The film journalist and author spoke with us about his latest book on Chopra that charts her rise from a teenager in Bareilly to a global star living in the US.
Author Aseem Chhabra: Priyanka Chopra has worked very hard to get to where she is
Mumbai - 25 Jul 2018 9:00 IST
There’s something about Priyanka Chopra. That’s been the verdict of almost everyone who has met her. The actress made her screen debut 15 years ago with the Tamil film Thamizhan (2002) after winning the Miss World pageant in 2000.
Since then, her career has seen great heights — winning the National Award for best actress for Fashion (2008), essaying the role of an autistic young woman in Barfi! (2012), recording her own music album in the US, and finally starring in her own television show, Quantico, in the US.
Film journalist Aseem Chhabra’s book, Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star, goes back to her childhood both in India and the US and writes about pre-fame Chopra. He later explores the pivotal period where Chopra was crowned Miss India and later Miss World, leading to a career in films.
Chhabra, who has previously written Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, documents Chopra’s rise as an actress speaking with those who know her and worked with her including Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Basu, Madhur Bhandarkar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Rahul Bose, and others. The result is a book that takes a larger look at the impact of Chopra in the West and how she managed to carve a name for herself in Hollywood.
We spoke to Chhabra via telephone about his decision to write the book, how he set about it and if he would be curious to read Chopra’s own memoirs titled Unfinished. Excerpts below:
You didn’t properly discover Priyanka Chopra until 2005 when you saw Bluffmaster! (2005). What was it about the film and her performance that caused you to reconsider?
It’s not a question of reconsider as such. I knew of her existence. I hadn’t seen any film of hers up till that point, but I would read about her. She had a small role in [Bluffmaster!], definitely the film belongs to Abhishek Bachchan. I write in the book, it’s also the first time I saw Riteish Deshmukh, who I was thoroughly charmed by. I thought he was very funny.
But Priyanka had a very sensual, sexy presence in the film. [In] some of the songs, ‘Say Na, Say Na’, she’s just lovely. I described in the book about her saris and the way she carried herself. I mean, sexy is the wrong word because I don’t want to commodify her, but she had a presence, a real charm. She was very appealing. Sometimes, some actors or actresses from all the world, you see a film and you’re like, I don’t want to see this person again. I immediately said to myself, this is somebody whose film I can see again. She wins over you while she’s on the screen.
When and why did you decide to write the book on Priyanka Chopra?
I signed my contract back in November 2016. There was talk after the Shashi Kapoor book what other book to do. I had been following her Bollywood career, I loved Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Fashion (2008) and Barfi! (2012) especially. I thought she was really good in these films. Since I’ve lived in New York for a very long time, I had started following her career in the US. She started with her single ['In My City'], so I was aware of her song. I think I’ve interviewed her three [to] four times since 2012 and other people who were managing her career especially Anjula Acharia who is her manager about strategies and how do you take a complete unknown and then try and launch that unknown person, first in the music business and then later on, on television also. So I had already done a few articles on that.
I interviewed Priyanka when she did the voiceover for the Disney [animated] film called Planes (2013). I did a face-to-face interview with her and then I also did another interview, an email interview with her when she was making Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) on the cruise ship. So I was becoming very interested in the phenomenon, part of it has to do because I was living in the US. I’ve been living in the US and writing about Indian cinema, observed how Indians branch out, if they do, into Hollywood or mainstream America. This was therefore a very natural story for me to narrate basically in a book form.
Shashi Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are two distinctive personalities, but they both have one thing in common. In their own way, they have broken the path for other Indian actors/artistes to follow. Do you agree with that?
Yes. Broken the path is a little difficult thing because I think each person, it’s not like there’s a formula there. And in Shashi Kapoor’s case, for instance, he made films in America and UK, but he worked on productions [that] were being made in India. And the time was right and also his connection with the Merchant-Ivory team is what made it possible for him.
In Priyanka’s case, it was a little different that she started with her music. America has changed so much now that major networks like ABC are looking for diversity and actors who represent other parts of the world. Priyanka came in at the right time. It’s not like a sure-shot formula that’s tried and tested.
Yes, there is a path, there is a way to do. But you really have to invest a lot. Priyanka worked very hard to get to where she is. And the fact that she put her Indian career, literally, on hold. She’s now going to make two films. Her last film was released in India in March 2016. So that’s a very long gap for somebody in the film industry and people sometimes forget actors and actresses. Madhuri Dixit was gone for a few more years and it’s been harder for her to [break back in].
Priyanka, of course, played things very correctly. She’s very savvy with social media, not just her own team. She has used social media all this while especially Instagram and Twitter to keep herself alive and active in the minds of her fans in India. But she moved. She actually packed her bags and rented an apartment in New York and different places, because you have to do that when you do a television show. It’s a big risk to take. It’s a big risk to give up your safety net. Who knew?
In the first season, sometimes shows get cancelled after a few episodes because the ratings are so bad. It could have happened. It would have been so embarrassing for her. But she did a very respectable run with Quantico, although the show was not very well appreciated necessarily by critics etc. But three seasons is long enough for a show to go on. She’s made her mark in the West that she can come back again. She can do another television show, she’s already shot her other movie, Isn’t It Romantic (2019). She just finished shooting that. Yes, there is a path for other actresses to follow, but they have to do it on their own terms and they have to focus and work really hard towards it.
How did you approach writing about her linear journey from beauty queen to international star once you began the project?
