It is an ordinary Thursday. What makes it extraordinary is the glitter of star power that suffuses the morning with a powerful glow. The lithe, dusky beauty saunters into the make-up van, face barely visible under her enormous shades, dressed in “comfort clothes” – leggings and a long spandex top in her favourite colour, black – after a late shoot the previous night. We look up with trepidation, as she emerges a considerable while later, our allotted time ticking ominously away. Flashing dazzling smiles at everyone, Priyanka Chopra faces the camera, barely wincing in the painfully high Dior heels, which are at least a size too big for her – by her own confession, she was “born in heels”. Ace photographer, Atul Kasbekar, coaxes fluid motion from the svelte actress. She immediately picks up the beat of the music pulsating in the tiny studio and twirls, twists at her slender waist, gracefully cuts the air with the circular motion of her lean arms, flips her hair and throws herself into the scheme of things, with ferocious enthusiasm and buoyancy. It’s a perfect first shot. As the music suddenly stops, and her personal iPod is hastily summoned, with barely noticeable displeasure, she confides, “I can’t think or function without music. My van, my room, my car are always blasting music, so the five minutes I get, become my chill out zone. And besides my family, that’s the one thing I find time for.”
With the kind of schedule she keeps – 25 films in less than five years, not a single holiday or vacation since, working literally 20 hours a day – she is playing a serious juggling act with work and family. “I really don’t find time for my family – I take it for granted that they will come and hang out with me.” Being the first-born to parents who left a flourishing medical practice to ensure that her career took off, it is evident that Priyanka has done them proud. The senior Chopras unobtrusively watch their daughter’s shoot, the mother with a slight smile as she notes the near-perfect shots being reflected on the computer screen, and the father sits back quietly and takes in the confidence of his offspring with teary-eyed pride. Rarely present while his daughter is shooting, the Verve shoot takes Dr. Ashok Chopra back in time. He recalls his 12-year-old girl flouncing in front of a full-length mirror (her only demand from her parents) singing ‘Mere khwaabon mein jo aaye…’ from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge – Priyanka’s absolute favourite film of all time. Even now, she recalls in the blink of an eye the same sparkle, head toss and look of romantic fervour.
“Today my dad is home, living his life to the fullest – I am so grateful for that.” She went through a rough patch – possibly the only glitch in an ostensibly dream-like life – when she watched her father go through a serious illness that took him two years to recover from. She was, at the time, shooting for one of the most important movies of her career, Krrish and wrapping up Bluffmaster. “Your father is always your invincible superhero, to whom nothing can ever happen, because he is the one who protects you – and then suddenly tables turn and you have to protect him. I felt so helpless and lost. I didn’t know how to deal with it.” But deal with it, she did. She would spend nights between shoots at the hospital, thankful that this happened at a time in her career when she could provide the best possible treatment that money could buy, without compromising on her work. A year earlier, it would not have been possible.
The July-born Cancerian’s amiable personality and warmth bubble to the surface as she reminisces about the people close to her heart. Her younger brother, Siddharth, is very proud of having a ‘hot’ older sister. She admits, “I am a self-confessed bully. I used to make him do all my work and I even used to dress him up as a girl! For seven years I was the only child and my parents’ most prized possession. And then he came – I used to pinch him and make him cry. My dad would come in and I would quickly pretend that I was holding and pacifying him!” She laughs unselfconsciously. “I love him – he is my greatest weakness. I spoil him, like he is my child.”
Friendships have their own familial bonds. Hailing from an army family, spending most of her childhood on the move, from Bareilly to Jamshedpur, and Iowa, New York and Boston, Priyanka has still managed to cultivate some lasting friendships – her childhood friend, Tamanna, for instance, who flies down from Delhi to meet her on her birthday. “I’m very close to my friends. If you have even two or three ‘4 a.m. friends’ who you can depend on for your life – and you know if you were kidnapped and someone asked you who would vouch for your life, it would be those people – then you’re very lucky. Though all your colleagues are your friends, there are only a few people whom you consider family.”
That’s what Dostana is about – three friends who consider each other family – and how a relationship between great friends is formed and broken. Priyanka, who loves the outdoors, admits that the movie had the best outdoor shoot she has ever experienced. Two months on location in Miami, she found herself gleefully entertaining her “khandaan” from America. Relatives were “crawling out of every room, closet and bathroom” in her three-bedroom apartment. Priyanka dressed for the shoot every morning with people passed out on the couch. Her family was on holiday and would come and hang out on the set. The euphoria was catchy. It is easy to visualise the massive on-location party, including malls and beaches (think fabulous South Beach), with a variety of restaurants and live music bars – all pulsating with energy that Priyanka feels will translate positively on screen.
In a film about friendships, what were the off-set relationships like? “I never thought I would bond with Tarun (Mansukhani) as much as I did. Initially, I didn’t know him very well and I didn’t think I would, either. He seemed like a really serious guy – we fought like cats and dogs, and made up instantly. I keep telling his wife, Karuna, that I play his on-set wife because we are constantly fighting like a married couple! But he has so much clarity as a director.” Karan Johar popped in for a bit and Hiroo Johar was officially the “big mother hen”. Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, her co-stars in the film, who pretend to be a gay couple to get an apartment to live in, spent all their off-screen time together, leading Priyanka to quip that they took their roles quite seriously!
