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Priyanka Chopra, the canny businesswoman — birthday special

The actress, who turns 35 today (18 July), is working smartly to extend her career beyond the arc lights.

Suparna Thombare

Recently, actor Boman Irani, who was in New York City for the IIFA 2017 awards, walked down Times Square and expressed happiness at finding a familiar face staring back at him from huge video ads. The face was Priyanka Chopra's. She has two massive ad campaigns running in Times Square, for Pantene and Gap.

Chopra has been there before. In 2015, when she became the first Hindi film star to sign on for an American network TV show, Quantico, her hoardings were plastered all over the US, including at Times Square.

Chopra's success story — from Miss World 2000 and an acting debut in Thamizhan (2002) to becoming a Hindi film star and making a mark in Hollywood — is fascinating. While at it, she has created an identity as an inspiration (LinkedIn's World's 100 Most Influential 2016), a global brand (ambassador for Nirav Modi, Gap, and Pantene), philanthropist (UNICEF global ambassador), and columnist for the likes of Elle USA, The New York Times and CNN.

Her secret is deceptively simple — diversify and keep moving. Now that she has moved West and entered production, no one should be surprised if she writes a script or directs a film, though she has shown no inclination of doing either. While her contemporaries are struggling with finding good roles, she is acting in Hindi cinema, in Hollywood and on American TV, cutting music albums, attending red-carpet events, and producing films.

Kunal Kohli, who directed Chopra in Teri Meri Kahaani (2012), attributes her success to her ability to make the most of her opportunities. “She has ridden the wave and is getting the benefits," he told "And she has the talent. You cannot not have talent. But you also need an outlook beyond that of a frog in a well."

When Chopra's manager got her a contract with Universal Music in 2011 where she would be aided by music mogul Jimmy Iovine and producer Red One in becoming India's first crossover recording artiste, she jumped at it, working with the likes of Pitbull,, DMX, and Chainsmokers. Her single 'In My City' was the American National Football League's Thursday night anthem for two successive years, 2012 and 2013.

Despite the hype, Chopra's singing career went nowhere. So she continued to focus on acting in Hindi cinema even as she ventured into the US entertainment industry and film production at home.

The only other actress who is juggling career with production in her prime is Anushka Sharma. Chopra, though, has taken a different route by focusing on producing a good mix of low to medium-budget content-driven films in regional languages.

When her plan to produce Madhur Bhandarkar’s Madamji starring herself fell through (because Quantico got picked by ABC at that time), she changed tack and launched Purple Pebble Pictures (PPP) to promote regional cinema. That was last year. The move was risky but smart. PPP has released four films so far — Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi (2016, Bhojpuri), Sarvann (2017, Punjabi), and the National award-winning Ventilator (2016) and Kaay Re Rascalaa (2017) in Marathi.

Chopra's production strategy is an extension of her work ethic. “She is very professional," said Kohli. "She gives you 120%. When she is on your set or even before she goes on set, she goes through every nuance of her character. In Teri Meri Kahaani there were three stories — 1960s, 1910s and 2000s — three different time periods. We decided to use three different make-up artists for each period because she felt that for the 1960s Mickey Contractor would be perfect, the classic Hindi film heroine make-up. She looks into every little aspect."

Chopra's Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) director Zoya Akhtar says she is talented enough to take up any job on set and do it well. "Priyanka Chopra is a freaking powerhouse," she said in a recent interview. "She could be assistant director, producer, camera assistant. I think she can even shoot the film. She is a team player and she is generous."

While Chopra makes the creative decisions for her company, her mother Madhu, managing director of PPP, handles the business end. The senior Chopra is the one who makes sure budgets are managed, though former actress Kunickaa Sadanand has stepped in as associate producer. Priyanka's brother Siddharth often travels on location to oversee the principal photography.

Madhu Chopra says that while she looks at execution, it is her daughter who decides on every aspect of the company's work from the US, sometimes staying up at night to communicate with the team in India. “I am only the surrogate mum for the production house," she joked in a recent interview with The Indian Express newspaper. "It is Priyanka who is doing it all. She has the remote control. Every day she gets an update and gives feedback about what should be done. It is her baby. She greenlights projects, reads the scripts, decides on casting, selects locations. She works on it all on her own."

I Giridharan Swamy, who directed Kaay Re Rascalaa, confirms this, telling that the actress was involved at every stage. "We shot several scenes which we weren't happy with," he said. "She would give me feedback and make suggestions. We used to uplink the scenes from here and she would watch them, often while travelling, and give feedback. She works day and night and uses even her travel time."

Chopra's strategy to start small seems to be working. While Ventilator won three National awards and did well at the box office, her next, Pahuna, is slated to be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival later this year. 

Distributor and exhibitor Atul Mohan believes the move to start regional was gutsy. “If you are a top actor, your approach would be to go for Hindi cinema and commercial potboilers," he said. "She took a different path, starting by producing a Bhojpuri movie and then two Marathi films, next Sikkimese, then Bengali. No Hindi film actor has dared to venture into some of these languages." Mohan says the experience will help her when she does enter Hindi film production.

Chopra herself has said she wants to create a good foundation. "My production house is not going to be limited to regional or India," she said when named LinkedIn influencer. "I am a storyteller. I am not someone who restricts myself to one thing. Maybe I have attention deficit disorder. I want to be able to do everything. Why can’t we do everything? Especially women, we are great at multitasking. I want to produce. I am producing here [in Hollywood], producing in India — Hindi films and regional films. There are so many things I can do and I want to do."

The actress is getting her business basics right with mentor Iovine as an influence. "Business is scary," she said. "It has so many ups and downs. But Jimmy Iovine gave me one piece of advice. He said to be successful you have to be able to walk away from a deal. If you want it bad enough then people are going to give it to you at a pittance. That's when you become stronger. That's how I have started living my life."

Her mother, speaking at Cannes earlier this year, said, "She is my rolling stone. [Priyanka] didn't just want to go and abandon things. She developed a production strategy about regional cinema, how to expose them, and how to use her brand value." The Sikkimese film Pahuna's announcement at Cannes got covered by Variety magazine because Chopra is with the film.

Chopra has several other ventures in the pipeline, including the Bengali film Nalini, based on Rabindranath Tagore's first love, and a Konkani children's film that pays homage to Mario Miranda and RK Laxman. The company is working on as many as six regional scripts.

But Chopra won't rest on her laurels. Her production house is diversifying further. She produced a mobile series, It's My City, in 2015, performing a cameo in it, and TV commercials and is now looking at making a web series. Her first Hollywood film production is slated to go on the floors by the end of this year.

Producing a Hollywood film is a big risk, but Mohan says Chopra's risk-taking ability is what has got her this far. "She started turning her mind to other things when she was at the top of her career," he recalled. "It could have backfired. But I guess she knew that three or four years down the line things may not remain the same for her. This is smart planning to extend her career by at least 8-10 years. And Hollywood is a place where you can work longer [agewise]. She has a good team and is making decisions boldly. She took a huge risk when at the top and it has paid off."

It may not be long before Chopra ventures into Hindi film production. Like the Khans, she may produce the films she acts in. But one thing is certain: she will continue to break new ground. What she told LinkedIn sums it up well: "What is the choice — that you walk a path like everyone else, dressed in suits, go to work and come back and never have a legacy? Or you swim upstream like a trout, against norm, and then whatever little you achieve is only yours?"

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