This Bollywood star is breaking Hollywood’s stereotype of Indians

Out to crush stereotypes.
Out to crush stereotypes.
Image: ABC
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This post has been corrected.

In December of 2014, the American TV network casting director Keli Lee flew to India to offer the Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra a unique opportunity: To sign a development deal with the US TV network ABC and choose the series later. That was five months ago, and ABC is out with promos for Quantico, a drama about young FBI recruits in training, starring Chopra in the lead role.

Among the 25 scripts she read, Quantico was her favourite, Chopra told DNA India. But there was a condition: She would only do the role if her part was ethnically ambiguous.

So the actress, who came to fame after she won the Miss World beauty pageant in 2000, gets to play a half-white, half-Indian FBI trainee caught in a terrorist conspiracy plot. Here’s the trailer:

She explained her thinking to DNA India:

You know I went to school in America … and all the Indian characters that I saw on American shows are stereotypes and talk like Apu from The Simpsons … Everyone would ask me ‘How come you don’t talk like Apu?’ … it used to piss me off. My basis with ABC was that I want to do an ethnically ambiguous part, and that’s the only way I would do it … I had clearly told them that if you want to treat me like an actress and not a ‘Bollywood’ jewel, where am supposed to dance and do those things, then I am fine.

Of course, she isn’t the first Indian to make it to American screens. There have been a slew of Indian actors in American films and TV shows. Think Nimrat Kaur, of The Lunchbox fame, who played a Pakistani agent in Fox’s popular political thriller series, Homeland.

Or Irrfan Khan, who has starred in nearly half a dozen films, including The Amazing Spiderman and the Oscar-winning Life of Pi. His upcoming film Inferno stars Tom Hanks, and is based on a Dan Brown novel. Last year, Om Puri starred in The Hundred-Foot Journey.

There’s also Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who was in The Pink Panther 2. And Anil Kapoor’s international career launched with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by his appearance in Mission: Impossible 4 and in Fox’s 24.

There is also no shortage of Indian-origin actors. Aziz Ansari, for example, plays Tom Haverford, a government official, in NBC’s Parks and Recreation. And Danny Pudi plays Abed Nadir, an eccentric pop culture nerd, in another NBC comedy, Community. And, of course, there’s Mindy Kailing who created and starred as Mindy Lahiri in the Fox sitcom The Mindy Project.

But Indian stereotypes haven’t gone away yet. Just take the wildly popular The Big Bang Theory, where British Indian actor Kunal Nayyar plays Raj Koothrappali, with the Indian sideways nod and the thick accent. Or Kal Penn who plays Kumar Patel in Harold and Kumar, who is stereotypically intelligent and whose family expects him to become a doctor.

But change may be afoot. Chopra’s casting director, Lee, is known for adding diversity to the lineup of shows at ABC. Bringing in Chopra—an actor of Indian descent and a Bollywood star—as a lead actor who doesn’t play up to Indian stereotypes is a bold move.

So far Chopra has been up against it to make her plan work. Her ambitions are huge but her impression of American media is not so favourable, she tells DNA India:

They see me as a person from another land. They don’t understand the concept of how I have the fan following that I do. Which I find amazing, because the world has become this one big global family, and I hope to be that change for India, where people don’t just see us as Patel stores, and curry shops and everything that’s typical … I remember when I was growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in global pop culture. In today’s time, Rihanna is from the Islands, David Guetta is from Sweden, today’s pop culture reflects global diversity and I want to be part of that.

Fortunately for Lee, TV critic Margaret Lyons’ first impression of Chopra in Quantico is good. She writes in Vulture, “ABC is super gung-ho about star Priyanka Chopra, and fair enough; she does indeed seem like an on-brand lead actress.”

We won’t know till later this year how American audiences take to Chopra. Some of her biggest fans will have to wait to see her in this new role though: There are currently no plans to air Quantico in India.

Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated that Anil Kapoor starred in a James Bond film.