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Cover Story
July 18, 2015

Priyanka Chopra’s Quantum Leap

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Abheet Gidwani. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Make-up by Subhash Vagal. Hair by Brendon de Gee

Her bravura performance in Mary Kom won Priyanka Chopra rave reviews and depicted her confidence in carrying a film on her slim shoulders. Recently, she signed the lead role in Quantico on ABC – becoming the first Indian actress to topline an American serial. Verve engages in a dialogue with one of Bollywood’s crown jewels to decode what powers her

She appears to be caught in a whirligig of deadlines — and a 24-hour day seems to be insufficient to pack in all that her schedules require. Shooting for Verve’s cover a few hours before she is to air-dash to New York, Priyanka Chopra is the epitome of a star whose reign at the top has been consolidated by her national and international projects.

Just a few days before we capture her at a studio in Film City, Goregaon, the Indian entertainment industry is abuzz with the news that Chopra’s Quantico has been given the green signal by ABC Network — making her the first Indian actress to topline an American soap; the serial will air this fall. Romancing Jake McLaughlin of Believe fame in the spy drama, Chopra — who plays an FBI agent whose past resurfaces soon after she arrives at a training camp — is all set to reinvent her career on a global platform.

The last 12 months have been — in more ways than one — fruitful for the actor. Last year, after the commercial potboiler Gunday where she starred opposite two top male leads (Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh), Chopra effortlessly essayed the role of Mary Kom to much critical acclaim. While a National Film Award may have eluded her bravura rendition of the iconic boxer, Chopra’s controlled histrionics ensured Mary Kom got the prized recognition (Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment).

This year, she is looking forward to her work in a clutch of films that offer ample variety. Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani and Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal 2 are plum projects in her kitty.

Chopra has made her presence felt internationally too. She has already ‘starred’ in three singles — In My City, featuring will.i.am; Exotic, featuring American rapper Pitbull; and her cover of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. The actor had earlier lent her voice — along with several international singers — to a music video of John Lennon’s Imagine which had been created as part of a global campaign by UNICEF to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last year, she also wrote a column in The Guardian, discussing female genital mutilation and child marriage, criticising those who practise them. And in December 2014, she wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled What Jane Austen Knew, emphasising the importance of education for girls — a cause close to her heart.

When I meet her at her home, our conversation spans the highs of the year gone by…and the dreams of an exciting future that is slowly but surely unfolding.

“Alex Parrish is my alter ego.”
It is an incredible opportunity for an Indian actor — to be able to showcase their talent on this platform. But doing Quantico is a bit scary. It is almost as if I am taking a leap into the unknown. I feel like a newcomer at school.

I know that others have explored international opportunities before, but I have never led my professional life based on what others are doing or have done. Quantico is not a question of redefining what I am doing — I am just excited about taking on something new and challenging. Although I have played Roma (Don), and am playing a cop in Gangaajal 2, Alex Parrish offers different possibilities. She is a very smart, super arrogant, self-confident girl, with a brilliant mind. I have only shot for the pilot yet, so her character will unfold as we continue shooting. She is every confident girl’s alter ego, completely unapologetic about who she is and what she does. Even in the pilot, it was liberating to play a personality like Alex.

I do not know yet how the Western audiences will react to me as Alex, but the industry there is very surprised by our command over English. They still have a stereotypical view of Indians. They probably expect me to break into a song-and-dance routine!

Mary Kom was a difficult film.”
Apart from the fact that it was riding on my shoulders, it was a really important film for me. It was an extremely difficult project — mentally and physically. I was battling the fact that I don’t look like her — I am petite and boxers are not petite. It was very important that in the first 15 minutes of the film people related to me as Mary — and accepted the fact that I was embodying her spirit.

I had to change my body structure — work on my back, shoulders and arms. We shot for almost 15-16 hours a day. It was a really exhausting film. I did a lot of R&D; I spent a lot of time with her. She was always accessible to me, but it was a huge challenge to play someone who is a living, breathing person who is close to my age, who people can easily compare you to.

My accent in the film was commented on. Mary has a really heavy accent and even now she does not speak much Hindi. When I first met her, I found it difficult to understand her. But because we were making a Hindi film, we killed her accent to a great deal. I started shooting for the film four days after my dad died. So, all my grief was poured into this movie, somewhere.

“If you look confident, people will believe you are.”
Till I was about 13-14, I was very quiet and reticent; I stayed away from people. I was really skinny and gawky. But by the time I hit 15-16, I learned that if you look confident, people will believe you are.

I was, and still am, quite a firebrand. I am like a soda pop bottle — I get really angry, really fast. And, my anger swiftly melts away once I deal with the issue. I have had fights in school. I have beaten up girls and boys and they have beaten me up too. I was quite the wild child.

“Power hides in plain sight.”
You are powerful, if you don’t have to state that you are so. Power hides in plain sight; it is not loud. It doesn’t ask for anything. It just stays — it’s like the elephant in a room which can be seen and felt.

Success has a lot to do with being powerful. But, if you have to brag about your success, you are not powerful. When your work speaks for itself — rather than you speaking about your work — that is true power.

