Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra makes rare leap to American TV

Story highlights

Priyanka Chopra is the first Bollywood movie star to headline an American TV series

Chopra is the star of ABC's upcoming drama "Quantico"

CNN —  

She’s a megastar from Mumbai, India, home to the world’s most prolific film industry.

She’s an award-winning actress, a former Miss World, a singer and a dancer. She serves as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and as a United Nations Girl Up Champion, and she is involved in efforts to promote the education of girls in India.

She’s a social media queen, with more than 10 million followers on Twitter.

Priyanka Chopra has international cachet and a global fan base. But her star power has been relatively lackluster in the United States.

That may be about to change. Chopra is the star of “Quantico,” a drama premiering September 27 on ABC. In recent weeks, her face has been splashed across billboards and buses from Los Angeles to Toronto to New York.

Priyanka Chopra as FBI recruit Alex Parrish in ABC's "Quantico."

Chopra, 33, has thrived in the Indian film industry for more than a decade. But as she gets ready for her close-up on American television, she feels like a complete newcomer.

“I’m excited about making a new foray, but I’m also very nervous,” Chopra said. “I feel like a debutante, like how I felt when my first movie was releasing in 2003. Every time I see a billboard, every time I see my face on a bus or a magazine, I’m just like, ‘It’s a new culture, a new country.’ I hope that I’m accepted as an actor.”

‘An empowered woman’

In the series, Chopra plays Alex Parrish, one of a diverse group of new FBI recruits, each with a mysterious past. As the show cuts between the present and the past, Parrish becomes the prime suspect in a devastating terrorist attack in New York.

Chopra describes her character as a “Jason Bourne in a female form.”

“She’s smart, she’s sexy, she’s intelligent, she kicks ass, and she’s not afraid to take her life in her own hands. But the beauty of Alex is, she’s not macho. She’s very feminine, and she’s vulnerable,” Chopra said. “I love that she’s a celebration of the modern woman. She’s not just an ass-kicking, feeling-less robot.”

“Quantico” has been described as “Homeland” meets “Grey’s Anatomy.” Its cast includes Aunjanue Ellis as the assistant director of the FBI academy and Jake McLaughlin as a fellow FBI recruit and love interest, but Chopra’s character has the central role.

“This is an idea that no one has explored: taking a global actor, a global talent, and launching them in the American market,” Chopra said. “It’s new for all of us – ABC, me, everyone – it’s the new prototype. I guess we’ll find out what happens.”

Chopra, who lived in the U.S. for four years as a teenager, credits the show’s producers and ABC for taking a chance on her. She believes that such diverse casting could be a precursor of entertainment’s future as the world shrinks.

“I think the globe has become a really small place now, and we are all global citizens, at least I think I am,” she said. “The girl next door’s face has changed. She does not come from a particular place. … She can be anyone from anywhere.”

Indian actors on American TV

In recent years, an increasing number of actors of Indian origin have made an impact on American TV: Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory,” Mindy Kaling of “The Mindy Project,” Archie Punjabi of “The Good Wife,” Dev Patel of “Newsroom,” Nimrat Kaur of “Homeland,” Aziz Ansari of “Parks and Recreation,” Aasif Mandvi of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Brink,” and Kal Penn of “House” and “Battle Creek.”

Veteran Indian actor Anil Kapoor (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is the first major Bollywood star to get a meaty role on U.S. television, as the president of a fictional Middle Eastern country on the eighth season of “24.”

The "Slumdog Millionaire" cast -- from left, Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor -- at the 2009 Academy Awards. The film won Best Picture.

But he was not the lead character. That distinction goes to Chopra, the first bona-fide star from India to headline an American series.

“It’s certainly unprecedented for an A-list Bollywood actor, male or female, to land a major role on a major American network series,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of and an entertainment analyst who follows the Indian film industry.

“This could be huge for the years ahead, not only for Priyanka but for other stars out of Bollywood, because Hollywood does have a copycat mentality,” Pandya said. “So when something works, competitors want to do the same thing.”

Breaking stereotypes

In “Quantico,” Chopra does not come across as a Bollywood actress, said Matt Roush, senior television critic for TV Guide. Alex Parrish’s dad is white, and her mother is Indian. Even the character’s name does not sound Indian, he said.

“This kind of colorblind casting is a step in the right direction,” Roush said. “What I like about this kind of casting is that the character could be played by an Asian; she could be played by an African- American; she could be played by a Swede. It doesn’t really matter.”

