Artists trying to break into the American market would do well to study how Priyanka Chopra made it happen. The Bollywood icon’s U.S. TV drama, Quantico, debuted last week on ABC to strong reviews across the board, becoming the network’s top-rated show.
“Because it’s good TV,” Chopra told me when I asked her why she decided to go with the politically-charged theme of terrorism for her first American show. “And it’s relevant — everything we are doing and the stereotypes we are breaking on the show when it comes to terrorism and the political distrust that people have of law enforcement, and the things that are really happening. These are stories being told by a diverse group of people — their diverse points of view on life. I think it’s extremely relevant and extremely entertaining television. And that’s how stories should be told, you know? I think important issues need to be addressed in an entertaining way for pop culture, for them to be relevant and for them to hit home with people. And this show does that.”
For South Asian women, Chopra’s image on major billboards across the U.S., and her appearances on every major American network promoting Quantico are a groundbreaking source of pride. She is the Indian equivalent of Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez combined. As for me, seeing Chopra on Good Morning America, dancing with the Times Square crowd as the sun came up in New York City, made me cheer out loud, “Go Priyanka!” After more than a decade living in America, for the first time I feel a tangible connection to the country’s pop culture. The visibility of another brown girl in mainstream America legitimizes the identities of many South Asians. Finally, there is someone who looks like us aside from Mindy Kaling and Freida Pinto. Chopra has broken free of the South Asian typecasting that so often has brown actors playing doctors or cab drivers, and she proves that the identity of the American woman is evolving.
As a South Asian, it is strangely exciting to be rooting for my mega-star from back home as she launches a new career far from India: I feel possessive and protective of Chopra as her new American audience discovers her. When I asked her about the climate for actors of color in Hollywood, Chopra said it’s time for people to look beyond race.
“I do not even like being called an ‘actor of color,’” Chopra said. “I believe in a color-blind world. I really think people should be seen for their ability to do their job. This show has taken on people only because of the fact that they are good at their job. That is how the casting was. Alex [Parrish, an FBI recruit] was not written for an Indian girl. And I think that the network and the producers of the show gave me the opportunity to conform as an Indian actress to play an ethnically ambiguous part is really great. It is great for ABC to be able to broaden their horizons like that.”
Unfortunately, American fans were not always quick to embrace India’s sweetheart. Two years ago, when Chopra became the voice for NFL’s Thursday Night football, some viewers called her an Arab terrorist and she received hate mail from fans, attacking her as a representative of such an American brand.
Chopra told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last year that the experience offended her on multiple fronts, but that at the end of the day she wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and not for the color of her skin.
“The world is different now,” Chopra said to me. “Look around you. You can’t point at a girl and just say she looks a certain way, especially in America. We are a melting pot of different cultures and it is high time TV reflects that. It is a reflection of society and vice-versa.”
As pop culture images of women evolve, Chopra also must adjust, not least to the cultural differences between Hollywood and Bollywood. When I asked her how viewers in India would respond to watching a national superstar have sex in a car with one of her on-screen colleagues, as Chopra does in an opening scene for Quantico, she explained that the scene was relevant to her character.
“It is an awkward situation when you have to do scenes like that,” Chopra admits. “I won’t lie. But people in the world are very different and it was important to portray Alex as someone who doesn’t really care about love in her life because she has a single-minded focus on her job. So I think it was important for the story. And when it comes to Indian films, we are very progressive in the way we shoot Indian movies and what we show in Indian movies now. The good thing for me is that I am working with ABC-Disney so there is only that much you can do, so we don’t go out of the comfort zone that I am used to in Indian films. It is generally an awkward situation, but it is what it is. That’s how Alex is. I mean, she’s very different from how I would think or you would think or many other people would think. She is unapologetic. She is very flawed. And that’s the kind of girl she is — bold and unapologetic.”
Dealing with uncomfortable sex scenes was not Chopra’s biggest concern while shooting Quantico. Speaking English everyday on set was the most difficult task at hand, especially because she had to learn how to master the American accent. When I asked her what she had to do to transform into an “independent, American woman,” Chopra sighed heavily before replying, “So much.”
“I had a very, very amazing dialect coach to be on set all the time,” she continued. “It took a couple of months practicing how to roll my Rs, because I am not very good at that. It took me days to be able to say ‘counter-terrorism’ in an American accent. It was very difficult for me. But I have an amazing team that helped me … I have played many different kinds of characters before, so I was accustomed to the process. And I am accustomed to the American accent given the fact that I lived here before. You can teach your mouth to speak this way. But yes, it was very hard. They always say my lines right before I have to say it so I can listen. My cast mates are very sweet about it.”
Acting in English full time is not something that Chopra has to worry about just yet. In a move that confirms her cross-continental, global star status, Chopra has major Bollywood movies slated for release.
“I have two Indian movies coming up, one in December, which is Bajirao Mastani and one in March, which is Jai Ganga Gaal, Chopra said. “It’s extremely exciting for me to be able to balance both worlds. Very exhausting, but it’s extremely exciting. And the Indian film industry has been so supportive of what I am doing. It is very exciting.”
Chopra is not abandoning Bollywood for Hollywood, but instead balancing both identities. Whatever America holds for her, Quantico has already changed the game for South Asian women in the audience. Now, when we’re told it cannot be done, we can respond with two words: Priyanka Chopra.