OPEN CHEST Interview With Actress, Singer Priyanka Chopra
Tags: 7 khoon maaf, anurag basu, autism, barfi, desihits, fashion, hindustan times, in my city, kaminey, madhur bhandarkar, miss world, priyanka chopra, redone, steven seagal, the express tribune, whats your raashee
India’s Most Versatile Pop Icon!
Some people need no introduction but deserve one. Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra IS that person! She is what I have coined, a “serial gamechanger,” having forged a path from 2000 until now that is so unique that no one has managed to replicate it for upwards of a decade. She has reached global recognition in the fields of beauty and film, and is now soaring high with her latest endeavour in mainstream music.
Her tremendous journey is what fairy tales are made of. At the age of 17, she took the world by storm when she won the Miss World Contest in 2000. Then she was off to conquer Bollywood. And conquer it she did, racking up a multitude of awards during her 10 years of dedication to her craft, with a level of critical acclaim and commercial success rarely seen today. Films like Fashion (2008) and Barfi! (2012) are just two examples of Priyanka’s contribution to the Indian film industry, showcasing the incredible diversity of her acting prowess which has garnered an enviable following of literally millions of fans worldwide.
Now, as the first artist to be signed by the new collaborative music label created by Universal Music and Desi Hits! which was formed to launch the careers of South Asian artists in the west, Priyanka has embarked on a music career. Her launch is considered to be the biggest in history for a South Asian artist in mainstream music, with the release of her debut single “In My City” (2012), which heated up the airwaves during the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football last fall. Backed by a powerhouse team that includes the chairman of Interscope, Jimmy Iovine, Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, and signed as mega talent agency Creative Artists Management’s first ever Bollywood actor, there is no wonder that she has been positioned as the one South Asian musical artist that just may sustain a career in mainstream music in the west.
I had the opportunity to chat with her about her extraordinary journey, and in her nonchalant manner, she walked me through her mindset and belief system that like Pandora’s box, exposed many surprises about her humble perspective on her unrivalled success…Read on…
THE BEGINNING . . .
You’ve often said that in the early days, your life was set with aspirations towards a career in engineering. Until fate stepped in when your mother submitted your photo to the Femina Miss India Pageant in 2000 which sent you to represent India at the Miss World Pageant which you went on to win, catapulting you onto the world radar where opportunity knocked loud and clear that you were destined for more than you had originally anticipated. I’d like to ask you about the year you were crowned Miss World which sent you on a whirlwind of appearances around the world as part of your title’s expectations. How did this year of experiences change your perception on life as you knew it, considering that up until this time, your life had been indicative of the small-town girl that you were, albeit one that had travelled extensively growing up?
I went from being a 12th standard engineering high school student to being Miss World in just about six months. I didn’t know what I was getting into or where life would take me, and all I did was let destiny take its course. I worked hard at every opportunity that came to me. My mom, ever since I was very young, always told me to turn every obstacle into an opportunity, so whenever something seemed difficult to me, I always ended up being stronger from it.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned from that year filled with many first-time experiences that you have carried with you until now?
I was so young and didn’t know anything about modelling but I was willing to learn. And that is one quality I still have today: I’m still willing to learn.
THE BEAUTY MYTH . . .
This issue of ANOKHI magazine is our annual beauty issue, a fitting theme for a woman who started her career being crowned the world’s most beautiful woman. Looking back over your career with all its experiences, knowing what you know today, what is your personal definition of beauty?
I would equate beauty with confidence. For me, someone is beautiful when they are confident. You don’t have to have the most perfect features, most beautiful body, or be a flawless skin kind of person. If you’re confident about whoever you are, whatever you may be, then you will always come across to the world as a beautiful person. And, of course, you have to be kind — that is important.
Unfortunately, we still live in a world where outward beauty often times overshadows the beauty from within. Which if we were able to see exactly how magnificent that version of our individual beauty is, we wouldn’t be so mesmerized by the outward perception that pop culture has us believe is the version of beauty that should be celebrated above all else. This is a grave challenge to overcome in today’s society still, especially amongst the younger generation who are faced with finding their identity amidst such a barrage of marketing propaganda. What advice would you give to all those still struggling to find their inner beauty, faced with such mammoth expectations that push them to focus predominantly on the outward manifestation of beauty which is oftentimes so generic in nature and not a realistic expectation to reach a place of personally defined beauty?
