In the year 1996, 13-year-old Priyanka Chopra would buy a bag of chips from a vending machine and dash to the bathroom to eat lunch every day so that she could escape the constant bullying she faced from her peers.
“I didn’t know if my [accent] was the barrier — the way I looked was a barrier,” she said in an interview with Refinery 29. “I was told to go back on the same boat that I came on,” said Chopra.
Chopra was a new student in the United States from India at that time. The bullying triggered her to quit school and move back to India after living in Boston for 3 years.
“At that point in time, I couldn’t deal with it.”
Fast forward 10 years, she went on to become a Bollywood megastar, a winner of the Miss World pageant, a social media sensation with over 11 million twitter followers, and one of the highest paid actresses in the world with over 45 films under her belt. The actress has stepped into the shoes of a wide array of characters on screen – an autistic women, a troubled supermodel, a boxer, a serial killer – to name a few.
Chopra is now the first South Asian woman to headline an American Drama series. She plays the role of ‘Alex Parish’ on ABC’s debut series ‘Quantico’, a crime drama based on the lives’ of a diverse group of FBI recruits and their trials and triumphs at a training camp. Chopra’s character is an FBI agent in training, falsely accused of masterminding a terrorist attack. The show is seeking to tackle ethnic stereotypes and open up a dialogue about racial profiling.
In an interview, Chopra revealed that her decision to branch out into American television was partly prompted by her experience with racism in the United States. She confessed that she was initially hesitant when she received an offer to play a lead in an American TV series as part of ABC’s diversity casting program, but decided it is crucial to expand the depictions of South Asians on TV in order break the stereotypes associated with her heritage.
“When ABC Network came to me with this idea, I never thought of doing anything with them in terms of acting because I was only getting offers to play the Indian princess, some exotic looking snake-charmer or some hypnotizing lady. I never wanted to be restricted to such typical avatars. I do it and I do it damn well but it annoys me when my country is seen as only that much in global entertainment,” said Chopra in an interview with Missmalini.
The series intends to dig deep into issues of racial profiling, ethnic stereotypes and xenophobia. Many of its significant characters are played by talented women of colour including Aunjanue Ellis from The Book of Negroes, Lebanon’s Yasmine Al Massri, and Havana native Anabelle Acosta.
“I am not some messiah for Indian people but because I was given this opportunity, I wanted to make sure that Indian talent is recognized without the box that we are usually kept in. Everybody doesn’t speak like Apu from The Simpsons. We all don’t smell of curry. We all are not ugly-looking nerds, who are shy and always keep sitting behind their computers,” said Chopra.
A string of TV shows featuring ethnic minorities and people of colour have made notable strides on American Television lately. With the popularity of Mindy Kahling’s ‘The Mindy Project’, ‘Fresh off the Boat’, and the success of ‘Empire’, some might say this signifies a new trajectory in which minorities are becoming more visible on TV. While diverse casting marks a shift in the right direction, equally important is how these characters are construed and represented. Sharp writing, powerful roles and portrayal of characters in a way that showcases their diversity must also be prioritized in order to truly diversify the TV landscape.
Chopra’s ‘Quantico’ addresses some extremely sensitive and hot button issues. At this point, it is difficult to determine how things will play out in terms of perspectives, the angles through which the story will be told, and whether it will successfully evade pigeonholing its diverse and talented cast into stereotypical roles. While the casting of diverse actors is a leap for ethnic minorities, only time will tell if the show will succeed at assigning meaningful roles to its diverse cast.