“Brand Priyanka Chopra”: neoliberal individuality, citizenship, and the transnational female celebrity

by Namrata Rele Sathe

Priyanka Chopra: a multifaceted celebrity

In August 2019, actor and transnational celebrity Priyanka Chopra found herself cornered by a tricky question at the Los Angeles Beautycon Festival. A Pakistani journalist, Ayesha Malik, referred to a tweet that Chopra had posted in February 2019 that cheered on India’s military air strikes on Pakistan. The tweet—which read “Jai Hind (Victory to India) #IndianArmedForces”—hailed the Indian Army attacks in Pakistan. Malik called out Chopra as a “hypocrite,” adding that her jingoistic tweet congratulating India’s military aggression towards Pakistan appeared contradictory to her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Chopra, without batting an eyelid, responded coolly, first by asking Malik if she had “finished venting” and then by answering thus:

“So, I have many, many friends from Pakistan, and I am from India, and war is not something that I am really fond of, but I am patriotic. So, I’m sorry if I hurt sentiments of people who do love me and have loved me, but I think that all of us have a sort of middle ground that we all have to walk, just like you probably do, as well (sic).”

This incident, widely publicized at the time, unveils a dichotomy in Chopra’s well-crafted star persona. Chopra was at a fashion and beauty brand promotion event to talk about her beauty regimen and was, instead, drawn into a political debate on current national affairs.

When Chopra talks about having to walk a “middle ground,” she reveals the difficulty of being a transnational star, of appealing at all times to all factions and offending none. This is a key aspect of Chopra’s star persona; in that persona  she must not divulge starkly radical or partisan political opinions for fear of losing fan following and public backlash. In this case, it is useful to know that Chopra’s parents are both medical doctors in the Indian Army. Such a detail might explain her willingness to align with right-wing strains of patriotism in India, which in the present context, most vehemently coalesce around its military prowess against neighboring Pakistan. War mongering against Pakistan, in Hindu fundamentalist (or Hindutva) India, functions as a political ploy to channel both Islamophobia against India’s Muslim population and nationalist anger against Pakistan. Indian Muslims are often accused of “siding with” Pakistan and told to “go to Pakistan” if they express any dissent towards the government. In the past, superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, both Muslims, have been questioned about their loyalty as Indian citizens when they expressed their views on the country’s growing religious intolerance. This is the cultural-political context that Chopra, as a star, navigates. While she must present herself as cosmopolitan, she must also make sure she does not displease her Indian fans, who might expect her to show support towards the ruling party.

Chopra’s success story is undergirded by the idea that the neoliberal subject presents itself as one that can overcome structural inconsistencies through radical self-invention, rather than systemic change and collective organization. Usually Chopra’s astute navigation of her celebrity persona is constituted by narratives of “Indian womanhood” and cosmopolitan femininity. Here, I focus on how Chopra’s transnational star persona has been constructed via her role in Baywatch and her appearances on several forums related to “women’s empowerment,” in which she presents herself as a feminist icon and successful entrepreneur. I inquire into the multiple dimensions of the Chopra brand and the contradictions between the idea of transnational celebrity and rooted citizenship, here illustrated by an analysis of Chopra’s star persona within India’s right-wing political regime. Chopra’s celebrity persona presents to the world an image of the modern yet traditional Indian woman, who can win hearts on the world stage but still be a patriotic citizen and follow traditional customs. But her persona is far from liminal (in the way that Chopra herself defines it) and always limited by real-life contexts of politics, gender and nationality.

Chopra started out as a model, coming in second in the 2000 Miss India contest and winning the Miss World pageant in the same year, at the age of eighteen. She began working in Hindi cinema in 2002 with The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (Anil Sharma), and, since then, has acted in over 50 Hindi films.

Chopra being crowned Miss World 2000. A promotional poster of Chopra’s first film The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. She is featured here in a blue dress on the left of frame.

In 2012, she began her Hollywood career as a recording artist, collaborating with popular US-American musicians such as Pitbull and will.i.am on music singles. She debuted on US-American network television with the show Quantico in 2015, which ran on ABC network in the United States for three seasons and simultaneously aired on Star India network in India (a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Corporation). In 2017, she starred in her first Hollywood film Baywatch (Seth Gordon) and, in the same year, was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for children’s rights and girls’ education. Chopra helms a media production company with her mother, Madhu Chopra, called Purple Pebble Pictures that is based in Mumbai and produces regional Indian language films. In 2018, she also became an investor in the dating app Bumble, popularly regarded as a “feminist” app because it allows women to make the first move so that they do not receive any unsolicited messages or pictures from men.

Ever since Priyanka Chopra moved to Hollywood to establish herself as a transnational celebrity, she has made strategic forays into remaking herself as a multidimensional, multimedia star whose celebrity extends in several directions. Chopra performs myriad roles as a professional woman; her star brand consists not only of her creative ventures as an actor and recording artist, but also her roles as a film producer, an app investor, and the go-to girl for various causes related to women’s empowerment. When asked about her journey to Hollywood stardom on public forums, Chopra speaks of her unconventional career choices which have made her an exception to the norm. She narrativizes her success by regarding herself as a woman who, through sheer hard work and determination, has been able to beat patriarchy and racial bias in the entertainment industry and gain world-fame. However, these diverse aspects of her star brand also make it unstable in certain situations, as witnessed in the Beautycon example, exposing its careful yet fragile construction.