Well, first of all, what’s most important is to understand that every person is beautiful in many different, as there is something beautiful about everyone. Two, there are ridiculous aspirations that are put up by marketing giants and I have been a part of many of them. When I was younger, I always aspired to be the best that I could be. I was a very gawky teenager, had low self-esteem, but today I am the best that I can be. I do not aspire to be someone else. I make myself the best I can be without compromising who I really am. THAT is the advice I would like to give out to every young person. Figure out who you are and what the best YOU can be, rather than trying to be someone else. Even when you have pop icons and actors who are hugely successful, know that all of them have their own flaws. What is exceptional about all great people is that they are willing to accept their flaws and still willing to be everything that they are. As soon as that comes into you, and as soon as you are accepting of who you really are, the confidence will set in automatically and you will look your most beautiful because you are your most beautiful.
THE ACTING . . .
Before you began your career in Bollywood, I remember meeting you briefly at the Bollywood Fashion Awards in New York City in April, 2001, which was the spring before the summer that I began planning the launch of ANOKHI. I remember seeing you on stage with Steven Seagal who, right there in front of everyone, offered you a role in his next Hollywood production. Also at that time, you had a number of Bollywood films that you were considering, according to media reports. With the global platform that you had already garnered with the Miss World title, you could have gone into Hollywood or Bollywood. Having the choice between both, you chose the latter; why?
It wasn’t like it was my choice or preference to choose Bollywood over Hollywood. Yes, I did get a few opportunities from the west, but they weren’t ones that excited me or made me feel that they were worth my time at that point in time. In fact, Mr. Seagal did live up to his word, I have to give him that, but it didn’t make sense for me at that time. When I came to Bollywood movies, I was getting incredible opportunities which I felt were worth my time; hence I made an intelligent decision. That’s all it was.
At the juncture between winding down your duties with Miss World and making that fateful decision to try your hand in acting, especially considering that you couldn’t really know what the outcome was going to be, can you share your mindset at that very crucial time when you decided to take that leap of faith into acting?
It wasn’t really a leap of faith for me; it was destiny. I wanted to go back to college and pursue my education but movies came to me and I had this conversation with my mom. I was just about 18 at that time. I said to her that I don’t ever want to sit and think: “What if I would’ve tried it?” She said: “Of course you must!” What we decided was that I was gonna give it a year and a half. If my career worked out within that time and if I saw it being a positive action, I would continue. Otherwise, I could always go back as I would still only be 19. So, that was the plan. From the time I did my first film, that was it; there was no looking back.
In an interview you did in 2012 with The Express Tribune, you said that your journey has been a learning experience as you entered the film industry without knowing anyone. What has been that one key fact that you have learned along the way that you feel has attributed to your sustainability in an industry where, without a godfather of sorts, it’s very difficult to even debut, let alone keep going for upwards of a decade like you have?
One thing that I learned was that you have to be undeniable. If you’re undeniable, then it doesn’t matter who you know, who you’re dating, which family you come from or how many friends you have in the industry. If your work and your talent speak for themselves, you WILL be undeniable. That’s the only truth that I have learned from my career — to do good work.
You’ve managed to garner an enviable portfolio in a relatively short span of time as you’ve managed to not only sustain but to succeed both commercially and critically, proving that you’re a smash with your fans as well as with your peers. How does it feel to know that you’ve won, and continue to win, the hearts of both, knowing how difficult it is to do either, let alone accomplish both?
That was never my ambition. All I knew was to go with my instincts. I am a normal girl from a very normal family. If I can do it, anyone can. Critical and commercial successes are both very important to me. I believe box office is key. We are in professional entertainment, so it is my job to entertain people and at the same time, give them the best performance that I can possibly give with every character. As far as my support system is concerned, I have been very lucky that I have so much support from people around the world. They have gotten me here. I would never be here if it wasn’t for them all.
Your career thus far has seen you begin in the predictable manner with a slew of Bollywood formula movies. But then you did something quite courageous; you went against conventional wisdom with what the Hindustan Times called your coming of age film, Fashion (2008), which garnered you a conveyor belt of awards from all film awards shows that season, not to mention a fresh perspective on your career. Knowing that no one can predict perceived success or failure, what was it about this movie that clinched the deal for you to take it on?
When Madhur [Bhandarkar] had come to me with the film, I was just three years into movies and everybody told me that I shouldn’t do it because nobody watches female oriented films in India. Whenever somebody tells me that I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. So Madhur and I sat and we worked on the script for six months with the writers. I remember we added a lot of scenes from my life in fact, from before I became an actress when I was a small-town girl. A lot of them are actually true. We just wanted to make it the best film it possibly could be. None of us expected it to get the overwhelmingly positive reaction that it did. I was just three to four years into movies. It was probably the first film in many years, being a female oriented film, that took such a massive opening. It made money on the opening weekend almost like a blockbuster film, and that was for me, my biggest victory. And for my mother too!
