By Aseem Chhabra
Thamizhan, directed by A. Majid, is best remembered for its lead actor Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar. A review in The Hindu mostly talked about Vijay’s character in Thamizhan and how it was different from his previous films. But The Hindu critic Malathi Rangarajan also mentioned that Priyanka had an inconsequential role in the film. ‘Love has very little place in Thamizhan and so debutante Priyanka Chopra has precious little to do,’ Rangarajan wrote. ‘But the world beauty could have done something about the weird wigs that she sports in some of the song sequences.’
My guess is there is little Priyanka could have done about her wigs, given she was so young and did not know much about the film industry. But in an interview in December 2001, the 19-year-old Priyanka Chopra seemed rather excited about her Tamil film acting experience. She mentioned how she took the project because of the reputation of the film’s producer G. Venkateswaran, and the lead actor Vijay who was very helpful and sweet. ‘The minute I knew that I was going to do a Tamil film I started seeing Tamil films,’ she said.
There was something beautifully naïve and fresh about this young girl who had taken up a role in a language she did not know at all. ‘I also started watching Tamil channels to know more about Tamil films, particularly about Vijay. I also saw a few of his movies. I like Tamil films. I am keeping my eyes open and trying to pick up the Tamil accent. Tamil is beautiful but also very difficult. Learning it will take a long time.’
Thamizhan was followed by a small role in Anil Sharma’s The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) where Sunny Deol is presented as an Indian super spy, a master of disguise and weaponry, who breaks into songs, wins the hearts of two women (Preity Zinta and Priyanka Chopra), and, even beats up a giant Canadian in a nuclear lab. Meanwhile in another scene, Priyanka, who plays Kabir Bedi’s daughter, gives a slight laugh in the middle of each sentence as she says emotional dialogues to Deol such as: ‘Wahid you know, ever since I met you (small laughter), I just don’t know what’s happening to me. Har pal aisa lagta hai ki tum mere pass ho, mere saath ho (more laughter). Kabhi hasne ko man karta hai, to kabhi chumne ko (laughter again). Kabhi to aisa lagta hai ki tumhein dektee rahoon. (Another brief laugher) Ekdum diwangee si chha gayee hai mujh par (Every moment it seems that you are close to me, with me. Sometimes I feel like laughing, and sometimes I feel like kissing. Sometimes I feel that I should just keep looking at you. Total madness has taken possession of me).’ Well, that was the kind of roles Priyanka found herself doing in the beginning, which were in strong contrast to the powerful characters she played later, like Jhilmil in Barfi! or Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani and many more.
Priyanka later confessed that acting with big stars like Deol was a daunting experience. ‘My first film, my first day of shooting was with Sunny Deol and I was petrified of him. I was scared of him.’
The film played in the US in a few markets. The Variety critic Derek Elley seemed smitten by Priyanka’s beauty, referring to her as a ‘stunning newcomer’. Later, in the review, Elley added, ‘Mega-looker Chopra (Miss World 2000) making a solid screen debut as a modern urban miss.’ But referring to her small role, Rediff.com said, ‘We will have to wait for Andaaz to figure out whether she can act.’
For his new film Andaaz (2003), producer and director Suneel Darshan needed two actresses—both playing equal parts—to act opposite Akshay Kumar. The film was to be directed by Raj Kanwar, with Suneel on board as the producer. Suneel first considered the safe bet of going with the leading actresses of the time—Karishma Kapoor and Rani Mukerji. But he also wanted to do something unconventional. He had the recently crowned Miss Universe Lara Dutta in his mind.
Meanwhile, Priyanka Chopra’s then secretary, Prakash Jaju, was persistent that Suneel should give the new Miss World a chance as well. ‘I said okay, fine,’ Suneel recalls. ‘She walks into my office, I remember her to be of a darker shade. Our conventional heroines such as Kareena Kapoor were of fairer skin. She didn’t have a conventional beauty, although she had still managed to win a beauty contest. So there had to be something about her.’
Suneel asked Priyanka to sit down and then he noticed her ‘wonderful eyes and a fabulous voice.’ He adds, ‘I told Priyanka if you listen and you deliver in this movie you could become a Sridevi of sorts.’ Priyanka also reminded Suneel of what he described as an actress ‘from the bygone era.’ That actress he says was Rekha.
‘I have seen Rekha grow and evolve. She was also a dark-skinned girl, unconventional, compared to other girls of that time who were a lot prettier such as Hema Malini. But Rekha also succeeded with her husky, sexy voice, her beautiful eyes, and she had a body language.’
Suneel’s brother, Dharmesh Darshan—director of the hit film Raja Hindustani (1996)—also recalls suggesting Priyanka’s name. Dharmesh has seen Priyanka’s song sequence from the Tamil film Thamizhan on television and he sensed a star quality in her. ‘She wasn’t a big name, but I liked her in that song. She had a certain energy,’ Dharmesh says.
Suneel also liked the fact that Priyanka was accompanied by her mother on the first meeting and later during the shoot. ‘At that point I realized here was an intelligent girl with an intelligent mother,’ Suneel says. ‘The father was a sweet man. It was a good family.’
Having Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra on board was a casting coup of sorts for Suneel Darshan. Lara got the higher billing, introduced on credits as Lara Dutta, Miss Universe 2000. Priyanka got the third card—introduced as Priyanka Chopra, Miss World 2000. Priyanka only appeared in the second half of the film and even though Suneel suggests that the two parts were equal, when watching the film, it is clear that Lara is the lead actress. A review on Rediff.com said this about the two actresses: ‘Lara Dutta deserved a better debut to display her talents… Priyanka Chopra alone clicks with the audience, thanks to her skimpy outfits.’
Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications India from the book Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star by Aseem Chhabra. You can buy the book here