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Is Priyanka Chopra the bee’s knees?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-06-2017 Rajyasree Sen

Is Priyanka Chopra the great brown hope Bollywood’s actresses have been waiting for? It may well be the case going by not just what Chopra has managed in the past two years, but also by her general demeanour and way of being. Now to be clear, I don’t think Chopra is one of our better actors. Her repertoire of films and roles in Hindi cinema leaves much wanting. But what she has managed to do is seriously put Bollywood and India on the global entertainment map. From headlining ABC’s Quantico – now in its third season – which has her as the protagonist, to starring in Baywatch to announcing awards with Tom Hiddlestone at the Emmys – Chopra is everywhere in the world of American entertainment. 

And frankly, going by the kind of shows and scripts one is seeing coming out of American television, it may well be wiser to be part of a long-running series, than a one-off film. And who wouldn’t want to share space with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Viola Davis, Tom Hiddlestone, John Lithgow and Stephen Fry – just to name a few. 

But what I am more impressed by than the fact that Chopra has managed to cross over and make a massive mark for herself in Hollywood and American television, is that she has normalized being an actress. Bollywood’s female actors off-screen do not have affairs or romances or god forbid the thought, sex. They do not wear clothes which show any cleavage or skin. They rarely if ever – other than the new generation of actors – kiss on screen. They definitely do not abuse, smoke or drink or live alone! Their hair and make-up are never out of place and they are never ever boisterous. And if they have relationships (which they will not speak of), they definitely do not mention their exes. It’s like the past never happened. 

But suddenly Chopra is the new normal. 

For the past few weeks, she’s been on pretty much every American talk show worth its salt, promoting her new film Baywatch. Now, Chopra on talk shows, isn’t like Aishwarya Rai. She doesn’t giggle and wear a saree and give a primer on India, alone, while clasping her husband’s hand – much like Rai did with Abhishek Bachchan on Oprah—underlining that while she may be working and a superstar, what defines an Indian woman is her husband. 

While she does speak about India and our customs, Chopra is the poster child for assimilation. She is a one-woman team for the Indian immigrant worker in the US. She speaks in English, cracks a joke or two, says something risqué, has a Tequila shot, talks about her work and how she’s a single, independent, financially secure woman and speaks of all her professional achievements including the Indian films she’s producing back home. 

But for women, she balances out the gender scale behaviour-wise. While Chopra may be the only fully-dressed cast member in Baywatch, she doesn’t shy away from roles which require her to have sex on camera (that too, a one-night stand) like in Quantico. And she definitely doesn’t pretend that she’s the Virgin Mary. In fact, on Dirty Laundry, Chopra who was a guest on the show, not only outed Shah Rukh Khan by pulling out a jacket which is suspected to be his, and claimed that it had been left behind by an ex-boyfriend, but also has referred to her relationships on various talk shows, from Jimmy Kimmel to Chelsea. 

Chopra is what all us urban-educated Indian women should hope to be – financially and sexually independent and able to strike out on our own professionally, without needing the crutch of a man. It’s a bonus if there is one, but not a necessity. And not dependent on pulling out the gender card and playing victim every time something goes wrong in your career or personal life. 

Yet, yesterday, when Chopra tweeted a picture of herself meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin (because of course, our PM should be meeting film stars while on political visits to foreign countries), Chopra was reminded that you can take a woman out of sexist India, but you can’t keep sexist India away from the woman. Chopra was pictured sitting demurely in a knee-length dress next to Modi. Only to have the official twitter handle of All India Radio News tweet “#PriyankaChopra meets PM #NarendraModi in #Berlin, People find her dress not decent enough, posture disrespectful while meeting PM”:

The tweet has since then been deleted. The point is that while of course some regressive man or maybe woman was managing the Twitter feed of AIR, it is the state radio channel. No one has apologized for the tweet since. Chopra to her credit, without referring to this tweet, soon enough tweeted an image of her mother and her wearing skirts and commented on how they share great legs. 

It’s a sad day when this is the mentality at play in India. Where it’s kosher to pass judgment on Chopra’s attire and to demand deference for the PM. I am still not clear how she was to show respect to him. It’s even more laughable when you think that Chopra – an immigrant on a work visa in the US – was confident enough of the US, to sit on Chelsea Handler’s talk show and comment on Donald Trump and what a farce he and his presidency is. Imagine her voicing her political views in India? She would be lynched. 

And therein lies the pity. You can break all the sexist and professional ceilings you want abroad. But come to India, and especially if you’re a woman, you will be pulled down and reminded of your far-from enviable position in the scheme of things. I remember pictures of Modi meeting Akshay, Sachin, Aaamir – all dressed extremely casually – and not having AIR or anyone else call them out for this. But then, they aren’t women. 

Thankfully though, maybe it is the privilege and confidence of distance from India, that Chopra doesn’t seem to give a hoot for what people say. And while her acting chops don’t seem to be much to aspire to, her feminist chops are definitely worth emulating. Who would have thought while watching Aitraaz and Gunday, that it would be Piggy Chops for the win. 

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