It’s the fall of 2015 now and Priyanka Chopra, 33, has become an American TV icon. She is the luminously-haired, brown-skinned, accented and luscious Alex Parrish from the three- episodes-old ABC drama series Quantico, star trainee of the FBI and someone who is accused of ‘the biggest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11’. The Hollywood press has fallen in love with Priyanka’s Alex. They are lauding her performance, her charm, her strong female characterisation, and how she stands a cut above the rest of the show’s cast. With this, she joins America’s gilded list of multicultural stars on television, like Taraji P Henson’s Cookie (Empire), Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder) and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope (Scandal).
And the praise is still pouring in. The New York Times has called Priyanka ‘the strongest human asset in Quantico. Ms Chopra, a Bollywood superstar and former Miss World is immediately charismatic and commanding amid the otherwise generic ensemble. If there is a problem with her casting, it is that she may come across as too seasoned and assured to be persuasive as a shaky, neophyte recruit.’ This almost back- handed compliment is echoed in review after review. Notes Variety: ‘With an arresting lead in Priyanka Chopra, a former Miss World who was born in India, the show races through a lot of material very quickly, which makes it difficult to get a firm handle on where all of this will settle.’ Reviewers all seem struck by how she seems like a beguiling mix of beauty with brains. The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum was impressed enough with the show to write on Twitter, ‘Part of the reason the Quantico pilot works so well is that it’s a massive game of Truth or Dare and I will ALWAYS watch a TV Truth or Dare…’ She later gushes that Priyanka’s hair is ‘a treasure we don’t deserve.’
She has even had a good run promoting the show. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, she was alluring and self-assured with Kimmel. Statistics wise, the show is doing exceedingly well. Variety reported as many as 6.9 million viewers tuning in for the second episode. This puts Quantico in the league of top-rated shows like CSI and NCIS.
‘The show has been so widely received and appreciated by audiences in the US, proof of which is in the staggering numbers that the premiere episode has received,’ writes Priyanka Chopra via email from Montreal, where she is shooting for upcoming episodes of the show’s Season One. ‘I am overwhelmed by the response and am glad that I’ve been able to make a connect with a whole new audience base. It’s exciting times and I am looking forward to see where this goes. I’m just glad that my work has been appreciated. It was a huge risk for me to take and I’m happy that it’s worked out positively.’
She has also been making friends with the reigning TV queens. ‘It’s amazing how supportive the entire ABC family has been to me. Kerry (of Scandal) has been someone who I’ve developed this crazy bond with… and we hadn’t even met personally till a few months ago… it’s all happened over Twitter and texts! I remember the first TV Upfronts in NYC and how Kerry, Ellen Pompeo, Paul Lee and the rest of the amazing people at ABC welcomed me into the fold so to speak and made me feel so comfortable, taking me through some of the fears I had as a TV debutant. It really was very very helpful and just so amazing,’ she says.
The audience, meanwhile, is loving every bit of Priyanka Chopra on television. That this would happen was something ABC had an inkling of quite early on when at the ABC Upfront at both New York and LA, Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment, called on “the quintessential ABC star” to share the stage with him, hailing her as the toast of the upcoming season. Before the show hit airwaves, Priyanka Chopra found herself plastered all across New York’s Times Square and on buses, pitched prominently in publicity material as the show’s lead.
Popular culture critic Aniruddha Guha outlines how she fits in with the network’s strategy. “The conversation is more about ABC making a concerted effort to bring in different ethnicities. Quantico is a part of that bigger scheme,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds that she has earned her big break, having invested cleverly in talking to studios and looking for opportunities that would suit her especially well. “A large part of why this is working for her is because she has put in the effort.”
Now that the show is a hit, would she pick American television over Hindi cinema, though? ‘I’m constantly reinventing… I don’t like to stand still. I always have pushed myself to challenge the status quo, so to speak. There’s a lot I want to do: explore other facets of myself, expand my creative base, reach new audiences, try new things… the least I can do is try! And no, [while] I will go wherever my work takes me, I will never leave Bollywood.’
