Priyanka Chopra swats a mosquito away as she ponders a question on the nature of her ambition. Suddenly, she lowers her voice, leans in, and says, “It’s because I’m so sweet the mosquitoes can’t stay away”, and gives out a husky laugh. There is a note of irony in her voice as she makes this joke, but it only ends up accentuating her hyper awareness of being a star. Only a star, sure of unconditional adoration, can get away with being trite and cutesy like that. We are sitting on a low stone wall in a garden, a relatively quiet place away from the din of the THiNK festival in Goa. She is here for a session with Mary Kom on the making of the biopic on the boxer’s life; Chopra plays Kom in what could be the meatiest role of her career. She has, over the past few months, travelled to Imphal to spend time with Kom and her family, to get under the skin of a character that is completely outside of her lived experience. Depending on which way you look at it, playing a boxer from Manipur could either be her dream job or one that sets her up for failure. But Priyanka, as always, appears unfazed, whether negotiating the uneven pebbly path to the garden in six-inch heels, or playing a North Eastern boxer, despite being hounded on social media for it.
Even without the whirr of cameras, she remains in character. Throughout our interaction, she sticks to what AO Scott of The New York Times defines as the smooth bonhomie that is the default setting for off-duty movie stars in the company of writers. She is aware of how she always looks well-put-together. “It’s my Miss World training,” she confesses. “No matter what, I can’t let go of my poise or composure. I’m like a robot that way. People think I’m a tough chick and find it easier to throw stones at me because I always appear super confident, even when I’m faking it,” she says with a practised ease. Most of her lines have a scripted quality. Yet, there is an element of truth in this. In her public persona, Priyanka is seamless, and unlike other actresses, has never shown a hint of vulnerability and that makes it easier to not be very sympathetic towards her.
There have been some hits and misses over the past few months. Her stab at an alternate career as an international pop star had mixed results; her singing and songwriting not offensive, but far from original. Her last significant role was in Barfi! (2012), where her turn as an autistic heiress was noted by critics. This year, she was in the catastrophic remake of Zanjeer, playing a blink-and-you-miss role as a chattering bimbette, followed by the recent Krrish 3, which has been a huge box office success, but with hardly any contribution from her. According to Priyanka, this reflects the nature of the work that women are offered in the industry. “If I do a male actor-driven movie like Krrish, people ask me, why do you do films that restrict you to so little when you could be doing more? But the work we do is the work we get. If I appear in less successful movies, the same people turn around and ask me, why aren’t you a part of the Rs 100 crore club?” Next year, Priyanka will appear in the Yash Raj production Gunday, set against the backdrop of the coal mafia in Kolkata. She has been signed by the Hollywood talent agency CAA and her recent campaign for Guess, shot by Bryan Adams, has gained much traction.
The last year has been harsh for Priyanka personally, with a rumoured link-up with Shah Rukh Khan, a few public spats and resultant isolation in the industry. She lost her father five months ago. “He was my best buddy in the world. Today is a bad day for me. It’s been exactly five months, but I try to not think about it, by burying myself in work. I don’t think I’ve dealt with his passing away and I may have a meltdown one of these days.” Her eyes glean with moisture and she looks away. On her wrist, she wears the sign of her devotion to her father, a tattoo that says, “Daddy’s lil girl”.
In some ways, the little girl has never grown up, she claims. Time stopped for her when she was 18 years old and propelled into public life after winning Miss India, followed by the Miss World contest in 2000. This was a time when beauty queens were worshipped in India and were launched into glittering movie careers. The millennium year’s cache threw up two other beauty queens, Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza, who made their film debut along with her, though neither could achieve her level of stardom. “Being good at what you do, making the right choices, sometimes if not always, or having the ‘x factor’ or zing where people want to watch you, where people like you,” she thinks aloud as she tries to analyse why she has been successful.
Her memories of life before the limelight are hazy. “I haven’t grown up since I was 18. I don’t remember much of my life before that. Here I was in Army School and suddenly I was thrown into this world. It’s why I get along best with children. I appear to be in control at all times, but I am a mess as a person. My mother is always amused by the fact that I appear so much in control in public and then I get home, get into my pyjamas and bawl in front of her.”
In the life of a Hindi film heroine, 10 years is a long time. Priyanka, at 31, has retained top billing among actresses for almost a decade. Some of her immediate contemporaries like Preity Zinta and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have fallen off the map, and there is an onslaught of new faces every year. What, then, does it take to sustain longevity as an actress? She weighs her answer, then vents against the gender disparity in the film industry, “We never have this same discussion for actors who have been around for decades and that’s tragic. I feel terrible that we call ourselves modern India but a Hindi film heroine is considered relevant depending on her age and not her calibre. This disparity is something I have accepted as part of our patriarchal society, and yet I feel we need things to change. We’re a young country and I think things will start changing for women.”
A narrative that Priyanka likes to lean on from time to time is that she has made it on her own steam. “Being a girl in the movie business without any help is tough.” If there is one thing that ties her story with that of Mary Kom’s, it is their unbridled ambition. Her ambition, she says, stems from her educated, middle class upbringing, with her parents, both doctors, always pushing her to try a little harder. Priyanka transcended her girl-next-door looks to fit into the image of a glamorous Hindi film actress, who, she says, must be three things, “An actress is someone who can act, someone who’s desirable, and someone you like on your poster.”
As she is called away for her session, she tells me this is one of the most detailed interviews she has given. Priyanka is not an easy interview subject. She is the quintessential movie star; she appears to confide while she practises to conceal. As she walks smoothly over the tricky pebbles in her high heels, she spreads her arms wide, turns to her retinue and says, “Don’t worry, I won’t fall. There is a trick to this, walk on your toes so you can glide. Do you see how useful the Miss World training is?”