There have been non-White actors in Hollywood doing forgettable roles. No one has but debuted with a bang like Priyanka Chopra did after Omar Sharif and Jackie Chan
Talk about a cut to relevance in the present day. Priyanka Chopra has gone international, breaking through both the ethnic and gender barrier in doing so.
There has been, of course, talk of a possible black Bond, and even a female one of late, though the Ian Fleming purists can’t yet see how, any more than the Broccoli clan of James Bond movie producers can.
But the longest playing big budget franchise in Hollywood movie history stands changed quite a bit too. M has been played by a woman, the formidable Dame Judy Dench, for some time now. There has been a Malaysian Bond girl, of Chinese extraction, Michelle Yeoh, way back in 1997, no doubt with an eye to the massive south-east Asian market and diaspora. There was also the rumoured consideration of our own Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as an Indian Bond girl.
What happened here is that another Bollywood movie star Priyanka Chopra got herself a very good stateside agent. And ergo, she got results that were a good cut above the other two-way crossover artists from Bollywood.
She first test-marketed the Western waters with her singing, recording and releasing an English pop song in collaboration with American rapper Will.i.am (William James Adams Jr) that became a significant hit. And then, based on its success, Priyanka went on to record other tracks.
Then she bagged a starring role in a brand new FBI drama TV series Quantico, recently debuted, and released in a 100 countries simultaneously. While Quantico, Virginia, is the largest marines training base in the US in real life, the TV serial is probably a tip o’ the hat at the growing multi-ethnicity of the US, and indeed much of present day Europe too, in terms of its multi-racial casting.
Priyanka Chopra’s work in the series as FBI agent Alex Parrish, half-Indian half-Caucasian, has been broadcast in two episodes so far. It has been well received, beating another near simultaneous launch called Blood and Oil convincingly.
Chopra herself has been critically praised, and her ABC-produced show has received good ratings as per Variety (US), with 6.9 million viewers per episode and rising. ABC, encouraged by the reception to its fast-paced and thriller plotted offering, is planning to put in repeat broadcasts to further enhance its viewership. And this is not counting Quantico’s reception in the 99 other countries its beaming to, including India.
Priyanka’s chosen launch vehicle in the field of Western entertainment is markedly different from that of all her peers in Bollywood. This, coming after a sustained stint as an A lister in Hindi cinema, where she is still in great demand!
In fact, Chopra has several films that highlight not just her looks, dancing ability and star appeal — all musts in Hindi cinema for top billing — but also her acting prowess, including in ones called Barfi and Kaminey.
While the first episode of Quantico itself received favourable reviews, calling Priyanka Chopra the show’s ‘best asset’, it remains to be seen how it does down the turnpike. As Chopra herself said in a recent interview — in India, her movies release on Friday and by Monday the box office collections tell you how you’ve done. But in a TV series, the expectations are renewed every week.
The remarkable thing about Priyanka’s role as Alex Parrish, and that of her multi-racial/gender colleagues all training to be and working as FBI agents and analysts, is probably best stated by the current real-life FBI director.
He says he is actually struggling to diversify the overwhelmingly ‘White and male’ line up of ‘bureau’ agents to reflect the new American reality.
Some other actors, from the UK’s Indian diaspora, have been working steadily on both sides of the Atlantic and sometimes in India too. Notably, there is Art Malik, famous from the award winning Jewel in the Crown (1984); the greats Saeed Jaffrey and the late Zohra Sehgal, and the versatile Roshan Seth, who also played Jawaharlal Nehru in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Om Puri too more or less works only in English language films, mainly in the UK, after featuring in City of Joy (1992). A consummate actor like Naseeruddin Shah did bit roles in Hollywood films, too — The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), for one.
From a more recent vintage, there is Parminder Nagra, first introduced to the world in Bend it Like Beckham, and Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire along with home based star Anil Kapoor, who have all taken the plunge into American TV serial-dom, all well before Chopra.
Nagra essayed a role in Blacklist in the first season and a long standing one in ER. Dev Patel is quite a prominent character in The Newsroom where he plays an Indian IT nerd. And Anil Kapoor worked in 21. Freida Pinto, moved to the West permanently now, after being discovered in Slumdog Millionaire, has also worked in a number of middling feature films since.
But none of these many actors have begun with the kind of pivotal starring role in a major and mass market production that Priyanka Chopra has bagged. Kapoor is, in fact, making the Hindi version of 21 for Indian TV, and making sure he stars big in it now.
Priyanka’s chosen route outwards is also very differently thought out from the Cannes red carpet walking Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Aishwarya, sometimes called “the most beautiful woman in the world”, acted in and adorned quite a few Hollywood movies alongside famous Hollywood actors, but alas without herself making much of an impact.
Even her father-in-law, the 72-year-old durable doyen of Indian popular cinema and living legend Amitabh Bachchan, only put in a fleeting appearance in Baz Luhrman’s flourescent version of the poignant Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby.
If Priyanka Chopra’s first substantive acting effort overseas clicks episode after episode and segues into several seasons, she will become an international star too.
Times have definitely changed. There is a black man in the White House, and Priyanka Chopra is accepted playing a patriotic American without preamble or explanation.
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