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No looking back.
GLOBAL BOLLYWOOD STAR

How a reluctant Priyanka Chopra became India’s biggest crossover success

Aseem Chhabra
By Aseem Chhabra

Journalist

After the Miss World pageant, Priyanka (Chopra’s) acting career did take off, but the quality of the films she got improved only over a period of time.

A reluctant singer, she also carried a secret desire to one day sing in Bollywood films.

People who heard her sing thought she had the talent, but she was also afraid of attempting to become a singer, especially at a time when her acting career was slowly taking off.

Perhaps it went back to her childhood fear of being picked to sing often. “I was always one of those students in the class who would be asked to go and sing in front of the class to entertain everyone whenever a teacher was not around,” she said in an interview.

There were offers for her to sing, but Priyanka always seemed shy.

During the shoot of her first film, Thamizhan, her director G Venkatesh and her co-star Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar heard her hum and then coaxed her to sing a song for the film. She was young (the film opened in 2002 when Priyanka was only 20) and did not have the clout to say no. The song ‘Ullathai Killathe’ would be featured in the film. It is a playful, upbeat song. In the video, Priyanka has a tiara on and is wearing a blue dress—something Cinderella would have worn to the grand ball. She is accompanied by Vijay and a group of background dancers, wearing outfits of animated characters.

There were other offers for her to sing, but Priyanka always seemed shy. One major Bollywood music personality who heard Priyanka’s voice and realised that she definitely had something in her was her friend and composer/singer Vishal Dadlani.

“Priyanka is someone who goes above and beyond, with sheer determination and hard work,” Vishal says. “She can do anything she chooses to, and singing is just one among her facets. She has a natural gift, a smoky, husky tone of voice. We recorded her for a song—that eventually wasn’t used because she didn’t feel ready—in Bluffmaster! in 2004 or 2005. It was a jam in the studio, with Shekhar (Vishal’s partner Shekhar Ravjiani) and I composing/producing on the fly, and Priyanka dropping her vocals in, quite effortless, really. It was a song of love and loss, and the lyrics were mine. Between Rohan Sippy, Shekhar and I, we convinced her to do it over a few days of insisting that only she would sing that one.”

The song Priyanka recorded with Vishal-Shekhar still remains a closely guarded secret. “That song is lying unreleased with us,” Vishal adds. “Now that she’s a global megastar, maybe someday, if she wishes, we’ll take it out.”

Flash forward to 2010 and in California, Anjula (Acharia, celebrity manager) was trying to explore on her own whether Priyanka Chopra could be made into a global singer.

“Priyanka is an idea. You get it within 30 seconds.”

She called her contacts in India only to discover that Salim and Sulaiman Merchant had also recorded a demo with Priyanka. And she got a copy of that recording and played it for (record producer James) Iovine and David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music UK. The group decided to go to India to meet Priyanka. ”Priyanka is an idea,” Iovine later told The Los Angeles Times. “You get it within 30 seconds.”

But first, Anjula tried calling Priyanka. “She was filming 7 Khoon Maaf and I am not sure if she took my first call seriously,” she says. “I had to stalk her for months because she would not take my call. I love to tease her about it now, but she really made it hard.” Later speaking to HuffPost Live, Priyanka laughed and responded to the stalking part by saying, “In my defence, I was in a really intense movie at that time and actors get like that sometimes.”

The truth is that if Anjula had not been persistent, there would have been no Quantico, none of this media hype, talk show appearances, magazine cover stories, red carpets, appearances at the United Nations, invites to powerhouse galas, no listings of Priyanka as a powerful, influential woman, the hottest next thing. She would still be in Bollywood doing her regular work. She would have perhaps reached the peak of her career like several actresses before her—Juhi Chawla, Rani Mukherjee, Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta, Karishma Kapoor—married now, with children, but desperately hoping for a big break to make a comeback in an industry that is not too kind to actresses who cross the mid-30 age cut-off point.

Once the contact was made, Anjula travelled to India to meet Priyanka. She was accompanied by David Joseph and Andrew Kronfeld, executive vice president, marketing, at Universal Music Group International.

“She was still in two minds,” Anjula says about Priyanka. “I remember saying to her all you have to do is to go to the studio and give one try. You don’t have to make a commitment. She got into a studio and fell in love with it.”

The group listened to Priyanka sing and they all talked. “When we came out, David and I said at the same time, “She’s the one!” Anjula adds.

And then it was a question of building a strategy of introducing Priyanka Chopra to America.

“I spent time analysing pop culture in America and how stars are today,” says Anjula who, in addition to managing Priyanka’s career, is also a partner in the venture capitalist firm Trinity Capital. Priyanka’s other half of management is handled by Troy Carter who heads Atom Factory, a talent management and full-service film and television production company. Carter’s clients include Lady Gaga and John Legend.

Anjula adds, “I realised early on that I didn’t want to make her a pop star, I just wanted to make her a star. And what form it came in didn’t matter, because she is a multitalented individual. We decided not to box her because it is so hard to find stars who can do everything.”

And then a few years later, Anjula’s strategy changed.

“The process for me changed from ‘I want to make her a star to I want to make her a face in America.'”

We decided not to box her because it is so hard to find stars who can do everything.

In February 2012, Priyanka signed up with Creative Artists Agency—one of Hollywood’s leading talent agencies. She was represented by David Tagioff who was earlier a director at DesiHits.com. Three years later, a little after Priyanka’s TV show Quantico was launched, she switched to William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.

Some years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an Indian actor making it this far in the US market. In this new journey, there have been some major misses and the road was initially rather choppy for Priyanka Chopra, but there were also some hits, and then it seemed there was no looking back for her. Despite the news on May 11, that Quantico has been cancelled, she still has a solid chance to make a comeback in the West.

As Karan Johar says, “She is our hugest crossover success story. I think with everyone else when they cross, it is over only.”

Excerpted from Aseem Chhabra’s book Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star with permission from Rupa Publications. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.