Pre-launch, was there any fear of how people may view the film’s message of a protagonist whose journey took her on a whirlwind of traditionally viewed taboo subject matter like premarital sex and drug abuse?
Not really, it’s a fictional story in that regard. It’s not indicative of what happens in the modelling industry at all. It’s not what typically happens to people in the fashion fraternity. It wasn’t a biopic. It was just a story we wanted to tell. We wanted to shock the world with the film and to that end, we were successful. I wanted it to be a positive story that says that no matter what people go through in life, there is always hope. If there is hope in your heart you can achieve anything!
Your courage in taking on this movie reminds me of bygone Indian film icon Zeenat Aman who also braved her times to take on the now cult classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), albeit your face has an astonishing resemblance to Parveen Babi.
That’s very kind of you!
It’s true! When you discovered that the movie had garnered both commercial and critical acclaim, how, if at all, did it influence future acting decisions, as you went on to take on further challenges like your role in Barfi! (2012)?
Whether it was 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Barfi!, What’s Your Raashee? (2009) or more conventional films, I have always tried to do parts which would push me a little bit and push the envelope. And I think that Barfi! to me was my most challenging part yet. Then again, I think that about all my films when I’m doing them. For example, before Barfi! was 7 Khoon Maaf, year before that was What’s Your Raashee?, and before that was Fashion. I try to do one such film a year which would push me as an actor as much as I can be pushed. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I am really happy that Barfi! became what it did and I am really humbled by the kind of appreciation that I got for playing Jhilmil. I was afraid of it, very scared of it in fact, because it could have gone any way. It could have become a caricature; it could have become a joke. I wanted it to be very real and I’m grateful that people thought of it that way.
When I interviewed you at ANOKHI’s 10th anniversary awards show on stage, you mentioned that your role in Barfi! was to date, the most difficult you’ve taken on due to it being that of an autistic woman. I read that you visited several mental institutions and spent time with autistic people to research the condition so as to infuse the reality into Jhilmil. How did you create and maintain authenticity in your portrayal once the research on the condition was done?
We did a lot of homework between me and Anurag [Basu (writer and director)]. We spent a lot of time also reading on it. I got a lot of help from my co-actors as well, and we worked diligently on developing her as a character because we didn’t have a reference point for her. We had to create everything, from her walk, her voice, to the quirks she had, to the way she looked. Autism has such a huge range that we were able to pick and choose the elements that we wanted to create her. It was like creating a painting.
Post shooting when you had the chance to watch it in its entirety, how did you feel about the film and your portrayal of Jhilmil?
I was very overwhelmed. I didn’t know that the film would be as beautiful as it turned out to be. I am very, very proud to be a part of it!
It was indeed a masterpiece. I read that you were offered the role of Phaedra in Tarsem Singh’s Immortals (2011) but turned it down because of shooting conflicts. Is this true?
Well not many people know this but yes, I was approached for the movie and it was just something that I couldn’t work on at that point.
Is Hollywood calling and will you answer?
Yes, it is calling and I’m sure that when it’s the right time, right path and the right film, I will do it. I’ve always picked really strong parts even if the part is small, for example in Kaminey (2009), where I did eight scenes. But it’s a film that I am really proud to be a part of so that’s what matters to me more than anything else. If something that clicks comes my way from Hollywood, why not?
What movies have you got coming out this year that we can share with our readers?
I have Zanjeer coming out in May which is a remake of the Amitabh Bachchan film (1973). Then I have a film called Gunday which is a Yash Raj movie with Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. I’m also doing a film on the life of Mary Kom which will be the very first movie on the female Indian boxer. I’m probably the first girl to play a boxer in India. The movie is being made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. And Krrish 3 of course.
One wish for that ultimate role — what would it be, and why?
I don’t have one because I feel like I have been so blessed by doing such incredible roles in the last few years. I consider myself very fortunate that directors have come to me with so many amazing parts. I feel like when I’m 90 and I lie on my bed, when I’m dying with my grandkids around me, I would want to leave behind a legacy. So I don’t have a dream role. I’m not somebody who came into Bollywood with the dream of becoming an actor; I learnt on the way. My career has been my acting school and I have been very fortunate to work with incredible actors and directors who I have learned so much from. I shaped myself as an actor because of them, so I don’t have a dream part. I don’t have an ambition of any of that. I just have the ambition of when I am on my deathbed surrounded by my family, I just want to know I have left behind a legacy.
