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Saturday, October 10, 2015

American Pie

Priyanka Chopra sets out to conquer new shores with her lead role in Quantico

I caught the first episode of Quantico in the strangest of places: Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to the fabulous Angkor Wat and other equally amazing temples). And such are the quirks of television scheduling that I saw it several days before it was aired in India. (And no, unlike some critics in India, I didn't obsess needlessly about Priyanka Chopra's accent: she sounds exactly how an Indian who has spent time in America does. So people, stop with the hyperventilating already!)

So, what did I think of it? Well, it's a good show, sharp, pacy, and full of surprises, which borrows heavily from such series as How To Get Away With Murder, Homeland, and even Grey's Anatomy, but still manages to write its own grammar. I won't say any more about the plot in case you kill me for the spoilers, but by now surely everyone knows that the story revolves around a half-Indian half-American FBI agent called Alex Parrish, who is framed for the most dreaded terrorist attack on US soil after 9/11 (and she can only clear her name by finding the real culprit who is one of her classmates from the FBI training academy at Quantico.)

Alex Parrish is, of course, played by Priyanka Chopra. Many have wondered why Chopra decided to risk her superstardom in India by choosing to play the lead in an American TV series. (And shock all of India in the bargain by, spoiler alert, having sex in the front seat of a car with a virtual stranger within the first few minutes of the show.) After all, she is one of the biggest film stars India has ever produced. Why on earth would she want to go and start afresh in American network television, as a relative unknown? Why jeopardize a sure thing by betting on the unknown?

Well, according to Chopra herself, she hasn't given up on Bollywood. She still flies back to Mumbai over the weekends to shoot for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's next magnum opus, Bajirao Mastani (and looks suitably sensational in the trailer, by the way) that releases later this year. And she will continue to work in Hindi movies, alongside her American venture, living 'on a plane' because she is, as she told Jimmy Kimmel, a complete 'nomad'.

That might well be the case. But equally, there is no denying that given how Bollywood works, at 33, Chopra has only a few leading-lady years left in her. After that, it will be mostly quirky, small-budget movies (what the Bollywood wallahs call multiplex cinema) that will come her way.

So Chopra, who has always had her head sown on right, must have done a quick cost-benefit analysis. What is better: making smaller and fewer movies in India; or trying to break into American network television, which is in a red-hot creative phase? And who knows, maybe getting a free pass to Hollywood, once she achieves the same kind of stardom in America.

So when a big network like ABC came knocking with a slew of scripts, 'no' wasn't really an option. And of all the ones she read, Quantico was the one that appealed to her. So much so that she even did the unthinkable for a movie star: she agreed to audition for the role (no doubt she had them at 'hello').

But even if we leave rational decision-making aside, there must have been something about making a new beginning in an entirely new industry that appealed to Chopra at a more visceral, emotional level. She's never been afraid of taking chances (remember the single she cut with Pitbull?), and this one must have seemed irresistible at this stage of her life.

But the more important question surely is: why is an American network like ABC making a show that revolves around an Indian (okay half-Indian) character?

Well, clearly the Indian-American demographic is now important enough to merit leading ladies and men who look like them. And happily, the casting has now gone beyond stereotypes like science nerds (Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory) or maths geniuses (Amita Ramanujan in Numbers) or even over-achieving doctors (Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project). With Priyanka Chopra playing a Carrie Mathison-type character (minus the bipolar stuff, thankfully) in Quantico, the FBI agent who pulls no punches, the Indian-American TV star has finally moved beyond the tires old tropes of typecasting.

But don't pop the champagne just yet. We still have miles to go, as indeed does Priyanka. She discovered this the hard way when her own network ran a promotional video for Quantico, which featured shots of Priyanka Chopra winning the Miss World contest. There was only one problem: the Miss World featured in the clips was Yukta Mookhey! Clearly, to some American eyes, one Indian beauty queen looks much like the other.

Maybe Quantico and Priyanka Chopra can change all that. And judging by the first episode, she's well on her way to do just that.

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