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The Telegraph
| Sunday, September 8, 2013 |
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Glamour and grit

Actress Priyanka Chopra is all for taking on new challenges in both real and reel life, says Saimi Sattar

You've got to hand it to superstar Priyanka Chopra. It's been 10 years since one of her first mega-hits Andaaz propelled her to the top of the Hindi film industry. And she's still the Rafael Nadal of Bollywood — at the top and striving to put one more title under her belt.

There have been moments when it looked like she would be overtaken by younger, more dazzling stars. But Priyanka has always come back with one more mega-hit and shown that she's willing to take risks to stay at the top. "I've worked really hard to reach where I have. I knew nothing about acting. I did not come from an acting family and there was nobody to teach me the craft," she says.

One thing's for certain. Priyanka has never shied away from taking risks. Last year, she surprised everyone with her heart-wrenching performance as an autistic girl in Barfi! and then, even more startlingly, followed it up by launching herself as a singer. And now, she's riding high on the success of her second single, Exotic, with Pitbull.

Now, she's taking another risk and getting ready to jump into the ring with a biopic on the champion boxer Mary Kom. Keep in mind that every actor and moviemaker will vouch for the fact that it's always tough to play a living person. Says Priyanka: "It's not just the physical training. Preparing yourself mentally to play a living, breathing person is difficult."

Priyanka's barely had time to catch her breath after a whirlwind month of promotions. First, she was criss-crossing the US for several weeks, promoting Exotic and she also stopped off to speak her piece for the Disney animation film Planes, in which she's doing the voiceover for an Asian character named Ishani.

  • The actress on location in Kalighat, Calcutta, with co-stars Arjun Kapoor (left) and Ranveer Singh (right) during the shooting of Gunday
    Pic: Pabitra Das

Then, immediately after returning home, she rushed off to talk up her just-released film Zanjeer with southern star Ram Charan Teja. In between, Priyanka also made a brief pit stop and lent her name as brand ambassador to the Our Girls, Our Pride campaign kick started by a leading news channel.

"This is the third remake of a movie starring Mr Bachchan after Don and Agneepath that I'm a part of," she says excitedly of Zanjeer. In this remake, directed, by Apoorva Lakhia, Priyanka plays the role that was earlier done by Jaya Bachchan.

And, of course, there's a spot of hectic action coming up when she helps Hrithik Roshan fight off the baddies in Krrish 3, which is scheduled to release in November. She's back as Priya, a journalist, who falls in love with the superhero in the latest of the Krrish franchise.

  • Priyanka Chopra walked the red carpet in Los Angeles with Hollywood actors Dane Cook (centre) and Teri Hatcher (right) at the world premiere of Disney's Planes (Reuters)

Besides, there's the highly challenging Sanjay Leela Bhansali-produced biopic on Mary Kom. Priyanka's been training for several hours a day for four months to improve her fitness and look credible as a boxer when she steps into the ring. She also travelled all the way to Imphal to meet the world boxing champion and Olympic bronze medalist at her own home and get a closer insight into the boxer's life and journey.

Expectations are running high for the biopic, but Priyanka has often shown that she's not afraid to stretch herself as an actor. After all, at the very start of her career she played the very negative Sonia Roy in Aitraaz. This was soon after grabbing the Miss World title in 2000 and making the transition to films in 2002.

  • Pic: Ramakant Kushwaha

    Pic: Prem Singh

    Pic: PTI

    Pic: Ramakant Kushwaha
    Priyanka keeps reinventing her look both in reel and real life

She has taken chances at other points of her career too. Take Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion, which was pivotal in shaping her career and was a strong women-oriented role. "When Fashion was being made, everyone said that no one watches women-oriented movies. But it brought about a radical change. Now, there are roles that are being written especially for women and I think the movie played an important part in bringing about this change," says Priyanka.

Bhandarkar too waxes eloquent about her. "She is really focused and does not come with the baggage that she is 'Priyanka Chopra', when she is playing any character. Before Fashion she had done mainstream, commercial movies. But to her credit she completely surrendered to my vision of the film," he says.

Also, Priyanka has never hesitated to play all kinds of roles whether they were ultra-glam or exactly the opposite. Last year, she won praise for her performance in Agneepath, in which she played Kaali Gawde, Hrithik Roshan's love interest, and also for her tricky role in Barfi!.

Barfi!, she admits, was a particularly difficult role to pull off. "People know me as Priyanka Chopra so it was difficult to make them believe that I was the autistic character that I played. I didn't want it to be a spoof or a caricature of how special kids are. It was one of the hardest roles that I've played — that of a woman who feels and hurts but has a different way of showing it," she says.

No wonder, the brands have been eager to tap into her versatility. In fact, she endorses a wide range of brands from Nikon Coolpix to Bru. Though no firm figures are available, advertising industry experts reckon she gets about Rs 3.5 crore to Rs 4 crore for each campaign. At any given time she has about five or six campaigns going.

Of course, it's not as if all of Priyanka's films have packed a punch. She's had her share of flops like Vishal Bhardwaj's, 7 Khoon Maaf. And she's also had her run-in with controversy with rumours of an alleged affair with Shah Rukh Khan. But critics like Taran Adarsh heap heavy praise on the way she has managed her career. Says Adarsh: "Unlike any other Hindi film heroine, Priyanka is doing things that are out of the box. She is really pushing her boundaries — something that not many people have done."

Take her singing, for instance. Priyanka says that she inherited her love for singing from her father, who died recently. "Music is a new thing that I have done. I am a creative person and I want to expand in any form or direction. Singing was my father's dream and I hope I made him proud with my music," she says.

  • A still from her blockbuster, Barfi!
    Pic: Kundan Yolmo

The critics may have panned her singing efforts, but Priyanka's managed to get the numbers, for sure. So Exotic, which released in July, has already topped the iTunes India chart with three million downloads. And it's had over 12 million hits on YouTube too so far.

Bhandarkar, too, commends her for spreading out her wings. He says: "She had a passion for singing and is now realising her dreams. But the best part is she is balancing it really well with her films."

But she says that it's not just singing that she's inherited from her father. 'Daddy's lil girl' as the tattoo on her wrist proclaims (and which she rubs unconsciously when she's thinking) is also vociferously promoting the cause of the girl child.

"I consider myself fortunate to be born in a family where my parents let me be whoever I wanted to be and not just with regards to the education I got, but also the right to health, nutrition and even to life, which most girls in our country do not have," says the former Unicef Goodwill Ambassador for Child Rights.

So at an event to kick start the Our Girls, Our Pride campaign, Priyanka, dressed in a glamorous red pant suit, could be seen exhorting 15-year-old Razia Sultan from Meerut to continue spreading the message about education. Sultan is the first recipient of the United Nations Malala Award for her work in spreading education among child labourers. Now, the actress is getting ready to set up her own Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Health and Education, which, she says, will work with the aim of providing health and nutrition for all.

For now, though, it's back to the shooting floor with Ali Abbas Zafar's Gunday. She's co-starring with young stars Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor in this one. Then, she has other projects in the bag including Ekta Kapoor's next production, Milan Talkies, which will be directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia. And she's hoping to get more international projects, too, after Planes.

  • The actress with boxer Mary Kom, who she will be portraying in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's next flick
    Pic: UB Photos

Irrespective of whether she gets hits or misses the mark, you can be sure of one thing with Priyanka. She'll keep mixing it up, and she'll keep stretching that boundary. For as she says, "I get bored doing the same thing over and over again."