John Abraham was the self-proclaimed fitness guru on the set, training everyone – the make-up maestro Mickey Contractor, included. Every day, after the shoot, everyone would land up at the gym. Priyanka studiously followed the regime – despite the fact that she generally doesn’t work out at all – to ensure that she looked prime for her swimsuit scene in the movie. Admiring her trim body – slimmer than she has ever been – It is hard to believe that she doesn’t work out or diet, after seeing how even the ramp-size Dior outfits at the Verve shoot are too large for her. She leans forward with a conspiratorial whisper, “being overworked and underpaid is the mantra for losing weight”.
Priyanka’s character in Dostana is an editor at Verve, and is dressed in accordance to the location. “In Miami, anything’s possible. I wore shorts, high heels and a shirt to work – and I was over-dressed!” Priyanka hopes the fashion critics will find it equally appealing. “If you try to please the critics, making films trying to keep in mind what the fashion industry is going to say, then you’ll never be able to experiment.”
The actress, who has had no mentor or any formal training in acting, has found herself experimenting through her film career. High on the popularity chart, Priyanka has had her share of missable films and reigned supreme in spite of them. The laugh lines smear away and she quickly retorts, “But that’s normal, right? Nobody can get a track record of 100 per cent. It is against the law of averages.” Have the decisions been based on script alone? “It is not just the script. At every point in my career, each film I did was for a certain reason. It may not have done well, but at that point doing that film or finding that film was very important.” Andaaz and Hero gave her small, but important parts; Kismat was her first solo heroine film; Plan with Sanjay Dutt, made by Sanjay Gupta and Asambhav with Rajiv Rai, were a step up in that ladder. “I never expect anything from any film. I feel when you have expectations, somewhere you are let down.” With a sudden flash of her 100-watt smile she confides, “But I can’t help expecting from these three – Drona, Dostana and Fashion. I’ve worked really hard on each one of them and they are very special to me, whatever the fate of the film may be.”
Suddenly retrospective and a tad philosophical, Priyanka appears wiser than her 26 years. Clichés appear truisms as she applies them to her life – she speaks without any affectation, if a shade reminiscent of her articulate Miss World persona. “It is never the end that matters. It is also the journey – we may think of it as a proverb, but that’s how I have led my life, and it works for me. At this point of time, what I do is very important. What happens in the future will be part of what destiny has in store. The decisions I take now must be with courage of conviction.”
Courage of conviction has definitely got her where she is – able to pick and choose, and have more work on her hands than she has time for. “I’ve always believed that I am destiny’s favourite child.” Not even in her wildest dreams did the naturally talented actress, who was considering a career in aeronautical engineering (“making planes and going to NASA”) ever think she would be a part of show biz. “It still feels so surreal.” Neither she nor her family have had the time to retrospect. A mere 17-year-old schoolgirl when she participated in the Miss India beauty pageant – on an entry sent in as a lark by her family – she had just finished school when she became Miss World. “I had to grow up in a month!” She had to reconcile herself from a teenager in sneakers riding a bicycle to a young woman in a sari gracefully balancing a tiara on her head. “They say that the head that wears the crown rules the world. It’s not easy and it wasn’t. I still don’t remember how I did it – I only followed instructions – I was almost robotic in what I did. I only remember being myself since the last few years – since I was 22 or 23. Before that I was always so withdrawn, wary of being in this industry, not knowing anyone, wanting to protect myself and my family. Everything just happened to me. I feel somebody up there is holding onto my little finger, guiding me through life, which is why I never question what’s happening. I know if something bad is happening, this too shall pass, because there is a reason why I am here.” And what about ideals of changing the world that beauty pageants inspire? “I never has aspirations to conquer or change the world. I’m just playing my little part in the bigger picture and am happy that I am able to contribute.”
The strong girl is also incredibly soft-hearted and considerate. Very fond of children, she swings into the shoot in her gold Dior dress with her spot-boy’s son on her arm, smiles and poses for multiple pictures with their family. Later, while giving bytes to a news channel, she notes with the corner of her eye a man bent double with heavy equipment standing behind waiting for her to finish, and she immediately stops and gives way. A self-confessed “mush-pot”, she has a major weakness for romantic comedies, though she can watch creepy horror films with equal fascination. She would often get inspired and write poetry on little paper napkins – being a fan of prose, shayaris and Urdu – though she hasn’t done that in a long time. With a sudden twinkle she reveals that she would love to be serenaded – but with originality and spontaneity. “Buying red roses and sending them is so thoughtless! I prefer thoughtful gifts. A hand-written note would mean so much more to me than diamonds. Actually, a hand-written note with diamonds would mean a lot more,” she rounds up with a chuckle.
The voracious reader (biographies, chick lit, travelogues) hasn’t even had time to read a script that has been lying with her since the last twenty days. Sleeping four-five hours a day, she only manages to unwind in her white Mercedes, which she calls home. “I have worked every single day in the past few years and there isn’t one day that I regret it. I know the day I wake up in the morning feeling that I am too tired to shoot today, I will retire. Very few people are fortunate enough to love what they do. I really, truly love what I do.” That obviously keeps her steamrolling on. As I step out of her car, I watch her walk to the next shoot with a bounce in her step – despite the fact that she missed lunch entirely while talking to me.