She works in two different continents and has wowed the celluloid screens of both. She shares a birthday with Nelson Mandela and is working hard for the planet’s children. Meet Priyanka Chopra.
Priyanka Chopra waltzes into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a gilded Sabyasachi (Indian designer) saree with the painting of a leaping tiger on her blouse.
In May, the crucial stopover in Africa, on her way from Mumbai before heading back to the United States (US), had nothing to do with cinema. True, she has shot for Bollywood films in Cape Town and Durban before – she also mentions Namibia – so this is not her first visit to the continent.
In the land of lions, she is the quintessential Indian tigress, known for her stratospheric success in Bollywood portraying some pretty feisty, feline roles, and who has now successfully carried that powerful persona to ensnare audiences in Hollywood.
Chopra was here as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, preluding her South Africa visit with a trip to Zimbabwe, highlighting the challenges faced by children affected by violence. She was at the Hyatt to address UNICEF South Africa’s first fundraising gala to raise resources for child-protection programs in South Africa.
Having served as a UNICEF National Ambassador in India for nearly 10 years, she was appointed global Goodwill Ambassador in December last year.
The multiple award-winning actress, philanthropist, singer, film producer and winner of the Miss World 2000 pageant, was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2016. Since moving to the US for her ongoing stint as the intrepid Alex Parrish in the ABC thriller, Quantico, broadcast around the world, her fame has skyrocketed. She has commanded Oscar red carpets and fashion galas – social media won’t forget in a hurry the head-turning Ralph Lauren trench-gown she wore to the Met Gala only days before her Africa sojourn.
May also saw the release of her first Hollywood film, Baywatch, where she stars with actors Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron.
From Bareilly to Bollywood to Baywatch, the 34-year-old has indeed come a long way, crossing continents, cultures and cinema with effortless zeal.
A native of Bareilly in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Chopra’s first tryst with fame was as winner of the Miss India pageant in 1999.
Both her parents worked as doctors. I recall the cold day in 2000 when they visited the Connaught Place offices of India Today (a leading Indian newsweekly) in New Delhi where I worked as Principal Correspondent. Every week, one of my responsibilities was putting together Eyecatchers, the popular people page in the magazine profiling newsmakers on the subcontinent. In the days when magazines were few and digital was still evolving, the page was sought-after real estate in the publishing world. I recall Chopra’s gentle, soft-spoken mother, Madhu, and her affable father, Ashok, who waited for me in the reception area the evening before we were going to press.
“Hope you can please include her on your page,” said her mother, handing me her portrait shots, “she has been getting offers from the film world; hope she makes it one day.”
I mention this to Chopra when introduced to her at the UNICEF gala in Johannesburg, 17 years later and 8,000 kilometers from Delhi.
“Yup, that sounds like my mother,” she laughs, “my parents have been everything to me.”
She is almost too unassuming and girl-next-door for the celebrity she has become in the years since those first glowing reviews on her in India’s cut-throat national press. Chopra has starred in blockbuster Indian films such as Fashion (for which she won a National Award; equivalent to an Oscar in India) Dostana, Don, Barfi!, Mary Kom and more recently, Bajirao Mastani.
In 2016, she was conferred with a Padma Shri, one of Indian highest civilian honors, by the government.
At the UNICEF dinner, she speaks articulately about creating circles of care and protection for children and delivers a passionate plea to help them, recounting her interactions with rape victims and abused young children in Zimbabwe.
“I spoke from the heart,” she tells me.
At the press briefing the following day, before catching her next flight, Chopra is wearing a UNICEF t-shirt, ripped jeans and round sunglasses. She says she has had “a whirlwind of four days in Africa… I feel like I have been here a month”.
“Zimbabwe was extremely insightful; the statistics are staggering when it comes to violence against children. In South Africa, between one in three girls experience some form of violence prior to age 18; that’s not a problem, that’s an epidemic!” she animatedly tells reporters.
“I met little girls including a day-old baby girl raped by her father… The future looks bleak, I may not be from here, but I am a citizen of the world and every child matters to me… Taking care of our children is what will take countries out of crisis. All of us get stuck in statistics, but I want you to think of these girls as people. It’s your basic responsibility, as the privileged, to give back time, compassion and your opening of hearts. As celebrities, we are the means to the end so that their stories get told to the world.”
Chopra runs her own eponymous foundation in India providing education to the underprivileged. Philanthropy is almost second nature to her.
“I was raised in a home that always gave back. Every summer, my parents, both doctors, would go to villages in India in an ambulance and my job as an eight-year-old was to assist the pharmacist; it made me conscious of the world around me.
“I am a huge achiever, and every girl and boy needs to be an achiever. I set standards for myself, but glamor is not an easy world. I have been in four time zones in a week – India, Africa and LA.”
Chopra also speaks of her special connect with South Africa. For starters, she shares a birthday with Nelson Mandela.
“I always believe I am extra special because I share my birthday with him,” she trills.
“Madiba and Mahatma [Gandhi] are extremely important in my life. They bring India and South Africa together. Both men stood for the rights of children. They have led as examples and have walked the talk. We can’t be Mahatma or Madiba; we have to make ourselves even a percentage [of that].”
Chopra says she met Mandela’s family after he had passed away and it was “very emotional”.
In the car on her way to the airport, in a phone interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, she reveals, in her trademark husky voice, more about her work for UNICEF and what’s on the cards for her personally.
“I want to highlight the problems of the world as much as I can… The important thing is to educate parents about teaching their children. The long-term effects of education are that they will be able to take charge of their own future. I had a family that gave me the ability to stand on my own two feet. And I chose my own life.”
Chopra also runs a production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, in Mumbai. Last year, its film, Ventilator, bagged three National Awards, an achievement she is proud of.
“My production company throws light on [such] causes. We give opportunities to new talent. We have another six films on the cards, three of which are children’s films.” Will her work with UNICEF see her returning to Africa?
“As a continent, it’s very special. I will keep coming back,” she promises, before preparing to hit yet another time zone, yet another road to opportunity and global fame.