Amen to that! It’s interesting you talk about leaving behind a legacy because in 2012 you did an interview with The Times of India where you said: “I have always wanted to be the sum of more than just my movies. I want to be a persona like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. I imbibe from people I work with and I want to be like them.” What is it about these icons that inspire your roadmap to a greater incarnation of yourself?
I don’t know if I want to be like them but I do want to be able to have the ability of possessing greatness which I think all four of them have. Not everybody can have it. I don’t even think I am capable of having it but I do believe tremendously in myself, and I think God has given me something extra which is why I am where I am and I am grateful for that. These people have it too. Mr. Bachchan is someone who has had a career of almost 40 years and yet is so gentlemanly, fun and eloquent, not to mention an incredibly unmatched acting talent. Shahrukh — I am his greatest fan and always have been. He is someone I always wanted to grow up and become. I love the fact that he is incredibly talented, completely self-made and at the same time, gentle, kind and someone who is very real when you get to know him. Salman Khan is someone who lives life on his own terms and has become undeniable by being whoever he is. It’s incredible to have that kind of acceptance of oneself. And Aish of course, started off as Miss World like me but with a face like hers, who will deny her, you know? She made herself into a global icon. I admire the will and determination that these four have.
As iconic as your heroes in the Indian film industry are, none of them have ventured into uncharted territories the way you have with your innovative move into mainstream music. I said to you during our conversation at ANOKHI’s 10th anniversary awards show that you’re a “serial game-changer” — beauty, movies and now music. And not just a regular launch, but one packed with a punch never seen before by an Indian musical artist launched in the west, when you signed a music deal in 2011 as the first artist signed to the newly formed collaborative music label comprising of Universal Music and Desi Hits!. “Team Priyanka” comprises of the music industry’s most powerful players: Jimmy Iovine (Interscope Music) who launched the careers of the Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls, and, Troy Carter (Atom Factory) who manages Lady Gaga. Not to mention that you’re the first Bollywood actor to be signed to mega talent agency Creative Artists Management. In a word: Wow! My question: Why do this when you already have such a celebrated and extremely busy acting career that’s not letting up anytime soon?
When Anjula [Acharia-Bath (Desi Hits!)] came to me and spoke to me about it, it was just something that I felt would be interesting for me to do and since I am someone who is very instinctive, my instinct told me that I want to do something that nobody has done before. That is something that always excites me — to do things that no one has done before. And this was that. I worked really hard on this project and it is right at the beginning stages right now. I hope I can make India proud by being really good at it.
Your team have coined a phrase to describe you. They say that you’re a “triple threat” — you can sing, dance and act. How do you feel this may give you a distinct advantage to perhaps be the one Indian musical artist to sustain a career in mainstream pop music that until now has not been accomplished?
I don’t know honestly. I don’t think I have thought about it so much. I don’t think about the future; I live in my present. The opportunities that have been given to me, I work with that only.
Your debut single “In My City,” how did that come about? And how did it get chosen as your debut single?
Jimmy [Iovine] put me and will.i.am in the studio because he wanted us to do something together. Will made me hear the song for the first time as he thought I would sound good on it. I really liked the song so I sang it. And then the NFL network chose it to be their theme song for Thursday Night Football, THAT’s why we decided to go with it. It was a coincidence that I ended up liking it because it was a reflection of my life.
You’re getting ready to release your freshman album produced by no other than multi hit-maker RedOne. Knowing that your eclectic musical influences range from Mohammad Rafi to The Beatles and from Madonna to 50 Cent, I’m excited to know what influences you have incorporated into what your specific sound will be. Tell me what you have in store for us.
I wanted it to be extremely different from anything out there. I mean yes, of course I love pop music and it’s not like I am creating different sounds from a different universe; nothing like that. I know my music will be influenced by those who have influenced me but it is not a conscious effort to sound a certain way. The album will be fun and have all kinds of music, is what my goal has been. Whether it is pop, ballads or mid-tempo, it will be an eclectic mix of music the way I like it.
I read a quote somewhere, where you said that you love Lady Gaga and Rihanna’s music and style because they “have an individuality that shines through their music.” In your music avatar, unlike the actor one, you’re faced with showcasing the real Priyanka Chopra. Who is she that people may also see her individuality shine through your music and resonate with the masses?
I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m sure when my album comes out, people will be telling me who I am and then I will understand it. As of now, I don’t.