“I am not afraid of making mistakes.”
I was a very strong-minded girl; I think I still am. As much as my parents, of course, influenced me, they never imposed their decisions or opinions on me. They raised me with a lot of freedom. They told me that the consequences of all my decisions would be my own. So, I should weigh the pros and cons, which I always did.
Even today, I am not afraid of making mistakes because if I do err, I stand up and say, “Yes, I did it; it is my mistake.” Sometimes being righteous like that is horrible because there are times when you don’t have to be so black and white and crucify yourself, but I have this strange tendency of doing that.

“I am continuously exploring who I am.”
I still don’t know who I am. For, I think, the day you know who you are, you are going to just stop living. As you age, you understand the things that you like to do. Ageing or growing up is about evolution. You keep on changing and so it is difficult to keep track of what you are. I am continuously exploring who I am. But I feel like I have regressed in the last few years. I behave extremely childlike these days.

Somewhere I realised that this was the vocation I was destined to be in. I work really hard at my job. I am good at it. And I feel maybe that is the reason why I am chosen to do what I do. There are very few of us who get to be in this incredibly amazing position. But, there is a price that you pay for the perks.

“I speak straight from the heart.”
I didn’t realise being an actor came with so much baggage. You never switch off! It is really hard. You are judged every moment. You step out of your bedroom or your door, and you are looked at. Sometimes, that is overwhelming. I have a lot of colleagues who don’t care, who live their own lives, who are not answerable to anyone.
Though I often have my game face on, I am very opinionated and I speak out loud about things that matter to me. I can’t keep track of what I say. I tend to speak straight from the heart.  And I get into trouble for it.

“I need something new to work on all the time.”
I can’t work on just being pretty or saying almost the same lines all the time. There are billions of people in the world. Each one of us is different from the other. So, can you imagine how many different characters we can play? So when people say, ‘You have done so many films. What more are you going to do?’ I feel like replying, ‘What are you saying? There are so many people in the world! I can pick anyone and play her and she will be different from anyone else.’

As an actor, I am really fortunate to work with directors who give me the freedom to create the characters with them. That process of bringing out what they are on paper, the homework, the writing, the research, the reading, and finding something that will make them click with the audiences when they watch my characters is what I enjoy so much.

“I set really high standards.”
I compete with myself, which is why I probably don’t have the time to compete with others. I try and set really high standards and this is something I have done since I was a kid. I always wanted to come first. If I got a part in a musical, I would want to sing so well that I’d get the solo. And if I got the solo, I’d make sure that people would stand up and say, ‘Wow! That was great.’ If I had an exam, I had to make sure I would study to get a 100 per cent, if not a 110 with extra credits. I was that kind of girl since I was a kid. So I think with each of my characters I step up. I don’t know, maybe there will be a day when I won’t be able to better myself, and I will reach my peak! But how can an author stop creating? How can musicians stop making music? There can’t be a cap on creativity.

“Applause is the sound that feeds an actor.”
I will not deny that an actor performs for applause. When you sit alone in your room and act, it is no fun. When you sit in front of three people, it is like, ‘They liked what I did’. Applause is the sound that feeds an actor. And, when you get that from an audience, it’s incredible.

If your work gets acknowledged with an award, it feels really good. It’s a sort of encouragement to do better. So if you get them, great. If you don’t, you sulk. I sulked post Barfi, I think, even though I did get a few awards for my role in it. To me, Jhilmil was one of the most magical characters I have played.

“I am a control freak.”
I am very agile. I am tough. I have a huge threshold of pain, physically. I can push my body to crazy limits; I can work ridiculous hours, not sleep for days and still be fine and function. My friends say I am mentally strong, but I feel I am a weakling. I am super emotional. I hit rock-bottom very soon and fast. Maybe that is the reason why I do so many things and I am successful because as soon as you hit rock-bottom, there is nowhere lower you can go.

Being a Cancerian defines who I am. It is the hardest thing for me to let go. I want control all the time! I am a full control freak.

People do not affect me — they do not have the power to hurt me. I have a few people in my inner circle and they matter to me. The rest don’t matter. The world can come crashing down and I will pick up 25 people and run like a superhuman; but it’s the little things that destroy me.

Sometimes stories come out of nowhere. If there is a fire where there is smoke, then I would shut up. But the industry has a lot of agendas. You will suddenly read a story and you will be like, ‘What the hell! This didn’t even happen!’ I wouldn’t give such stories importance. But they affect my family, so they affect me.

When I started out, I was kicked out of a couple of films because some other actress was recommended by her boyfriend, who was in the movie. I went home, sat with my dad; I cried and cried, and said, ‘It’s so unfair! I don’t have an uncle who makes a movie for me or a boyfriend who recommends me. I was signed for it. I have merit but it is being taken away from me!’ He just told me, ‘Then it wasn’t meant to be yours. If you are good, no one can shut out talent.’

Today, his advice still rings in my ears. So I started focusing on parts, big or small, which would showcase my biggest strength, which is not influence, but just my talent. And it has taken me to where I am today. By God’s grace I have always been among the top Bollywood actors throughout my entire career and I think that’s a result of me taking a chance on myself instead of everything else!

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