She has been courting the West at least since 2012, even as she continued to take up major roles in big-budget Bollywood movies like Barfi, Krrish 3, Mary Kom and Dil Dhadakne Do as well as in forgettable ones like Gunday and Zanjeer. She has tried turning singer with Universal Music and found a representative in Troy Carter, who manages Lady Gaga. Even though her music diva avatar didn’t quite go as well as she had hoped, she still managed collaborations with music superstars Pitbull and Will.i.am, and played at the opening of NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football season in 2013.
Making further headway in the American market for entertainment, Guess signed her on as its global brand ambassador. “I am the first Guess girl of ethnicity,” she had said at the time, “I bring with me a demographic that may or may not know these quintessential American brands… I also think diversity is the name of the game today and Guess recognises that the quintessential American girl can be from any part of the world and I am proud to be part of the Guess campaign and be a major part of that change. I think I am a great blend of the East and West.” A large part of what she is doing, intentionally or unintentionally, is breaking the ‘Indian’ stereotype in American popular culture.
Which brings us to her Americanised Indian accent. Contrary to popular belief, Priyanka Chopra actually has a speech coach on the sets of Quantico who is constantly coaching her and asking her to repeat lines over and over again. The aim is to arrive at a pronunciation that is New York Indian enough but also recognisably American. Ironically, while the Indian media has been fixated with her accent, of which it has been mostly critical, in America it has not been commented upon at all.
She is simply following a brief, and has managed to deglamourise herself completely to fit the role of Alex Parrish, something she earlier did for her award-winning role in Barfi. “When I went to cast Priyanka Chopra [in the film],” recalls filmmaker Anurag Basu, “I realised that I could not see her as my character. I told her that I was not sure, and that we should have a three-day workshop. But she surpassed all my expectations and now I cannot imagine the movie without her.”
Priyanka Chopra says she chose Quantico over a lot of other American shows being planned because she anticipated a change in the way Indian women are viewed across the world. ‘There’s this force that exists today, where so many women in India are effecting change by just going out and chasing their dreams, doing things differently and pushing the boundaries of convention. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is fully underway and it’s gaining serious momentum. So yes,‘strong, independent, resourceful, intelligent and hardworking’ is how Indian women should be viewed today.’
If Quantico sustains the traction needed for further seasons, Priyanka Chopra could find herself a regular on American TV screens for years and years. But she is not packing her bags and moving away just yet. ‘Right now I don’t think there are enough hours in a day for me to even consider that (more roles). I have my hands full right now with Quantico… we still have many episodes to shoot to complete the season. I also have some work left to film for Bajirao Mastani. There’s a lot happening and at this time I would like to focus on Quantico and my film work here in India,’ she says.
A large part of her success, though, must be credited to her productive and market-savvy team. She found a superb agent and marketer in US-based Anjula Acharia-Bath, founder of the media and pop culture company Desi Hits! and partner at the venture capital firm, Trinity Ventures. She’s been the driving force behind Priyanka Chopra’s American sojourns after she signed her on in 2010 and helped her strike a music deal with Universal and Interscope Records. She even got her to hobnob at last year’s Golden Globe awards and ran a PR and digital campaign, working alongside Natasha Pal, who handles Priyanka Chopra’s digital strategy. It was Acharia-Bath who set up a meeting with Keli Lee, executive vice-president, talent and casting, at Disney ABC TV Group, who in turn helped Priyanka Chopra bag the Quantico role.
Before choosing it, she read a few concept show scripts. And now that she is part of America’s TV industry, she confesses to binge-watching shows of all kinds on air. ‘I am a TV junkie,’ she says, ‘I love the way TV has grown and the rich content and amazing stories that have come out of TV land over the past few years. It’s one of the main reasons I even considered doing TV in the US… there is such a wealth of ideas and amazing ways that stories are being told today.’
It’s early days yet for the show, let alone dreams of appearing on the red carpet for a Golden Globe, but Priyanka seems set to gain fame in the US episode by episode. Before she knows it, she might have enough celebrity power in America to be more than a mere patch on what she has back home.