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Priyanka Chopra is proof that actors of colour can make it to Hollywood’s “Promised Land”

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Setting fire to your stereotypes.
By Maria Thomas
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Priyanka Chopra is killing it.

On Sept. 18, the Quantico actor, along with British actor Tom Hiddleston, presented an award at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles and was widely hailed as one of the best-dressed stars on the red carpet with her striking crimson Jason Wu gown.

Her appearance at the Emmys is just the tip of the iceberg. This month, Chopra was labelled American pop culture royalty by W magazine, featuring alongside the likes of Kanye West, Cindy Crawford, and Elle Fanning. And last week, she ranked 8th on the Forbes list of the world’s top 10 highest-paid TV actresses. She earned an estimated $11 million in the 12 months ended in June through her acting roles and endorsements. She’s also starring alongside Dwayne Johnson, the world’s highest-paid actor, in the upcoming Baywatch movie.

All this is huge because Chopra’s claim to fame in the US is her lead role as Alex Parrish, a racially-ambiguous FBI agent in Quantico. The ABC thriller, which premiered in September 2015, follows Parrish as she trains with other new recruits at the Quantico base in Virginia and is later mistakenly suspected of being part of a terrorist attack.

In playing such a character, Chopra is on her way towards making it to stage three in pop culture’s portrayal of ethnic minorities. These stages were explained brilliantly by the British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed in his essay on typecasting for the Guardian, which went viral last week.

According to Ahmed, the star of the HBO drama The Night Of, the ethnic minority actor is “intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”

He breaks down the three stages as follows:

“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype—the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace.
Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace.
And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.”

Chopra’s character may be a terror suspect but at least she’s one with an ethnically-ambiguous identity. Alex Parrish is also a world away from the conventional stereotypes that Indian or Indian-origin characters are usually relegated to in American television (think Apu the shopkeeper in The Simpsons or, more recently, the selectively-mute Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory). That makes Chopra both an icon and a pioneer.

Indeed, she herself has always been vocal about using her role in Quantico to change the way Indian and Indian-origin characters are perceived.

“I want to be able to break the stereotype of what Indian people or people of South Asian descent are supposed to be. Nobody’s supposed to be anything. You can be whoever you want,” Chopra told Complex magazine in May.

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