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NON-FICTION: BEING PRIYANKA CHOPRA

January 06, 2019

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Her first brush with fame was in 2000, when she was crowned Miss World | AFP
Her first brush with fame was in 2000, when she was crowned Miss World | AFP

It is quite rare to see two books on the same person by different writers coming out a few days apart. Even odder is that, after reading both, it seems as though they are talking about two different people. Unofficial biographies Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse by Bharathi S. Pradhan and Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star by Aseem Chhabra are poles apart, presenting differing versions of the actress based on the authors’ interviews with people she has interacted with.

The Dark Horse talks about the actress who was crowned Miss World when she was 17 years old and who became India’s biggest export to Hollywood, featuring as the main lead in a television series (Quantico) and as the main antagonist in a high-budget Hollywood flick (Baywatch). For reasons unknown, film critic, columnist and author Pradhan decided to write the book without dividing it into chapters, making it look like something that can be read in one go, which no one can. It is quite bizarre that she takes such a long route to a story that could have been told much better after being broken into chapters.

The initial pages are not very engaging. Not many fans would be interested to read about Chopra’s relatives or the legal case against her father. Certainly, the issues in her first romantic relationship would hook readers, but it would have been so much better had everything been described chronologically and categorically. However, Pradhan does share some interesting details regarding Chopra’s career: she could have made her Bollywood debut with Abbas-Mustan’s Humraaz, but the role went to Ameesha Patel; she was the dark horse in Andaaz, in which she shared the screen with the more popular Lara Dutta; she refused Aitraaz at first and had to be convinced to accept the negative role that could have silenced her career. Instead, it sent her on the way to stardom. For some reason, though, Pradhan feels Chopra’s alleged romance with Akshay Kumar, her nose surgery and decision to sack her manager seem to be important events as the author gives them more weight than Chopra’s initial struggle, her relationships with co-stars, and her life in the United States, first as a student and later as a global star.

Two books on the global superstar have recently been released, but only one of them gives you a real insight into the woman and actress

The Dark Horse isn’t a smooth read as many events seem to be repeated, again mainly because there is no division of chapters. Several pages are spent — rather, wasted — on only two films: Fashion and Dostana. Granted, being as successful as they were, they might deserve the detailed discussion, but it’s hardly interesting to know of the text message that fashion designer Manish Malhotra sent her accidentally, or Chopra’s lack of sartorial sense before Dostana, or how the director handled her refusal to wear a revealing swimsuit in the film, coming up with a sequence that made the Desi Girl eternal.

Pradhan also gives more pages to Chopra’s boxing flick Mary Kom than she does to her international projects, and this will cause readers to wonder why. Was it because she trained so hard for the biopic, or because she began shooting for it mere days after her father’s demise? But with The Dark Horse being a biography, shouldn’t all Chopra’s films have been given balanced consideration? At the end of the day, though, Pradhan’s book seems like a four-hour film without any breaks, where the director narrates a story that could have been equally adequately told with two intervals.

In stark contrast, journalist Chhabra’s Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star comes across like a proper book. The author talks about changes in the actress’s life that came with the passage of time, beginning with her school, La Martiniere College in Lucknow, to institutes in America where she topped aptitude tests and was offered a scholarship before bullies forced her to quit after a few years, to her breaking into Hollywood as a bona fide star. Making his version so much better than The Dark Horse is the element of authenticity — Chhabra interviews Chopra’s former teachers, directors, co-stars and, in some places, even the actress herself, who responds to his questions via email.

In 2017 she was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award | Photo from The Dark Horse
In 2017 she was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award | Photo from The Dark Horse

Yes, there is dirt in this book, too; details about the men in Chopra’s life, the post-Aitraaz period where most roles offered to her relied heavily on sex appeal and so on, but this constitutes just a single chapter. Other things are given due consideration; the chapter The Making of an Actress, for example, looks at Chopra’s approach to acting, the decisions that went into accepting certain roles, and films that were offered to her after other stars turned them down. Most of the directors Chhabra speaks to have only positive things to say, particularly Vishal Bhardwaj who tells of how he flew to Miami to convince her to be part of Kaminey, a role she had initially rejected. Incidentally, the film turned out to be a huge success. It is in Chhabra’s version that readers are able to understand how an army brat from Jamshedpur, Bihar, went from dreaming of a career in aeronautical engineering to becoming the dream of millions of people around the world.

Where the two books share similarities are, for one, cover photos of Chopra from an earlier time where she does not look much like the hot commodity she shaped up to be and, for another, her belief in the 3Ds: Determination, Dedication and Discipline. Both books mention her appetite for junk and fast food, especially pizza; her literal closeness with actor Shahid Kapoor — they were neighbours when Kaminey was being shot; her disappointment at not winning an award for Barfi! and the reason why she did an item number for Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela despite having been passed over for the lead role of Leela.

But Chhabra paints a better picture of the person behind the persona. Chopra comes across as genuine and likeable when the author points out her gracious acceptance of losing an award to Vidya Balan or her openness about her friendship with Shahid Kapoor who was present at her house when it was raided by income tax officials. He also shows her as not averse to taking risks, such as taking on the part of the older wife Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani, knowing well that it could hurt her chances of getting lead roles in the US. On the professional front, there is a lengthy chapter on the production company she set up with her mother, but readers uninterested in regional cinema can easily skip it.

However, readers are well advised not to skip any other chapter in The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star for it is full of trivia that would delight Chopra’s fans; for example, Chhabra narrates how actor Shah Rukh Khan was the one to question her during her first beauty pageant and how Khan reacted when people linked the two romantically after their lead performances in Don. He mentions her campaign for Guess jeans — she was the first Indian woman to land a modelling gig for

the global brand — which was photographed by singer Bryan Adams and how the two ended the photoshoot by singing songs into the wee hours of the morning. There is the story of how the lead role in Quantico was originally supposed to be a white male, but Chopra’s casting meant the part was rewritten for her and when American audiences discovered her, they called her a younger version of Italian bombshell Sophia Loren. Then there is her wish to be part of the iconic Bond film legacy, not as a Bond Girl, but as a Bond villain.

And that, in two halves of a nutshell, is Priyanka Chopra: an actress who has made a name for herself in two of the biggest film industries in the world and who still has a lot to offer.

The reviewer writes on film, television and popular culture

Priyanka Chopra:
The Dark Horse
By Bharathi S. Pradhan
Om, India
ISBN: 978-9352766253
288pp.

Priyanka Chopra: The
Incredible Story of a
Global Bollywood Star
By Aseem Chhabra
Rupa, India
ISBN: 978-9353041168
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 6th, 2019

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