INTERVIEW: Priyanka Chopra Talks 'Baywatch', Oscars, 'Jai Gangaajal' And Producing Regional Films

23/02/2016 12:00 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Gregg DeGuire via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 30: Actress Priyanka Chopra arrives at the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 30, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)

Being Priyanka Chopra can’t be easy.

The 33-year-old superstar has, in recent months, dominated entertainment headlines so many times that it’s getting difficult to keep track. In January, she won the People’s Choice Award for ‘Favourite Actress In A New TV Series’, for her role as Alex Parrish in the ABC drama Quantico. Later that month, she was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, for her remarkable career. This is not counting all the praise she received for her role as Kashibai in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, which garnered great critical and commercial success. Or the fact that she’s going to be a presenter at Sunday’s 88th Academy Awardsonly the second Indian to have had this honour.

Last week, a good chunk of the Indian Internet broke upon hearing the news that Chopra will co-star with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the upcoming Baywatch movie.

The first movie adaptation of the cult ‘90s TV show, once the most-watched series in the world, is being helmed by Seth Gordon, whose directorial credits range from acclaimed documentaries such as The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (2007) and Freakonomics (2010) to the comedy Horrible Bosses (2011), in addition to several episodes of much-loved sitcoms such as Parks And Recreation. Chopra will be playing Victoria Leeds, the antagonist in a staggeringly and impossibly good-looking cast.

As if all this weren’t enough, she’s also the lead in Prakash Jha’s hinterland cop drama Jai Gangaajal, which releases on March 4. As the no-nonsense SP Abha Mathur, Chopra has been seen kicking some serious butt in the promos for the film, which also marks Jha’s debut as an actor.

Holed up in her apartment in Montreal, where she shoots for Quantico, Chopra has a “nightmare schedule” ahead of her, which involves shuttling to Miami and back to shoot for Baywatch and back again. HuffPost India managed to get half an hour of her time at an unearthly, ‘walk-of-shame’ hour last Saturday for a quick chat about, well, the dreamiest phase of her career thus far. Excerpts:

We’ve been reading about your crazy schedule. How do you manage work, sleep, exercise, AND a social/personal life (if any) with all that’s going on?

There is no time for a personal life… I’m just constantly working and in a constant state of exhaustion [tired laugh]. I’ve always been like that… I’ve always been a workaholic. I'm grateful for it. As for health, I'm really lucky to be blessed with great Indian genes. My metabolism is very good and I barely have to do anything, which is great because I don't like working out too much. I have to thank my mom and dad for that.

There’s a lot of excitement about the Baywatch movie. I remember, though, that at the time a lot of people had reservations about it — they didn’t think it was appropriate for children. Was it the same for you?

That's not how my parents saw it. The community I grew up in [both her parents were part of the Indian Army] was very open-minded and they weren’t shortsighted like that. I’d move around a lot and, yes, I’d hear about people thinking this way about the show. But not for me, thankfully — I loved the show and grew up watching a lot of it.

What was it that appealed to you about the show?

You mean apart from the slow-motion runs? [Laughs] David Hasselhoff, for sure. Also, I loved the theme song, it would be my cue to plonk myself in front of the couch. Dostana (2008), actually, was my ode to Baywatch so it’s actually pretty cool now to be part of this movie.

Seth Gordon is a very interesting choice for a director. Can you tell us what you’ve seen of his work and how he plans to make this movie? One would imagine it’d be more of a comedy.

Oh, I love Horrible Bosses and I’m dying to see King Of Kong but haven’t gotten around to it. But yes, it’s going to be a comedy, but not a spoof, more like a take-off on that world with a lot of meta humour.

You present at the Oscars this Sunday (Monday morning for viewers in India). Have they told you what award you’ll be presenting? Do you feel nervous?

No no, I’m not nervous at all — I’m just really excited about how the evening will unfold! There were so many amazing films that came out this year; I loved Room, loved Spotlight… and there are so many others. And of course, like everyone, I’m waiting to see if Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] will get his first Oscar this year [for The Revenant]. And, no, I haven't been told what I will be presenting yet.

You know, there is just never any consistency when it comes to success. My entire career has been full of low phases, with some good times in between, and this is one of those.

Would you say your role as Abha Mathur in Jai Gangaajal is the equivalent of a female Dabangg? What were the most enjoyable or satisfying aspects of playing this character?

Well, it’s not a female Dabangg role because my shirt doesn't fly off at any point [laughs]. No, but in all seriousness, it's a relevant and important film, especially at a time like this. It talks about equal opportunities and about who has the ability to do a certain job, regardless of gender. It’s also about the vicious cycle of corruption within the system, what we need to cleanse out of that., what happens to the common man when they get stuck between powerhouses.... so it's relevant on many levels. Also it has great music, and it’s directed by a filmmaker who is known for making movies on such subjects. I’m very excited and proud of it.

Bajirao Mastani defied the odds to become more successful than many were predicting. Do you see this as a sign of Hindi film audience taste changing, given that it also got overwhelming critical appreciation?

I don’t think this is a sign for it. Every film has its own destiny. But if you look at the pattern of films that have come out over the last five to eight years, yes, I definitely feel that the audience is changing. You can no longer tell them what to watch — they watch what they like.

This year, your production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, is focusing exclusively on regional cinema with a Bhojpuri, a Marathi, and a Punjabi film. What is it that made you do that? Do you think the economics of regional cinema are more sound and is there something about Hindi cinema business that is in urgent need of an overhaul?

See, I just want to tell stories. I’m not and have never had a ‘business mind’… I’m a creative person. Hence, when I created the company, it was very clear that PPP stands for opportunities for storytellers and true talent. Language and geographical barriers don’t matter; it’s all about great storytelling. At the end of the day, a good story is a good story, whether it’s a film or your grandmother trying to put you to sleep.

Also, I’ll tell you why I chose to make these films — it’s connected with my life. The first [Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi, in Bhojpuri] is because I grew up in Jamshedpur, which was in Bihar then. The second [Ek Onkar, in Punjabi] is because I am half-Punjabi. And the third [Ventilator, in Marathi] is because I’ve lived and worked in Maharashtra for so long. That’s the reason I chose these particular films. I will make a Hindi film too, eventually, but it will be a small-budget film with good content.

We haven’t seen a lot of you in the music side of things in a while…

Yeah, there has been no time for music in the past year. But I do plan to go into the studio some time this year. I don’t think I’ll come out with an album, though; it’ll probably be singles.

Finally, every time you get a moment to yourself, how do you feel about this time in your life where everything seems to be going your way? Do you worry about how long you can sustain or build on this, or about the (perhaps) inevitable downslide?

You know, there is just never any consistency when it comes to success. My entire career has been full of low phases, with some good times in between, and this is one of those. The only thing I’ve learnt, after all these years, is that you have to get over your failures and try and make the most of whatever opportunities that come your way. That’s all I’m trying to do.

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