Days before the Miami world premiere of her debut Hollywood film, Baywatch, Priyanka Chopra told California-based Fabulous TV: "My character in the film is just so evil – this country [the United States] is going to hate me."
The actress, who turned 35 this week, couldn't be further off the mark. One of India's A-list stars and a former Miss World, Chopra is already a popular household name in the US, thanks to her starring role as an FBI recruit in acclaimed ABC television series Quantico.
With the third season due to air in January 2018, Chopra has the distinction of being the first Indian to land a lead part on a US television network. And while Baywatch might be her debut American movie, Chopra is an established veteran of the big screen in India – her filmography extends to a total of 51 movies.
Last year brought Chopra a couple of important milestones – she featured in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people around the world, while in India, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the country's fourth-highest civilian honour.
“It’s the equivalent of being knighted,” Chopra explained in an interview earlier this year.
But the star isn't allowing herself to get giddy from the recognition and praise. "I may have featured on the cover of Time, but I have a long way to go," she told the BBC just days after Time published its list (April 2016), reflecting the words her Baywatch co-star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wrote about her in the magazine's same issue: "We always quote the saying: 'Wear your success like a T-shirt, not like a tuxedo', and she really does – as big a star as she is, as global as she is, as beautiful as she is, there's this interesting quality of relatability."
Chopra has hung on to her girl-next-door charm and reputation for honesty, whether gracefully fielding intrusive questions on Koffee with Karan, the Indian celebrity chat show hosted by the incorrigible Karan Johar, Bollywood's flamboyant filmmaker and producer; monkeying around with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show; or revealing that, as a child, she suffered from low self-esteem and faced racism in school in the US.
Today, she is perceived as a fashion icon, and frequently makes eye-catching red-carpet appearances (including a stunning Met Gala turn this year in a Ralph Lauren trench coat). When she is not shuttling between Mumbai, her home city, and Los Angeles, she makes Indian regional movies under the banner of her production house Purple Pebble Pictures, and continues her decade-long commitment to Unicef, championing causes as varied as women’s rights and the environment.
She has also made a friend of the media, especially on the subcontinent, where newspapers and gossip websites alike have pointed out that her success story is entirely attributed to hard work, talent and careful selection of films. Chopra is self-made, unlike most of her Indian contemporaries, whose careers are testament to the nepotism that flourishes unchecked in Bollywood.
When it came to Hollywood, Chopra said she adopted her usual cautious approach to picking the film that would launch her international career.
"I wanted to be sure about what my first film would be," she told Fabulous TV, adding that the idea behind choosing to do Baywatch was ";being part of a fun movie that would take the pressure off a bit".
Unfortunately, Seth Gordon's comedy spoof of the original TV series starring David Hasselhoff (who also pops up in the new movie) received a lukewarm reception, both in India and globally. It managed a mere 19 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, while The Guardian bestowed it with one star and the Times of India gave it 2.5. Nevertheless, Chopra turned heads with her role as the villain, which she played with aplomb and glamour.
She admits to being quite enamoured with her over-the-top character, Victoria Leeds, a drug baroness with nefarious designs on a beach patrolled by a couple of wisecracking lifeguards (Johnson and Zac Efron).
"Actually, the villain was originally called Victor Leeds – he was supposed to be a guy," she revealed to journalists in May. "They rejigged the role for me. My Victoria is absurd, all coiffed and dressed to the nines, and I had a wonderful time playing her, it was so much fun."
The actress has come a long way since her early days as a starlet in Bollywood. She was only 18 when she started out; after previously wanting to pursue either criminal psychology or aeronautical engineering, she was flooded with offers to star in films when she won the Miss World crown in 2000. She gave herself “a year and a half” to see if it was what she wanted to do, and found success.
Chopra went on to star in a series of blockbusters, from Fashion (2008), a woman-centric film in which she played the lead role, to dramas with some of the biggest actors in the Indian industry, including Shah Rukh Khan (Don in 2006 and Don 2 in 2011). But Chopra was also on another important quest: to prove that beauty and brains can go together.
“I wanted to change the way people think,” she told Fabulous TV, referencing her Miss World title. “The idea that models can’t act … [shakes her head]. I was raised as an opinionated girl, and I realised that being myself was the only way to do this.”
The day before Baywatch was released in the US, Chopra enjoyed a light-hearted tête-à-tête with Vogue on a breezy terrace in New York. In the video clip, she answered a quick-fire round of a whopping 73 questions – some of them inane, others profound – all with the same combination of whimsy and steel for which she is now famous.
Where does she see herself in 10 years? “Achieving global domination.” What does she have to say to her fans in India? “Ghar ki bahut yaad aati hai” ( I miss home very much). What is her spirit animal? “The phoenix, because it rises from the ashes every time.” What misconceptions do Americans have about Indians? “That we all have arranged marriages.”
This is something that bothers her a great deal – the way the world views Bollywood, and, by association, India. Time and again, both at home and abroad, Chopra has one thing to say: “I hate that we are called Bollywood,” she says with vehemence. “People think we are a spoof of Hollywood – but we are not.
“We speak Hindi, a language spoken in only one country in the world, but 40 per cent of our business comes from outside India. And who can give you joy and laughter and tears all together in a film, except India? That stands as a testament to what we can offer, so why shouldn’t we share our talent with the world too?”
Baywatch opens in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday
Priyanka Chopra's upcoming projects
A Kid Like Jake
A drama directed by Silas Howards, and based on a play by Daniel Pearle about a 4-year-old whose parents find themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to deciding on what is best for their son. Chopra plays Amal, a single mother and friend of the young family. Also starring Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer. Filming and principal photography began in June.
Isn’t It Romantic?
A romantic comedy directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, starring Rebel Wilson as a put-upon architect in New York. Chopra plays the role of Isabella, a yoga instructor, and is part of a star-studded cast that includes Liam Hemsworth and Adam DeVine. Filming began in June.
Chopra has been signed on to portray the Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla in an as-yet-untitled biopic by Viacom 18 Pictures. She also will portray the poet and novelist Amrita Pritam in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's newly announced Hindi drama Gustakhiyaan, produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The movie which follows the relationship between Pritam and the renowned Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi. Chopra's production house Purple Pebble Pictures also has in the works 10 Indian films in various regional languages, as well as as a Hindi film, which will be directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.