That was a lot. I had to spend time learning about her childhood and her time in America, for instance. So I had to do a lot of research because I couldn’t talk to her because she was working on a book of her own. Her publishers didn’t let her talk to any other writers basically. The whole idea was, and even though many people know about her childhood and Miss India, Miss World etc, I wanted to go deeper. You come from a small town, you have no exposure to Bombay, how do you break in? What goes into making these women so confident that they can then walk off the ramp and speak before judges and interact the beauty pageants? So I wanted to show all of that, her life, her growth. I wanted to show her early films, how personally I think they were not great films. She’s also talked about how her acting was not good at that point and it was my own feeling, when [and] why did I start to like Priyanka Chopra and then understand the process that her acting evolved and she became such a sharp, smart, intelligent actor. So it had to be linear in that. It’s the only way one could do it really.
You would have loved to speak to Priyanka, but you’ve spoken to a lot of people close to her. What did you discover about Priyanka Chopra as you wrote the book and spoke with her colleagues and friends?
Well, it sounds like a cliché, but she really works very hard. I don’t have it in the book, but recently a couple of months ago, she’s a brand ambassador for Assam tourism. She flew from New York to London, London to Delhi, from Delhi, she obviously took a smaller flight and went to Jorhat, Assam. There were some photographs of her on Instagram and other places where she was meeting with children and doing whatever PR work that she does for Assam tourism and within like a couple of days, she went back to Delhi, then Delhi to London and then London to New York.
And I’m thinking to myself, okay, I’m older than her, I do understand, but I get exhausted, I travel a lot, but she does it like it’s a commitment. When [the] Quantico shoot had started, she had to be in New York five days a week, she still had some commitment to her films. On weekends, she would fly back again. I do understand that she was flying back business class, but she would do a couple of scenes or dubbing, whatever she had to do for Bajirao Mastani (2015) and all of these other films and then come back to New York and be ready to be Alex Parrish on Quantico. I was very impressed with that. It’s really remarkable.
With Quantico and her Hollywood films, Priyanka has done what no other actress has done before her. She’s become the first crossover star from India. Did her American success story surprise you in any way?
Oh, that didn’t surprise me. The bigger surprise was before she became a crossover star, when the campaigning for Quantico started, I was standing in the subway station and the first poster I saw was Priyanka’s face and she had that FBI badge on her lips and then these big bold letters said Quantico, that’s all. It said the show’s coming on ABC in the fall, but her name was not there, her identity was not there and I’m standing there saying like ‘Oh, my god, that’s Priyanka Chopra!’.
I’m Indian, I know who Priyanka Chopra is. The risk and investment that ABC made in reporting the show just using her face, [given] that nobody, other than desis and a few other people who follow Bollywood know her, it surprised me. And it surprised me a lot when she was on magazine covers all the time and on all these talk shows. You are pushed to these talk shows, especially ABC, the networks do that, they want their stars to do well.
She was on every ABC talk show especially during the day when the housewives are at home. She was on other talk shows also and she was very good at that. It was actually fun watching her. She has a sense of humour, she’s self-deprecating, tells stories, plays with her accent, whatever it takes, but she knew exactly how to work the American media. And I was very very surprised by that and it was a fact. Priyanka cannot walk on the streets of New York without being recognized or mobbed or whatever. It happened so soon, such a short span of time.
Priyanka Chopra herself is writing her own memoirs and there is another book on her as well. How does your book differ from these and are you curious to read her memoirs?
I will probably read it. My sense is her memoirs are like essays about her life and inspirational stories. I don’t know if she’s written in depth details about her life that I have captured. As a subject, Priyanka Chopra interests me, because she continues to make news. You know, I have a Google alert on Priyanka, I’ve had it for the last two years. I still get it every night. Half the time it’s about the clothes she’s wearing or her relationship with Nick Jonas or something. But every so often there’s something, she makes the news every week. Other Bollywood actors don’t make the news that often. I’m very curious to know, [and] yes, I’ll be very curious about her book also.
Do you think there will be part two to your book someday?
(laughs) I don’t know. Maybe! It depends on how her career goes. And there has to be a really solid new angle to her life, because the switch to, the transition to America, acting in Quantico and music etc., in the US, that to me definitely was a big change from the another regular Bollywood story. I don’t know. Who knows what the future holds for us?
And after all you’ve written about her and learnt about her, would you call yourself a Priyanka Chopra fan now?
I respect Priyanka Chopra a lot. If Priyanka gives another performance like Bajirao Mastani (2015) or if she gives another performance like Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) where she’s an unhappy, lonely sort of a housewife. I adored her in those films. Those are moments that made a fan of hers definitely. I guess you can call me a Priyanka Chopra fan because I’m still following her life. I’m very curious about what she does. I love her Instagram feeds. I don’t watch all Bollywood actors’ Instagram feeds. So yes, I guess I am a fan of hers.
Now that you’ve finished the book, any other personalities that you’re looking at to write a book on next? Or you want to take a break?
(laughs) I want to take a break, but you know, ideas keep bubbling in the mind in any case. I think the writing process can be very challenging, it can be very lonely. I’ve been a journalist for many many years, it’s just you, your computer and your mind basically and especially when you’re doing books, the deadlines are there so you’re up half the night working. But I like the journalistic process of researching, learning and discovering things about some personality’s life and then weaving it together in a narrative form. Every person has a narrative in their lives, you and I also have narratives. But famous people’s narratives are more interesting than maybe my narratives. (laughs) So I don’t know. I’m always thinking of new ideas.