India

Is Quantico really Priyanka Chopra's big Hollywood break?

Quantico billboard in New York City Image copyright Aseem Chhabra
Image caption Can a new television series help Priyanka break new ground in the US?

Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra has been featured in billboards and posters across the US as the starring role in the TV show Quantico. But will the show finally catapult her into the American consciousness? Aseem Chhabra explains.

Two years ago Priyanka Chopra showed up to make milkshake at a West Hollywood eatery.

The milkshake was named Exotic, after her single with rapper Pitbull. Since she does not cook much, she essentially made almond milk, with bananas. And outside the Millions of Milkshake store, a couple of hundred Bollywood fans - mostly Indian American residents of Los Angeles, showed up.

Making the milkshake was part of the solid public relations campaign to build brand Chopra in the US - a journey that started in 2012 when she signed up with the Hollywood talent agency CAA and released her first single In My City, which debuted on NFL's Thursday Night Football show.

While Chopra looked hot and was definitely trying the rock star image, many football fans were not thrilled with a singer with foreign looks. And they were not silent either, calling her everything from an Arab terrorist, to a fake looking Kim Kardashian on social media.

'Amazing response'

Publicly Chopra was calm about the criticism. In an interview with Wall Street Journal television she said:

"I've been in the limelight, in a public space, for very long. I understand dealing with brickbats and bouquets…And I've dealt with racism… I'm called a terrorist, because I happen to be brown and from South Asia, and (have received) hate mail saying 'You're not white, why should you be on NFL?' Despite that, I'd rather focus on the millions of other people who've been sending emails or tweets and …saying it's amazing."

It is hard to say if there were millions of other people who actually wrote to her. Movie stars have a way of overdramatising reality. But in a couple of weeks millions are going to see Chopra in the new ABC show Quantico.

In the new series Chopra plays Alex Parrish, a FBI recruit who is Indian American in the true sense. Her mother is Indian in the show, while her father is Caucasian (hence her name). Also, a family tragedy takes Parrish to Mumbai for 10 years, which explains why Chopra's character speaks with an educated upper class Indian accent.

Image copyright Eric Liebowitz
Image caption Priyanka Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an Indian American FBI recruit in Quantico
Image copyright Guy D'Alema
Image caption A family emergency that forces the Parrish family to move to Mumbai for 10 years explains Alex Parrish's high class Indian accent
Image copyright Aseem Chhabra
Image caption ABC seems to be really banking on Quantico with a large marketing budget for the series

But here is the twist.

Chopra is still not a household name in the US. In fact, it is safe to say that despite her music, and even the stunning Guess Jeans campaign that was shot by Bryan Adams in late 2013, most Americans do not know the Bollywood star.

That could definitely change if Quantico becomes a big hit. In the season as major networks unveil their new television shows, ABC is really banking on Quantico and posters of Chopra's face are appearing all across America. In New York City the poster with Chopra's face, as she holds her FBI identity card to her full red lips, is plastered in every subway station, as well as on buses and bus stops.

There are similar reports from other major American cities - Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC. And this past week I saw the same posters all over Toronto as well.

Chopra's face is surely captivating and with such a massive marketing campaign the show which starts on 27 September should draw in large audiences for the first few episodes at least. The first episode that ABC has shared with journalists is very gripping with enough twists to ensure that one would want to watch the next segment.

Bollywood breakout?

But the network is taking a big gamble with its marketing campaign. And it is remarkable that this is the first time a Bollywood actor of Chopra's stature has been the subject of such a massive campaign in North America.

Recently Western Union posted ads in some subways stations in New York City showing the face of Shah Rukh Khan. But there are only little more than three million Indian Americans in the US. And if we add other South Asians to the pool, the number is still not more than five million. Both Chopra and Khan are really not known outside this small pool.

A quick look at the cast from Quantico indicates that most of the actors have played in indie films or other television shows. But none of the women in the group have been crowned Miss World. And nobody in that cast is as famous as Chopra - given her Bollywood status.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Priyanka Chopra is the best known name in the Quantico cast

Clearly times are changing and producers and other television executives are opening up to the possibilities of fresh faces that represent the mosaic of ethnicities that define America.

It started with African American, Asian and Latino actors. But now many sit-coms on television star one brown South Asian character?

Chopra's agents have been hard at work to push her career in the US. But she still has one foot in Bollywood. Later this year she will be seen in Bajirao Mastani and just this week the poster of her 2016 film Jai Gangaajal was released on social media.

If Quantico takes off - and hit television shows can continue for years - Chopra will be spending a lot more time in the US. The good news for her is that she will not have to resort to making milkshakes to get press.

Aseem Chhabra is a freelance entertainment writer based in New York City. He is also the director of the New York Indian Film Festival