“It’s taken a lot of pavement pounding to be able to get people’s attention, and to be able to get an acceptance of the fact that someone like me can be the lead of a Hollywood feature,” she says. “There’s very few of us from South Asia who get to do that. I hope that the part that I play in it will sort of push the envelope a little bit.”
Priyanka, who’s 39, has already lived many lives. She was born in India—her parents were military physicians—then moved to the U.S. as a teenager to live with her aunt. Routinely bullied for being Indian, Priyanka returned to India after three years to finish her high school education at the Army Public School in Bareilly. In 1999, her mother and brother entered her in her first pageant, and she went on to win Miss India World and ultimately Miss World 2000. Within 10 years of launching her Bollywood career, she became one of the most successful actors working in India’s massive movie industry, the world’s largest producer of films, with billions of tickets sold a year. Priyanka often shot multiple films simultaneously. She became insanely famous. Can’t-walk-down-the-street famous. It was then that her manager, Anjula Acharia, urged her to move back to the U.S. to pursue a music career with the legendary record executive Jimmy Iovine.
Other Hindi film stars had tried to break into the U.S. market, but none achieved anything like the same stardom. “I wasn’t looking to do work in America,” Priyanka tells me. “I was at this amazing point in my career. I was doing critically acclaimed work and winning awards. So she called me, and I kind of laughed at the idea.” In the end, she took the leap and signed a record deal with Universal Music Group. Priyanka became the first Bollywood star ever signed at CAA and released a few singles, collaborating with Pitbull and will.i.am. “It was just magical,” she says. “So those three, four years just went by. I was being serenaded by this rock-and-roll lifestyle.”
It was booking the lead role of FBI trainee Alex Parrish in the ABC series Quantico in 2015 that allowed Priyanka to move from a fledgling music career back into acting. “Quantico for me was a really big win,” she says. “Not just because of being the first time an Indian or South Asian actor was lead of a network show, but, more than that, because I was not put in the box, like the show wasn’t My Big Fat Indian Wedding.”
The Parrish character was written without a specific ethnicity in mind, which is something Priyanka had longed for: She didn’t want to be pigeonholed for being Indian or cast as a trope. Once she’d won the role, she added some touches from her own background, including speaking Hindi on the show. “After that, I just started looking for parts like that, where my ethnicity is something that is an asset [but] I’m not defined by it.” Priyanka was the first South Asian actor to win a People’s Choice Award for the role—she won two—and when Quantico wrapped after three seasons in 2018, she had already begun appearing in a smattering of films, playing a vampy villain in Baywatch, a yoga instructor in the comedy Isn’t It Romantic, and a fiercely determined mother in the family drama The Sky Is Pink. The last of these was produced by Purple Pebble Pictures, which Priyanka cofounded with her mother, Madhu Chopra. The company has a TV deal with Amazon, and Priyanka says she’s focused on telling predominantly South Asian stories and ones centered on women: “I’m looking at doing very hyper-specific storytelling.” As for the responsibility that comes with representing South Asians in her work, she adds, “I may make my mistakes, because this is not a mantle I was looking for. But I think collectively, each one of us can push Hollywood, and push the powers that be, and be demanding and not just polite about it. I’ve been polite for a very long time. Now it’s time to say, ‘I’m sorry, that doesn’t work,’ and to fight for your characters. As a producer, I’m so grateful that I get the opportunity to do that, to be able to make stories and look for stories that normalize different cultures of the world.”
Last year, Priyanka executive produced and starred in The White Tiger, an adaptation of an Aravind Adiga novel exploring India’s caste systems through the experience of one wealthy family’s driver. “When she sets her mind to accomplish something, which could be producing a film, it could be her business ventures—she’s relentless,” says the film’s writer-director, Ramin Bahrani, whose screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. “And when it comes to the performance, she’s the same. Lots of questions. And all good questions. Great instincts.”