Amazing is a word that Priyanka Chopra uses very often. And, it's not surprising. The last year has been nothing short of amazing for the actress. After having acted in over 50 films in Hindi, Priyanka (right) took a gamble starring in ABC's new drama Quantico, a part spies go to college, flashbacks and part fugitive on-the-run story.
The gamble has paid off many times over. The show that The New York Times called "Homeland meets the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre" has been renewed for a second season. Quantico premiered in the US on Sept 27 and it rated 7.6 on IMDb and 7.8 on TV.com. The show has won Priyanka a People's Choice Award for Best Actress earlier this year.
"I never thought there would be a day when I would be on billboards all over New York. When I started out as an 18-year-old, having just won Miss World, I didn't know I would even be able to survive in Bollywood, let alone work in Hollywood. It's been such an amazing journey," she says, on the phone from Montreal. Priyanka has spent most of the last six months holed up in Montreal shooting Quantico.
In the show, Priyanka is front and centre in an ethnically-varied cast as Alex Parrish, an FBI trainee accused of plotting the most devastating terrorist attack on New York since 9/11. Alex is half-Indian, has backpacked across India and Pakistan, and wears an Om bracelet. But Alex's ethnicity is incidental.
"When ABC approached me with the talent development deal, the only thing I told them was that I want to play an ethnically-ambiguous character. Alex could be from anywhere in the world," the 33-year-old actress recalls.
Priyanka was sure that she didn't want any Apu-esque (from Simpsons) stereotyping. "Growing up, I loved watching Simpsons even though I would be quite annoyed by Apu. I didn't know anyone who spoke like him." While in high school in the US, Priyanka remembers classmates who teased by mimicking Apu's accent. "Somewhere that childhood trauma has stayed with me."
The network delivered, sending her over 20 scripts, of which Quantico stood out. "Whether it's the movies, TV or music, I love pop culture. Quantico is quintessential pop entertainment. It is not saying 'we are art; take us seriously'. At the same time, it doesn't take your intelligence for granted."
As for Alex, Priyanka says: "I love the character. Alex is a driven modern woman. She is badass, flawed and so confident. It was interesting for me to play such a strong character week after week."
Removing stereotypes Since its premiere, Quantico has re-opened debate about hot-button issues like gender quality and ethnic diversity.
"That Alex is Indian is accidental. That's not her identity. I think this is a big step towards the fight for diversity. This is not limited to just my character, Quantico has a hijab-wearing FBI agent. When was the last time you saw that?"
Since the promotional spree for Quantico began in August last year, Priyanka is enjoying being a newcomer all over again. "It's really weird when people 'discover' me or what I have done before. They get pretty shocked. It's fun to be a new discovery and yet have the body of work that I have. I am very proud of the fact that I come from one of the most prolific film industries in the world. It is really cool to educate people here about Bollywood and to remove their stereotypical ideas of what Hindi films are like. People around me there now know that Bollywood is a lot more than song-and-dance."
The consummate multi-tasker that she is, Priyanka has not just kick-started a new phase in Bollywood but continues to cement her position in Bollywood.
Last year, the former Miss World winner had two releases in India - Dil Dhakane Do and Bajirao Mastani. Both films were hits with critics and audiences. In the midst of shooting Quantico, Priyanka was promoting Bajirao Mastani and dubbing for Prakash Jha's Jai Gangaajal, which will release in March this year. "I am constantly exhausted but I have made commitments," she says of her gruelling schedule.
This year, Priyanka plans to add another title to her resume - producer. The actress has launched Purple Pebble Pictures and is starting with a web-series and multiple films in regional Indian languages. "I want to make the kind of content that I enjoy watching regardless of language, genre or medium," she explains.
Leaving a legacy One of the main driving forces in Priyanka's life is her need to be remembered.
"I just want to leave a legacy, whatever it might be." Priyanka remembers always being driven. She remembers an instance in high school when she wanted to participate in a play but it would mean having to miss classes for rehearsal and subsequently, she would have to do extra classes to make up. "Essentially doing that play would throw my whole schedule out of gear. I asked my dad what I should do. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted both. So, he told me to make it happen. It was just as simple as that."
On the road towards becoming an engineer, Priyanka's career trajectory took a permanent detour when her mother sent her photos to the Miss India pageant. By the time she turned 18, Priyanka was a Miss World and then movies beckoned. Organic is how Priyanka describes her career. "I have never planned anything. I only grab the opportunities that have come my way," she says.
While she continues to work round the clock and on two different continents, interestingly the only advice she has for herself is to 'chill'. "I would tell her life is really long. You don't have to panic or worry about not having enough time to do all that you want to do. Time has a way of sorting things out. Just keep walking and you'll get there somehow."
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