‘Books about Priyanka Chopra’ is fast becoming a category with its own corner of the bookshelf. The latest one is Aseem Chhabra’s Priyanka Chopra The Incredible Story of A Global Bollywood Star (Rupa Publications). The journalist’s 256-page biography of the 35-year-old actress follows film journalist Bharathi S Pradhan’s Priyanka Chopra The Dark Horse in June and the announcement of Chopra’s own book of personal essays titled Unfinished, which will be out next year.
“I was the only one writing a book on Priyanka Chopra and suddenly everybody else started writing,” joked Chhabra, who is also the author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star.
Like The Dark Horse, Chhabra’s book is an unofficial biography, but it started out differently. “I went through the process of talking to Anjula Acharya, who is her manager in the US and Priyanka’s team, as I set out to write this book,” Chhabra said. “But after many, many messages and emails back and forth and conversations with her lawyers, I was told that she was doing a book of her own and her publishers had not allowed her to speak to another author.”
Chhabra even sat through a meeting with Chopra’s lawyers at which he was told that if he were to be given access to her and the people involved in developing her career in America, he’d have to show them the manuscript before publication. “I asked them whether this meant they’d disapprove of some things or suggest changes, and they said the latter,” he said. “I spoke to my publishers and they agreed. But it all came down to the fact that eventually she wasn’t allowed to talk to me. So the plan for my book had to change.”
Chhabra decided that he would go ahead anyway, especially since the timing seemed right. “I was drawn to the idea of writing about her sometime in November 2016,” he said. “At that time, she was shooting for the second season of Quantico and there was speculation about whether there would be a third season. But, already, there was a story to be told – of an Indian, top-of-the-rank Bollywood actress who had started out from a very small town, became Miss World and thereafter a big star in India and eventually crossed over to become a star in America. Nobody else had been able to achieve this the way she had.”
Chhabra, who has lived in America for several decades, began tracking Chopra’s career since the time she released her first music single, In My City, in 2012. “I felt I could bring something new to the table and felt that the time was sort of right to tell this story of a journey,” he said. “That’s why I call it the incredible journey.”
The biography covers Chopra’s childhood, her modelling career, the Miss India and Miss World pageants and her key Hindi films. The final chapters detail her career in America, which includes her not-so-successful musical stint and her casting in the popular ABC series Quantico. These chapters offer insights into how Chopra cracked the American entertainment market.
Chhabra contrasts Chopra’s successful crossover with the journeys of other Bollywood stars. “Most often, Aishwarya’s [Rai Bachchan] name comes up because there was a big attempt to push her career in Hollywood but it didn’t go anywhere,” Chhabra said. “None of the films took off and additionally, in all the interviews, she’d shy away from questions about whether she’d kiss on screen, do sex scenes and so on. Priyanka approached the whole thing very differently. She was entering a new market, she played her cards differently, and she was the first of her kind from Bollywood.”
The book ends on a cliffhanger. Quantico will conclude after the end of its third season, and Chopra is returning to Hindi films. “I had to draw a line somewhere,” Chhabra said. “When I wrote the book on Shashi Kapoor, it was very clear that his career was at its end. In Priyanka’s case, every day I would hope and pray something new didn’t happen. I have a Google alert on her and I still get alerts.”
Chhabra finally drew the line when it became clear that Quantico had been cancelled. “It was known then that she was going to go back to India to star in Bharat opposite Salman Khan but while we were going to the press, the news about Nick Jonas and her came out,” he said about Chopra’s relationship with the American singer. “But how much can we keep writing!”
One key difference between the books by Pradhan and Chhabra is that each features different sets of people. Chhabra focussed on what he considers the main films in Chopra’s career: Andaz, Bluffmaster!, Kaminey, 7 Khoon Maaf, Don and Don 2, Dostana and Dil Dhadakne Do. “I wanted to reach out to the people behind these films because I wanted those key moments in Priyanka’s career and I wanted to hear from them how she had evolved as an actress,” Chhabra said. “When you watch Andaz or even Aitraaz, the acting isn’t great, which is something she herself has mentioned – that she wasn’t much of an actress initially.”
Had he been given access to Chopra, Chhabra would have liked to know more about her childhood. “I wanted to hear much more about her childhood in America,” Chhabra said. “That’s something I understand well having lived here for so long. There was a lot I was able to guess from the material I had researched. I would have also loved to hear more about some of the film roles she did, those in which she’d have the third billing despite being the top star. How did that work and how was she so secure in her own self?”
“A year after the release of Aitraaz, Priyanka went on Karan Johar’s popular TV show Koffee With Karan (it was the first of her five appearances on the show) and made a surprising announcement that henceforth she was not going to show skin in films. ‘It’s a conscious decision,’ she said when Karan asked what led her to make that decision. ‘I don’t think it is required, when you are performing as much. Even when I played the character in Aitraaz I didn’t stoop to exposure—it was more the character I was playing, it was the way I spoke, the actions, the deliberate moves. I want to not be known for that. I want to be known for much more.’
To this, Karan asked if she was suggesting ‘that the girls who show skin are not going to make it into the big league’. And Priyanka, who was only 22 years old at that time, replied, ‘No I never said that. That’s how I started… I did do Andaaz and I did wear a bikini. It’s not something I can say I am ashamed of, but it’s not something I want to do now. You want to be known more for your performance. I want to be known for the respect I will command than for people to say, oh she has a fabulous body. People have to look above that.’”
— Priyanka Chopra The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star.
Chhabra confesses early on in his book that he initially wasn’t a Priyanka Chopra fan. The first film of hers he watched was Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster! (2005), which was her 14th release. While he thought she was “attractive and rather sexy” in the film, he was still reluctant to sign up for fan club membership. It would take many more films and her move to the US to eventually convert Chhabra.
“That’s what’s different between this book and the one I wrote on Shashi Kapoor,” Chhabra said. “I had been a huge fan of Shashi’s and his commitment to good cinema. So in that sense that book was being written long before I had planned it. When it came to Priyanka, it was only when I started watching her films more closely that I began to find her interesting. I still remember when I watched Kaminey. It was a sold-out screening in New York. She has a small role in the film. But my god, the way she transforms herself into this Maharashtrian woman. The spunk she has.”
Chhabra believes that writing the biography has brought him closer to Chopra. “One of the things I find remarkable about her without having spoken to her about it is that she is very open and frank about some of the most personal things in her life – whether it is the comments members of her family made about her skin colour or the racism she experienced in America. There is truthfulness in the way Priyanka often speaks about her life. She could have revealed much more to me if I’d talked to her.”
“The issue of the crossover and the repeated question about it bothered Priyanka. In an email interview with me, she seemed a bit irritated with the question regarding her strategy to crossover. But she also put a positive spin on the question, making herself appear as the first Indian star who was extending her scope of work beyond the Indian borders. ‘To me it is the same career,’ she wrote in the email. ‘This is by no means a “crossover”, I am beginning to hate that word! I am and always have been a global citizen who entertains a universal audience, and I really hope more talent from India takes a global view.’ And then, she suggested that she would love a situation where her career would develop so that she could combine acting in films and singing songs. ‘I always say…movies are my heart, and music is my soul. Stay tuned…”
— Priyanka Chopra The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star.