Years ago, I recall interviewing an animated Priyanka Chopra while she gorged on eye-widening portions of Thai curry and rice. While bantering with her younger brother, she casually singled out a restaurant as her favourite for Thai food. I had marvelled at her svelte figure despite a visibly healthy appetite; Priyanka spoke about food with almost as much enthusiasm as she did about her then sizzling-hot Bollywood career.
Years later, Priyanka Chopra may be now playing a mother to a teenager who is diagnosed with a fatal illness in the ready-for-release The Sky Is Pink, but she has still retained that lissome figure and her zeal for making memorable cinema. If anything, her charm, poise and confidence have grown after her Hollywood sojourn and her marriage to an international celebrity, Nick Jonas.
What I find remarkable about Priyanka’s journey is her keenly apparent appetite for life and her intrepid willingness to make unconventional choices.
Born in Jamshedpur, Priyanka came from an army family and would move every two years; she has lived in Ambala and Bareilly as well. But she asserts, “Honestly, I don’t think of myself as a small-town girl. Between the ages of 13 and 17, I stayed in America with my beloved Kiran maasi. She was like a strict matron. Yet, America changed my outlook to life. I learned to think for myself, and take responsibility for whatever I did.”
Within a year of returning from the US of A, she won the Miss India title and also the Miss World tiara. Priyanka learnt the art of wearing heels during the Miss India pageant, and screamed the parlour down when she did her eyebrows for the first time, once again for the pageant. Always a keen learner; she got rid of her accent with the help of Sabira Merchant and within a couple of months mastered the Queen’s English.
Though she is a firm believer of destiny, she has played her part in shaping it. From the early stages of her career she has had the gumption to take on daringly different roles. Consider her breakthrough role, Aitraaz (2004) which came within a year after her debut in The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy. Aitraaz saw Priyanka play the trophy wife of the much-older Amrish Puri who stalks her ex lover, Akshay Kumar, and makes life hell for him. Kareena Kapoor played Akshay’s wife, the conventional heroine with unwavering faith in her husband, but it was Priyanka as the black-as-night seductress who cornered the limelight and the awards.
Soon after hits like Don, Krrish and Mujhse Shaadi Karoge had established her as a forerunner, Priyanka took on Fashion (2008) where she is shown succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, alcohol and drugs before effecting a turnaround. The role won her the National Award.
In Vishal Bharadwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) she played an Anglo-Indian woman Susanna who marries seven times but murders her husbands with little remorse. Based on a Ruskin Bond short story, the film failed to create a ripple at the box office but brought a fresh wave of praise for Priyanka; and she won The Best Actress Critics Award for this multi-faceted role.
In 2012, Ranbir Kapoor landed an author-backed role in Barfi and cornered the lion’s share of the credit but Priyanka Chopra too left an indelible impression as his autistic childhood friend whom he eventually marries. In a role sans glamour, Priyanka calibrated a fine balance: she didn’t reduce her character to a caricature nor did she go overboard – she infused the role with just the required degree of realism and pathos.
Three years later, Priyanka bravely accepted the role of Bajirao’s wife Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani despite Deepika Padukone playing Mastani, a name that featured prominently in the title. Though she may have lost Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) to Mastani on screen, Priyanka carried her role with dignity and confidence and won the audiences’ sympathy.
At this juncture, she took a bold step, paused her Bollywood career and went West. Piggy Chops (that’s her nickname to friends) wowed critics with her acting chops when she played FBI agent Alex Parrish in the American TV serial Quantico with panache; even her accent couldn’t be faulted. I recall feeling a surge of pride when I emerged from my Manhattan hotel in late 2015 and saw a taxi whiz past with a poster of Priyanka from Quantico on its roof. Her subsequent roles in Hollywood films haven't impressed me but I am hopeful about Priyanka’s forthcoming collaboration with talented, Indian origin comedy star Mindy Kaling.
Priyanka had once told me, “If I don’t find the right man in my life, I am going to adopt 12 children.” But she fell in love with the good-looking and popular singer Nick Jonas, nicked him from his swooning female fans and married him. He is 10 years younger to her and if that sounds unlike any age-old fairy tale, Priyanka couldn’t care less. She has lived by the adage she had shared with me: “I have decided that I will just be myself.” Good decision. It has been her most attractive feature.