Priyanka Chopra
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‘It’s a great time to be a woman’: Priyanka Chopra

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‘It’s a great time to be a woman’: Priyanka Chopra

In the noise of sound bytes, one thing that is constant is the composure of Priyanka Chopra. Her answers make even silly questions sound good. From her desire to run on roller skates in the corridors of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to buying a plane, she makes sure every journalist returns with a quote. She knows the significance of the moment. So no designer outfit, Priyanka turned up in a lime green handloom sari in support of textile industry, the proceeds of which will go to an NGO.

When Padma Shri Priyanka Chopra, finally, sits down to have a chat, one could not help but ask if it is like a mid-life time achievement award? “No, I have been told I am the youngest actress to get a Padma Shri. It is an answer to those misogynistic people who used to say that an actress remains fresh only in her 20s. It is an answer to those who treat women like a commodity and ignore their talent,” she responds with a twinkle in her eyes. “By the way can you put this question to middle-aged men in the industry,” the 33-year-old comes with a light-hearted rejoinder.

After the demise of her father, many felt that Priyanka turned her grief into her strength and went about her job with almost missionary zeal. She has been consistently punching above her weight. More than the destiny’s child that she loves to call herself; Priyanka is a gutsy survivor, who never lost touch with her roots. “Grief is grief and whatever grief you have it follows you like a companion. Whatever you may do, wherever you try to escape, when you turn you find it staring at you. I have a strange relationship with grief,” Priyanka stops mid-way.

She doesn’t betray it in public life. “You need to compartmentalise between action and cut but I am not able to do it. I carry my emotions and feelings to work but then I also know that I have a responsibility towards my job. Out of billions less then one per cent become actors and I don’t take this fact for granted. I can’t say aaj mera mood nahin hai. I always remember that there are 300 girls waiting to be in my position.”

The perception about Miss Worlds is that they are almost robotically politically correct but Padma Shri comes with a different challenge. Now mikes will be thrust to know what Priyanka thinks on socio-political issues. “I have always been honest. I like to call a spade a spade. Having said that I will remain an actor, I won’t become a political person overnight.”

Her compatriot Kangana Ranaut has opened up on issues which were considered a no-go area for a Hindi film actress. She has spoken about growing intolerance. Is it the small town attitude or are they pushing the envelope a bit too far? “I don’t think so. To me it is the right thing to be. The more people become like that this world will become a better place. Jo hai usko bolo na.”

Priyanka underlines that she was raised like that. “I have been very opinionated. Dialogue was an important part of my upbringing. My parents used to talk to me like an equal and never discriminated between me and my brother. So when my parents never treated me differently, why should I take it from the outside world?”

It takes us to what she calls a “big debate” on changing gender roles and the definition of feminism in these times. “It will take a long time to achieve gender parity but I can say this is a great time to be a woman. Yes, man can’t handle it sometimes. I have dealt with it. I have seen it. Sometimes, when it is important for man to reduce a woman’s achievement to something else, just because they can, they do it. They know that this is not the right thing but still they do because they know they can.” Again, she emphasises, a lot has to do with upbringing. “They want to treat women the way they want because their parents have instilled in them the belief that they are raj kumar and can get away with anything. This is not just an Indian problem, it is a global problem.” She goes on to add that people fear feminism because they don’t understand what it is. “Feminism is not about hating men or outdoing men, it is about the freedom of making our own decisions, a power that men have enjoyed for centuries. Nothing else!”

Does this attitude make the boys around her uncomfortable? Does she carry this Priyanka home? “I have created a difference between Priyanka, the public person and Priyanka, in private life. In my private life I am a little emotional and vulnerable but for a girl in public eye you have to be very strong to survive.”

Some time back she told me that her experience in the U.S. during her school days was not that good. At a time when Quantico has just finished its first successful season, it is time to remind her of her journey. “There was one girl who used to pass racist comments and bully me. That was the reason I came back to India but ultimately it proved good for me. Dekho kahan pahunch gaye,” she exclaims. She is quick to add that in many ways we are also very racist. “It is about education. At that time I was 15, now I know who I am and where I come from. Now when somebody stereotypes Bollywood as only choreographed song and dance, I educate him about the 100 years of the most prolific industry in the world. And now, through me, they are discovering Hindi films.”

And are perhaps realising that every Indian doesn’t need to be a cab driver or a nerd in Silicon Valley…

“I can play a FBI agent. Even when I am doing Baywatch I am not playing just another pretty girl. I am the main villain of the film. I want to prove the world that we are capable of playing any character and we are good at our jobs. Today, I can stand in front of the camera in any country of the world without hesitation.”

Again as it begins to sound like chest thumping, she clarifies that it doesn’t mean that she is breaking some geographical barriers. “It is just another entertainment industry. Art knows no barriers. Since childhood both Hindi and English are my first languages.”

For years we have been told that it is not possible for mainstream actors to have one foot in Bollywood and another in Hollywood. Priyanka has proved them wrong. She had two successful releases in India while she was garnering eyeballs across the US. And now Deepika is trying the same game.

“I am a great gambler. I have not taken the conventional route. I did Kaminey even when I had only eight scenes in film. When I was told not to do Barfi because it will mar my glamorous image, I said, ‘main itni glamorous hoon that nobody can reduce my glamour.’ Similarly, I was criticised for agreeing to play Kashibai in a film about Mastani. I will continue to do so.”

More than her character, Priyanka picks stories and it happened in the case of Quantico as well. “More than Alex I liked the story. I like watching commercial American television and that’s what Quantico is. It is popcorn entertainment. That’s the kind of TV that I like to watch. I had no pretensions of some serious stuff on terrorism.” In the process, she nips the possibility of any criticism for her choice of the series. “And Alex is very different from me. She is bold and brazen, she breaks men’s hearts. I don’t think she is always right but that makes her a strong character and fun to play.”

Getting a Padma award is also the time to take stock of the brands one endorses. Recently a Parliamentary Committee has proposed changes in the Consumer Protection Bill, which if accepted, will lead to imprisonment and fine for celebrity endorsers promoting sale of products with misleading claims. “It is still a debate. I feel actors cannot be held responsible. They are just the faces. It is the brands which should be held responsible as an actor can’t check each and everything in the labs.” Then there is an issue of surrogate advertising. Priyanka endorses packaged cardamom seeds of a brand known for its paan masala. Is there a moral angle here? “It would have been if they were making me endorse a product which doesn’t exist or something far-fetched like a CD. I am endorsing a real product which is tasty.”