MEHRU JAFFER | 5 SEPTEMBER, 2018
Review of Aseem Chhabra’s book
Priyanka Chopra’s success in the world of showbiz, here and in the USA is an incredibly sexy story. And of course it needs to be told. But two biographies, one hot on the heels of another is a double bonanza most unexpected. There is even a third book awaiting release which is Chopra’s own memoir, titled Unfinished.
Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse by Bharathi S. Pradhan hit the stands last June, while Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star seemed like the perfect birthday gift for Chopra, who turned 36 on July 18.
I have just finished reading the latter book, by Aseem Chhabra, one of India’s best-known film journalists. The narration is a turn-on even when he shares information most readers already know, especially in the first half of the book. This is because New-York based Chhabra’s love for cinema is infectious. Every word this professional moviegoer writes exposes him as a drooling film buff who is not only smitten by Chopra, but by everyone responsible for making movies.
This is his second book after Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star published in 2016.
Chhabra wondered how an actor and a celebrity in one part of the world becomes famous in another – that too in a large nation like the USA where most people tend to be inward looking and aren't much focused on popular culture in the rest of the world. As he asked around he was told there are two ways of becoming a household name in the USA, through a scandal or hard work, and the author discovered that in the case of Chopra it is hard work. That is when he decided to write a book on Chopra’s professional journey in the USA.
He is filled with awe as he marches to find out how Chopra succeeded in becoming a part of mainstream American popular culture. In fact this is the most interesting part of the book as the author meets the people who made Chopra what she is now.
Anjula Acharya is an Indian American who grew up in England at a time when it was impossible to see South Asian characters on television or in films. A few years after moving to the USA in 2000, Anjula worked on projects that tried to bridge the gap between American and Indian pop culture.
One day she was asked who she thought is a big idea from India. Anjula remembered seeing Chopra in a video from Rohan Sippy’s 2005 film Bluffmaster. I was living in Silicon Valley doing tech venture capital work and I wasn’t even in the entertainment music business, but I saw Priyanka in the video and I remember thinking she has the swag, she’s so cool.
Anjula didn't know at the time if Chopra could sing, but suggested her name nevertheless as a potential singer who could be introduced to the West. She travelled to India to meet Chopra in the hope of making her a household face in the USA.
Around 2013 Chopra asked Anjula to make her a Guess Girl advertising Guess Jeans. At first Anjula was amused, and then she made it happen during the 2013 holiday season. Guess hired Canadian singer Bryan Adams, also a famous photographer, to do the shoot. Some of the black and white photographs by Adams are included in the book, with Chopra resembling a youthful Brigitte Bardot, the stunning French actress who is now 83.
More than the music and the voice-over in a Disney film, it was the advertisements for Guess that set the stage for the launch of Chopra’s career in the USA, concludes Chhabra.
Chopra had already taken baby steps into American pop culture with her singles. In late 2014 she signed a one-year deal with the American Broadcasting Company. She was given 25 scripts to read and chose to play a role in Quantico, a television series about a group of diverse Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recruits who go through 21 weeks of training to become special agents at Quantico, the agency’s academy in Virginia. And to bag the part of protagonist Alex Parrish, the star of Bollywood films like Fashion, Bluffmaster and Dostana gave an audition for the first time in her life.
By summer 2015, Chhabra noticed a phenomenon first in New York City subway stations, then on buses and at bus stands.
There were large images of Chopra across New York City staring at us, an FBI badge against her pink full lips. The word QUANTICO was typed in bold capital letters across Chopra’s face.
The author was thrilled but also found it hard to believe that Chopra the Desi Girl of Dostana had her face plastered all over New York City and hardly anyone in the city other than desis like him seemed to have noticed. Chhabra gushes on, making the reader jump with joy with him.
The Quantico season has ended but efforts continue to build the Desi Girl one brick at a time into the hearts of all Americans, even as she makes a permanent place in the heart of at least one American, Nick Jonas, pop star and now her fiance.