Baywatch: the threat of the “billionaire bombshell”

Chopra’s first Hollywood film, Baywatch, which released in the summer of 2017, featured superstars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in lead roles. The film is based on the popular television show of the same name, which aired in the United States on NBC from 1989 to 2001. Basing its characters and setting on the show, the film follows a group of lifeguards, led by Mitch Buchannon (Johnson), who double-up as crime-fighting vigilantes in Emerald Bay, Florida. Chopra plays the antagonist, Victoria Leeds, an immigrant woman who runs a successful real estate business that operates as a front for a drug smuggling racket. Chopra, in various interviews, has described her character as a “billionaire bombshell” (in GQ magazine) and “billionaire bitch on a beach wearing couture” (Marie Clare).

Baywatch (the film) is acutely aware of its camp legacy of objectifying male and female bodies and the original show’s racial homogeneity, which it tries to shake up for a global market, now changed by the mainstreaming of issues related to representation of women and minorities in Hollywood. However, Chopra’s character – an entrepreneurial woman and a racial outsider – is the unstable element in the text. Leeds’ character becomes the ideological catchment for both the progressive aspects of the film (by mouthing statements about gender discrimination at frequent intervals) and its inherent discomfort with a body coded as Other by gender and race.

The show Baywatch was one of the first US-American shows to be broadcast in India when television began to be privatized as part of the country’s formal turn to neoliberalism in the early 1990s. The show, with its idealized representations of beautiful white bodies and highly sexualized imagery, was a novelty on Indian television, which until then consisted only of Doordarshan, India’s state-controlled television network. Baywatch, in the words of Appadurai (1998), forms an important part of the “imagined world” created by the “mediascape” (p. 35) of neoliberal modernity in India. These translocal mediascapes offered people the possibility of living “imagined lives” even as they helped to “constitute narratives of the Other and protonarratives of possible lives” for themselves (Appadurai, p. 35). [open notes reference page in new window] Casting Chopra as Leeds, when she is at the peak of her global celebrity, then, was a clever way for the producers of Baywatch to reach an already primed transnational audience in India, who might have watched the show when it was telecast in the 1990s.

Chopra, in promotional interviews for the Baywatch film, has spoken about watching the show as a young girl. In these interviews, Chopra expresses nostalgia about watching Baywatch while growing up in the 90s in the small town of Bareilly in north India. Chopra belongs to that group of middle-class Indians for whom “possible lives” of upward mobility became abundantly achievable after India’s economic liberalization. However, for countless others belonging to the working classes and marginalized castes, the possibility of living a financially secure life in their own country, leave alone on the sunny Baywatch shores of the distant United States, remains acutely impossible. The idea of the hardworking neoliberal self, willing to struggle through all of life’s obstacles, is the narrative that underpins the increased wealth and social power of the middle-classes post India’s turn to neoliberal policies. However, this success story often obscures the social advantages accrued by this class of Indians (to which Chopra belongs), in terms of being financially stable and having an English-language education, so that they were already halfway to imagining a possible immigrant self in the United States.

In Baywatch, Chopra as Leeds embodies a femininity that is problematic because of her over-reaching business ambitions and racial difference. Chopra – noticeably dark-skinned and attired in obviously sexy fashionable dresses – performs a femininity that is at once normative (in terms of the overt sexuality coded in her costumes and body language) and transgressive in her extremely driven and ruthlessly mercenary nature.

The name of her character, Victoria Leeds, forwards the idea that the film was meant for a global audience. The connotations of her first and last names – “Victoria” (a British monarch) and “Leeds” (a city in England) – make her palatable to a predominantly US-American audience that finds Britishness attractive. The name, thus, exoticizes her (in her British-sounding name) and orientalizes her (in her skin tone). Saïd (1979) has argued that an Orientalist worldview homogenizes and merges together swathes of distinct cultures and nations of the colonized into an imaginary Other that must be conquered. Leeds’ Anglicized name frees her of the burden of carrying the caste-religious ethnic baggage of conflicted South Asian identities. She is, thus, accessible as a symbolic figure to the Orientalist gaze – as one without history or cultural memory.

Through her interactions with other characters, we are made aware that she is a migrant. At one point, when a character asks her why she came to the United States, Leeds replies that it was because of “gender discrimination.” She does not explain exactly what happened to her in her home culture, but her views rely on a generalized and popular notion that imagines the backward Third World as the other of the advanced “West.” Her remark alludes to the wide circulation of the “American Dream” ideology, which prompts people to leave their homelands and head to the States. Leeds’ presentation as an immigrant woman, who has escaped from an unnamed oppressive country to come to the United States, immediately stokes cultural and patriotic pride within US-based audiences. Additionally, it also becomes the underlying logic for her sexualized persona as the antagonist: Leeds is free to be overtly sexy because now she is in the United States. Through Leeds’ character, the film suggests that for a migrant woman of color from the Third World, the United States is an attractive option to lead an emancipated life and to become an independent business-woman.

Leeds, the character played by Chopra, is always seen in high-fashion, overtly sexy dresses, inviting the viewer to focus on her body.