought Chopra back in 2013, and replaced CeeLo with her. In My City was the theme song of the NFL Thursday night football programming on TV for two seasons. Videos featuring Chopra were specially created for the games.
Acharia-Bath soon went through the other pillars of entertainment—a movie deal with Disney (Planes) and a brand ambassador for Guess. And, finally, it was time for TV.
“Jimmy always used to say to me—you always have to anticipate pop culture and where it’s going," says Acharia-Bath. And it was going towards TV with a range of massively popular new shows, including House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
It was her job to convince one of the biggest Bollywood stars to do TV.
“I had this whole posse of people convincing her to do TV," says Acharia-Bath with a laugh in a chat via FaceTime. The list included House of Cards lead Kevin Spacey, his co-actor Sakina Jaffrey, as well as Anil Kapoor.
At a party, Acharia-Bath and Chopra met Keli Lee, executive vice-president, talent and casting at Disney ABC TV Group, and the woman known for adding ethnic diversity to American TV. Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, is her most high-profile find, but other, very familiar faces, include Jesse Williams and Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy. Acharia-Bath pointed out to her that she was yet to cast a South Asian woman, planting the idea.
“The first time Anjula and I met, we bonded over the globalization of talent and diversity (what she was doing in music, taking huge stars around the world and exposing them to a wider global audience), and the influence of TV (shows) like Scandal and Modern Family on pop culture (what I was doing in TV, finding and creating opportunities for the best talent as inclusively as possible)," said Lee in an email. “It was a unique thing to meet a person with the same vision as you, but walking down a different path. Anjula was passionate about TV because of her own personal experiences. We wanted to get the first Bollywood star on to millions of TV screens in America and around the world."
And they did, eventually. Lee sent Chopra 25 pilot scripts and she chose Quantico and loved the character of Alex Parrish, a protagonist who is suspected of committing a terrorist act.
“As we were navigating the deal for Priyanka, we worked hand in hand through all of the challenges of two cultures, two industries, differences in time zones and a hugely talented, time-constrained superstar who was new to the world of television and the way things are done in the US," said Lee. “Anjula and I are both relentless in our pursuit of finding talent, creating opportunities and getting deals done. Any obstacle, we tore down together."
The deal took about a year to get done. It wasn’t just about the different time zones—although anyone who has dealt with that knows why long-distance relationships don’t work and how tiring it can get after a point—but it was also about the way business was conducted in the two worlds: very differently.
In the US, a lot of the wheeling and dealing is done by the lawyers and managers of the stars. In India, however, those people are the equivalent of pigeons ferrying messages between the star and the other party.
For practically every negotiation or sticking point, they would have to wait for Chopra to come back with her view and how long that would take depended upon which part of the world she was shooting in at that point in time. Another challenge was just logistics—how do you get enough shooting time of a huge star who is usually booked out for the year well in advance?
Was it worth it?
“There were many times I thought it might just be easier to let go, but I really believed in her and had to remind myself that if I don’t do it with her, who else is then going to change pop culture around me?" says Acharia-Bath.
But she stuck it out and today “America is on the cusp of discovering what people in other parts of the world already know, that Priyanka is a huge, multi-faceted star; an actress, singer, dancer", said Lee. “I think when you deliver on a promise and, in this case, a spectacular new prime-time series on broadcast television with Priyanka Chopra as your lead star, we hope the audience will find you and tune in."
She went on to add, “Priyanka is a certified breakout star."
And even though Acharia-Bath (and her husband) folded Desi Hits last year, she takes that tenacity, and her willingness and ability to open doors and make connections, to all her investments. She was one of the first investors in, and advisers to, TheMuse.com, a career site for people in their 20s and 30s, which had trouble getting off the ground in its early days.
Kathryn Minshew, 29, one of the sites’ co-founders, recalls the day when she met Acharia-Bath in 2013 at a Forbes Most Powerful Women conference, where the latter sought her out after hearing her speak on a panel. The two hit it off and Minshew realized she had found someone she could bounce things off with as Acharia-Bath had worked in the HR sector (before starting Desi Hits) and understood what Minshew was trying to build. That, she said, was her biggest challenge. People in the HR world got it, but she had a tough time explaining to tech investors the site’s potential. One day, in sheer frustration, she called up Acharia-Bath, says Meinshew. “I said to her if I have to explain to one more investor (what this was)," she recalls, “they either weren’t sure it was possible to do what I said we were doing or didn’t believe I could do it".
Anjula told her she had the perfect person to introduce her to. And within a month, she introduced her to Chris Herrmannsen, the former Europe head of Monster.com, who happened to be her former boss.
“Once Chris invested and joined our board, other investors were willing to come on board," says Minshew.
Sure enough. The site, where the biggest defining factor is the profile of its users—they are of ages between 22 and 39, are very educated, two-thirds of them are women, and half are non-white—recently raised $10 million in a series A round.
A fine balance
Another investment that Acharia-Bath believed in and backed in her personal capacity from its early days is ClassPass, a fitness membership that lets you take classes across multiple gyms and studios in a city.
Payal Kadakia, 32, met Acharia-Bath through a friend a few years ago. She joined Warner Music Group and Acharia-Bath made sure she introduced her to several senior people there. When she left the company to start her own venture, she went and met Acharia-Bath at her midtown Manhattan office to bounce off the idea.
“I was in her office in February 2011 and I was telling her about my idea and she looked at me and said, ‘what’s the plan?’ and I felt like I didn’t have an answer," recalls Kadakia. “I went home and wrote a business plan and sent it to her the next day at noon."
Acharia-Bath offered her a few desks in her Desi Hits office where Kadakia worked from for the next couple of years. Along the way, she encouraged Kadakia to keep going even when her business sputtered in the initial days, forcing her to change tactics more than once. And when needed, connected her to people who could help, one of them being ZocDoc founder Cyrus Massoumi, who was running a similar business but in a different sector. Massoumi came on board as an adviser, too.
“Growing up as a South Asian-American, I didn’t have any female role models. So, Anjula has been great for me," says Kadakia. “She was my first adviser and one of my first investors and she gets things done."
That ability to get things done is one of Acharia-Bath’s defining qualities, say people who have now known her and worked with her for years. Apart from helping start-ups launch, she did get a Bollywood star on to prime-time American TV, something that no one else has managed so far.
Today, Acharia-Bath says she can describe her relationship with Chopra in three words: “A fine balance".
One that she walked carefully.
“I don’t know if this show is the show," says Acharia-Bath. “But even if it doesn’t resonate, at least America is going to see what a star she is and we will do other things."