Even if you’ve never seen any of her 45 plus Bollywood movies, or you’ve never watched a show on network television—you’ve probably become acquainted with Priyanka Chopra, the star of ABC’s terrorist whodunit Quantico, who is also a former Miss India and Miss World. In the lead up to the show, which premiered Sunday, Chopra’s very-marketable face was plastered all over buses and billboards in many major U.S. cities. She’s also done the rounds of talk shows, including Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live, to promote the show.
Chopra, who plays FBI recruit Alex Parrish, is just one in a diverse cast featuring TV veteran Aunjanue Ellis (NCIS and The Mentalist) as Quantico’s Assistant Director, and Palestinian actress Yasmine Al Masri as fellow recruit Nimah Anwar. The diversity doesn’t end there, as the pilot also gives us gay and Mormon characters all aiming for top of the class. Quantico’s story opens on a major terrorist attack that has blown up New York’s Grand Central Station, with Chopra as the primary suspect, along with someone from her class of recruits at the famed FBI training academy. We jump back and forth between Chopra on the hot seat, the dramedy of the first days at a new school, and insights into the characters’ pasts.
The show itself makes some bold moves with its diverse ranks, and especially by making Chopra’s character brash, and sexually unapologetic. Within the first fifteen minutes Parrish has sex with a man she met on a plane, who turns out to be a fellow recruit—or not. A Forbes article naming Quantico as “One of the Most Feminist Shows On-Air This Fall” points out not only the sex, but the fact that Chopra’s character isn’t ashamed about it—she mentions it off-handedly in front of other classmates—as a great example of how this show is giving women power.
The show is also a potent example of how global entertainment has become. With the second-biggest film industry in the world, there is often conversation about the right Bollywood star who can cross-over to American entertainment. In the early 2000s, Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai, also dubbed as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” was supposed to be the one with cross-over capability—but she never quite hit that mark, with appearances in indie South Asian films like Bride and Prejudice and mainstream films like Pink Panther 2. It seems that male stars have had more mainstream success, as witnessed by this list on South Asian website The Aerogram, with Anupaum Kher and Irfan Khan showing up in Academy Award nominated films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Life of Pi, films not made by Indian directors. The actress Tabu appeared in Mira Nair’s acclaimed cinematic version of The Namesake, but hasn’t done any Hollywood film since then. Chopra is on the list, too. The list predicted that Chopra “is writing her own elaborate crossover story that may turn into something much bigger than any role in a single movie.”
So how did this major crossover from Bollywood to Hollywood—this time on the small screen—happen? Chopra was hand-picked and recruited as part of a special diversity casting decision made by ABC executive Keli Lee.
Chopra’s journey from Bollywood elite to network television star has been well-documented. Back in December, The Hollywood Reporter published a story about Chopra’s talent holding deal with ABC, which would cast her in an upcoming pilot. ABC casting executive Keli Lee flew to Mumbai to convince Chopra to make the move. This origin story has been retold multiple times (Vogue, Vanity Fair) with the Korean American Lee receiving her own accolades for being the woman behind the increased number of diverse faces in primetime, including Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, Kerry Washington on Scandal and Sophia Vergara on Modern Family. In the Vogue article, Chopra says that she got her pick of 26 scripts, but still had to audition for her role in Quantico.
Quantico’s writer Joshua Safran, a former showrunner and writer for Gossip Girl—wasn’t writing the role specifically for Chopra, but was thrilled she picked it. Safran drew from his own experiences for his former shows; he grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (where Gossip Girl is set) and says there are parts of his own history in Quantico as well.
“I grew up in a family that kept a lot of secrets from each other, and the truth was never really what it seemed, so I think that inspired the tone of the show,” Safran wrote over email. “More specifically, a member of my family may or may not have worked for a government agency, so I drew from that when creating Alex Parrish’s storyline.”
And while Chopra’s choice to pick Quantico has put the show on the map in a way it maybe hadn’t have without her—Quantico was trending worldwide on Twitter during the premiers, no doubt in part due to Chopra’s 11 millions followers—Safran felt like a diverse cast was integral to the show. When he visited the real Quantico to research the show’s premise, he was struck by how diverse the FBI trainees were, and also by how good-looking they were.
“It was important to me to remain faithful to that, but also to dial up the diversity to where it should be, not necessarily where it is,” Safran wrote.
Chopra herself is careful to avoid stereotypical roles: “I d[idn’t] want to be this stereotype of what Indian people are usually seen as in global pop culture, you know?” she told Vanity Fair. “We don’t just have to be Apu from The Simpsons.”
At the recent Emmy Awards, Viola Davis said: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” during her acceptance speech as the first African American woman to win for a female lead in a drama series. While Safran wasn’t writing the role specifically for an actor of color, Chopra has stepped into the scene and created a new brown “female version of Jason Bourne,” as Chopra says.
In fact, in an interview with the blog MissMalini.com, Chopra says she would only take the role if the part was ethnically ambiguous in order to show off her chops as an actor. Still, the pilot portrays Chopra as a half-Indian, half-white women who grew up in India after a dark secret destroyed her family.
It seems like one key factor for global crossover success is having roots in the U.S., becoming a star abroad, and recruitment back to the U.S. to star in a major show. Chopra, like Maggie Q and Daniel Wu, who is the lead in AMC’s new Into the Badlands, all have spent time in the U.S. but have had major success in their native homelands.
Passing as other races is a also privilege that South Asian American actors can often take on. Prime examples include Janina Gavankar (Papi from The L Word and Luna from True Blood) and Noureen DeWulf (Lacey from Anger Management). Some actors, though, have said that erasure of race isn’t progress. Actor Amir Talai recently told Buzzfeed: “Playing more interesting and larger roles is [a victory], but squeezing us unrealistically into a white box is a subtle form of ethnic erasure, and it is not a win.” Talai was speaking explicitly about Egyptian American actor Rami Malek who plays a character named Elliot Alderson in the USA hacker thriller Mr. Robot, but also was pointing to Chopra—who has said that her desire to play non-Indian characters was to “[open] more doors for [India’s] actors to be taken seriously in the west.”
So far, Chopra’s crossover to network television has been a success. Quantico was the highest rated scripted telecast on Sunday, and it will be interesting to see if Chopra’s success will lead to a more clear line between Bollywood and Hollywood.
Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press.
This article is made possible by Comcast.