It is a part that any actor would love, and this drew her to the role, Chopra said.

“I don’t want to be the stereotype of an Indian girl, because I see a lot of Indian talent being put into that box,” Chopra said. “I like to break barriers.”

Chopra has refused roles that called for her to change accents and act more Indian, said her U.S. manager, Anjula Acharia-Bath, who herself faced prejudice as an Indian girl growing up in England.

Chopra was cast in “Quantico” after Acharia-Bath met with Keli Lee, executive vice president of casting for ABC, and compared notes about growing up in a television culture that did not reflect the diversity of the real world.

Lee has helped discover some of the most famous faces in television, including Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Sofia Vergara in “Modern Family” and Kerry Washington in “Scandal.” She flew to Mumbai to meet Chopra last year, and the actress signed a talent deal with ABC studios.

Priyanka Chopra, right, is among a group of new recruits at the FBI's training base in "Quantico."

Chopra said she owed it to her fans to settle for nothing less than a stellar, starring role.

“I have a certain belief in myself, and I wouldn’t want to do anything less than I’m used to,” she said. “I feel ABC recognized that, and they gave me ‘Quantico’ on my terms, which is why I’ve taken this leap.”

Power of Indian cinema

Even before its pilot airs, “Quantico” has been sold to dozens of countries around the world, Chopra said.

“That just goes to show the power of Hindi cinema,” she said. “It’s amazing the kind of reach we have in countries where people don’t even speak English. Hindi transcends language and borders. We’re just stories about life.”

Although the Indian film industry is commonly identified with Bollywood – the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai – regional movie centers across the country churn out hundreds of films every year in other languages, including Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.

The scale of the industry is staggering. India’s film board estimates that more than 1,250 feature films are produced every year. Most of the movies follow a predictable pattern: gorgeous heroines, dashing heroes, implausible plot lines and much dancing and singing – a formula that has captivated Indians for a century.

With 48 movies and counting, Chopra is one of Hindi cinema’s highest-paid actresses. She began her movie career shortly after being crowned Miss World in 2000 and has appeared in hit Indian films playing a variety of roles, from an autistic girl (in “Barfi,” India’s 2012 Oscar entry) to a world boxing champion (in “Mary Kom”) to a serial killer. In one movie, she played 12 distinct characters.

But until now, Chopra may have been best known to American audiences for her music. Her debut single, “In My City,” featuring entertainer, was a theme song for the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football.”

Manager Acharia-Bath said people often underestimate the strength of Chopra’s following, which reaches from Sydney to Dubai, Berlin to Cape Town. She recalled an episode last year in which the actress, as a model for Guess, visited the brand’s flagship store in London. As word of Chopra’s presence spread on social media, fans mobbed the store and police had to shut down Regent Street.

‘A different beast’

It’s been crazy-busy lately for the “Quantico” cast and crew, who’ve been shooting 16-hour days in Montreal and New York to get the 13 episodes ready for this season.

“I’ve only done movies in my life. Television is a different beast,” Chopra said.

Chopra's "Quantico" character becomes an unlikely suspect in a terrorist attack on New York.

She got unexpected insight into the medium from an unlikely source: actor Kevin Spacey, whom she met at the International Indian Film Academy awards last year. The two conducted a film workshop class together and exchanged notes about acting.

“He happened to mention that TV was most exciting medium of almost everything, because he has no idea what his character (Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’) is going to do, and I find that so true,” said Chopra, who admits to being mostly in the dark about “Quantico’s” plot line. Audiences will learn the identity of the terrorist by the end of season 1, she said.

Early reviews for Chopra in “Quantico” have been positive. Entertainment Tonight named her one of three breakout stars for the fall TV season, while The Hollywood Reporter called her “one of the most formidable talents hitting TV this fall.”

Roush said Chopra was the only “Quantico” actress to appear at the Television Critics Association’s press tour in Los Angeles in August. “It’s unusual during the press tour with a cast of that size to present only one actor, so it’s clear they see a big star in her,” he said.

For now, Chopra’s plan is to straddle two performing careers: one in the U.S. and the other in India. Next, she’s working on an Indian epic historical drama about an 18th-century Indian warrior.

“For me, success means achieving something people did not expect you to achieve,” said Chopra, who is extremely close to her family and still feels the absence of her father, who died in 2013.

“My dad always told me – and I always follow this,” she said. “As a girl, you should not be someone who tries to fit into a glass slipper. You should shatter the glass ceiling, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”