Current Bollywood heartthrob Priyanka Chopra looked ravishing as she walked up the red carpet the other night to present the Oscar for best editing.

The "Quantico" actress presents the award to Margaret Sixel for the Best Film Editing category for the film Mad Max: Fury Road
Priyanka Chopra (L) presents the Oscar to Margaret Sixel for the Best Film Editing category for the film Mad Max: Fury Road

A fairy white gown with daring sheers and a sexy sweetheart neckline that plunged into an eternity told the tale of the woman whose gutsiness has been the talk of tinsel town, and not just since the big night at Los Angeles. Priyanka’s dress by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad was described as “naked”.

But the evening gown was like a mere tip of the proverbial iceberg — which hid a free-spirited woman out to walk into the world seeking out films that hardly any other Indian actress would have even looked at. And, yes, Priyanka chose characters that dis-robed her of her glamorous allure.

Take, for instance, her part in Anurag Basu’s Barfi — where she essays an autistic girl, quite ugly. And she was excellent sinking into that character.  This is a role that most Indian actresses would not have touched, gone anywhere near it.

Some have termed this approach “arrogant”, but in a recent interview she quipped that she was not that at all. “I am self-assured”, she explained, a kind of rare-to-come-by confidence in Bollywood that has pushed Priyanka to even get into the boxing ring, in a yet-another de-glamorized characterisation of an Indian boxing champion, Mary Kom.

But her boldest moves have been her Hollywood ventures. One knows that the American cinema industry did beckon Indian actresses like Deepika Padukone. But they hesitated, not sure that they could make a mark across the Pacific. A failure there could have meant loss of face at home, and, who knows, even fewer opportunities to work in Bollywood, largely obsessed as it is with Hollywood. Any success or failure there leaves an impression on Indian producers and directors.

However, Priyanka stepped into such uncertain Hollywood terrain by saying yes to Quantico — an extremely popular American television serial produced by the ABC network and shot in Canada that talks about a training session for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cadets which is infiltrated by terrorists. With the overwhelming success of Quantico, Priyanka successfully straddled both Indian and American movie industries.

With Priyanka’s name and face becoming familiar to American audiences, she was not far away from another milestone. She has just started shooting Baywatch in which she is the bad girl.

A Daily Mail report had this to say: “Indian actress Priyanka Chopra put her best stylishly heeled foot forward as she shot scenes for the Baywatch film on Tuesday.The 33-year-old beauty plays the villain in the big screen reboot of the iconic TV show. She was seen wearing a white low cut blouse and white skirt slit to the thigh as she filmed on location in Boca Raton, Florida. Her crisp look was accentuated with a pair of stunning stilettos and a gold watch.Her long dark hair was left loose and colour was added with some dark red lipstick”.

Now Baywatch was some sort of cult television show that spoke about courage and valor intertwined with love and romance and jealousy — providing, at the same time, titillating images of handsome hunks and beautiful babes.

Obviously, a lot of her fans and well-wishers are now having the last laugh at all those who were skeptical about her success in Hollywood. Which has come fully satisfying the conditions she laid down before accepting any American offer.

She told a recent interviewer: “I wanted to be cast as an actor on merit as being the best person for the job. I didn’t want to be a stereotype of what an Indian girl should be. I wanted to be what I personify in my Indian films: independent, sexy, good at my job and really smart.”

Priyanka may have tasted almost heady success with Quantico — and Baywatch may offer a still wider window to Hollywood’s hall of fame — but she knows that it will take her many more years and many more movies before Americans would accept her as one of their own. This will come only after a battle with biases.

Recently, one of her songs (she also sings) was used as the theme for Thursday Night Football on American television. And the visual of a brown girl that went along with the song brought in dozens of emails from fans who wondered who this “Arab terrorist” was.

During subsequent interviews, Priyanka asked:”Why is every Arab person a terrorist, and why am I an Arab terrorist just because I am brown?”

This is the kind of racial prejudice and primitiveness that she has to fight — and ultimately demolish them to emerge as an actress without boundaries. She can well be  an FBI cadet or a scheming baddie on the beach — not  an Indian.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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