THE STYLE . . .
Image is highly rated on your professional and personal radar — you’re known to be incredibly meticulous about image. You coin Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn as two of your style icons. What is it about their style that lends to yours, being that you are one of today’s most revered style icons in India?
Honestly, style to me is comfort. I don’t believe in people being uncomfortable in ridiculous outfits. I think you should know what looks good on you and wear that. And I think that is what both these ladies did. For me, understanding what doesn’t work for you is more important than understanding what does.
THE FANS . . .
You’ve been very cognisant of your fan base from the onset and identified how integral they are to your sustainability in pop culture, being one of the first Indian stars to adopt social media, especially Twitter. Why for you, is personal connection and interaction with your fans so essential? And I’m asking you this because you don’t just interact when you’re promoting a movie release; you’re always interacting with them.
For me, Twitter is a way of expressing my feelings directly without having the medium of media or journalists. It is my word from my mouth. And yes, I talk about my life and my world; my work is my world. A lot of times, I do end up talking about my work when I’m excited about a certain song or a film because I can’t disassociate my work from my life. I do it when I feel like it. It is not a compulsion as I don’t do it every day. I do it whenever I have something to say, and there are times when I don’t have anything to say or I don’t feel like saying anything. I mean, I am human. So I have kept it like that. I have kept it very real.
THE PHILANTHROPY . . .
You’re a known philanthropist, having lent your time to many causes including green initiatives, endangered species and earthquake relief. Many people admire philanthropy from afar but never get involved. What would you say to those people to motivate a call to action?
I think philanthropy is a very individual thing. We live in a universe where if we were more tolerant about the fact that every human being is different, if people don’t do philanthropy it would be fine. I don’t judge them to be good or bad people so long as they feel that it is important for them to take care of their own life. Charity begins at home which means you look after yourself and your life first. If you are fine within your space and life, and life is going good with you, it is always a little bit nice to go out and do something for someone else. But I don’t think it should be a compulsion and I don’t think people should be judged if they choose not to take action.
THE WOMAN . . .
What are five things that encapsulate the woman that you are today?
• I am complicated because I am at a space where I am trying to figure myself out. I am not a girl and I am not yet a woman.
• I am complex because I do so many things and I have so many tracks that are going on in my head professionally and personally all the time.
• I am humbled because of the kind of love and affection I have gotten over all these years — something I never expected; something I never thought I deserved. I feel humbled because I am made to feel so special, and it is really nice when people make you feel that way.
• I would say lucky because I have an incredible family. I have amazing supporters in my fans, and in the film fraternity, people give me the opportunity to do the work that I do.
• And extremely hard-working because I believe in turning every obstacle into an opportunity and one thing that I know how to do is to work hard. I may know how to do something or I may not, but I know how to learn and to work hard.
Four things you cannot live without?
• My family and friends
• My work
• My cellphone (Laughs)
• My team
Three criteria men must have in order to catch your attention?
• Have integrity
• Have intelligence as I don’t like boys; I like men.
• Have the ability to stand up for themselves and be content with the way they are.
Two characteristics that define friendship for you?
• The ability to have each other’s back. To know that your friends, no matter what, will always stand up for you, whether you’re wrong or right. I think that is a huge quality that a friend needs to have.
• Being able to talk about anything for hours. I think that is really important for friends to understand each other. The ability to just do shit together and laugh about it.
One element that exemplifies love for you?
You stand by each other. I think that’s important. You have to feel like you not just belong with each other, but you live inside of each other. I believe in love like that.
THE FUTURE . . .
The future for me is . . .
Uncertain but promising.
THE MANTRA. . .
My life’s mantra is . . .
To live and let live; not judge.
During ANOKHI’s 10th anniversary awards Show on February 2nd, 2013, Priyanka made a special appearance, during which time I had the opportunity to chat with her on stage. Here is the interview where she shares her philosophies on life and her foray into the music business with the audience: www.openchest.com/oc-tv/ep-9-bollywood-superstar-priyanka-chopra
First published in The Beauty Issue, April 2013. www.AnokhiMagazine.com
Photography by Richard Dubois
Stylist: Joelle Litt
Hair and Makeup: Vittorio using Climate Control Finishing Spray for TRESemmé Hair Care/M.A.C./Plutino Group
Photography Assistant: Kayla Yestal
Produced By Hina P. Ansari
Photography By Richard Dubois
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Photography By Richard Dubois
Courtesy Of Universal Music Group
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Photography By Richard Dubois
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