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. 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). 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.
In Transnational America, Grewal (2005) has explained how “American” nationalities are formed in the United States and other parts of the world via the production of global consumers. Grewal argues,
“As a superpower, America produced subjects outside its territorial boundaries through its ability to disseminate neoliberal technologies through multiple channels. […] The relevance of America was not solely in the subjects it produced within the United States but in its ability to create networks of knowledge and power, cosmopolitan and ‘global,’ that traversed and rearticulated national boundaries” (p. 2-3).
In the production of the “cosmopolitan” citizen-consumer is embedded the ideology that market-based choices offer the potential of creating individualized and freely choosing subjects – a notion that, according to Grewal, also formed the basis of liberal feminism. This engendered “lifestyles of empowerment” (Grewal, p. 16) that proved especially useful for the migrant female consumer to chart a course of emancipation from her restrictive home culture. As Grewal argues further,
“Choice here was not only the act through which freedom could be understood as central to the subject of modern American as well as of liberal feminism, but also an important aspect of neoliberal culture’s imbrication within the liberalism of democratic ‘choice’ figured as ‘freedom.’ The particular ‘freedom’ of ‘America’ thus became the ability to have the ‘choices’ denied to those in ‘traditional’ societies and ‘cultures’” (p. 65).
Chopra, playing Leeds in Baywatch, is an example of such a liberated woman, who was able to pursue her entrepreneurial ambition in the proverbial land of opportunities by becoming a high-value consumer.
We see this coded into the visual imagery of the film in Leeds’ expensive-looking clothes and other conspicuous markers of a wealthy lifestyle. She owns a yacht and has several people (mostly men) at her beck and call. In one scene, Leeds bribes a local politician with a Tag Heuer watch (made prominently visible in the shot because Chopra is the brand ambassador for this luxury line of watches). She is the affluent female consumer, at the helm of a criminal enterprise and real estate business, who acts deliberately and always to increase her wealth and power. In this scene, though, the extratextual star persona of Chopra as a Tag Heuer brand ambassador merges seamlessly into the role that she is playing in the film, coding the star and the character at once as consumers of high-end luxury items.
In the climax of the film, Leeds is cruelly punished for her excesses: she is killed by an explosion of heavy-duty firecrackers and all that is left of her is a severed leg and a high-heeled shoe. This dramatic end comes when Leeds is trying to kill Brody (played by Zac Efron). Her last words to Buchannan, as he is trying to save Brody, are, “If I was a man, you would call me driven.” These scathing words are followed, unexpectedly, by an explosion and, after a few seconds, we see her severed leg drop down from the sky in an instant that is both comic and gruesome. The character of Leeds incorporates a volatile presence in the film text – as a brown woman, as a woman engaged in business, and as a criminal mastermind – who needs to be completely annihilated. Even though Chopra’s inclusion in the film is an example of a more diverse representation of people of color in mainstream Hollywood and a significant career milestone for Chopra as a transnational star, I read her violent textual death as the film’s inability to assimilate her presence.
In contrast to Chopra’s role in Baywatch, Chopra’s ethnicity has been used in far more conventional ways in her other media-related ventures in Hollywood. For instance, in 2013, Chopra released one of her first music videos called “Exotic,” the subtext of which plays off the fact that Chopra is brown-skinned. The video begins with Chopra emerging from the sea in a bathing suit, as the camera lingers over her body, visually interpreting the lyrics in which she tells us that she is “exotic” and “hotter than the tropics.” Phrases such as “desi girl” (Indian girl) and “pardesi babu” (a man from a foreign country) are included to signify her transnational status. Chopra is captured in various poses throughout the video, always in bathing suits and high heels, a throwback to her erstwhile career as a model and beauty queen. In an extended dance sequence towards the end of the video, Chopra is placed in a mise-en-scène of a tropical forest and dressed in black. The dimly lit background emphasizes Chopra’s body and her darker skin tone. The way in which Chopra is presented in the video indicates that her brown skin tone is a marketable aspect of her stardom, which has been effectively used in this case to commodify her ethnicity and popularize her in an international context. The Leeds character in Baywatch, thus, becomes an extension of this commodification that simultaneously eroticizes and tames the other by sexualizing her in conventional “western” wear.
Similarly, the television drama Quantico (2015-2018) overplays the fact that Chopra is a brown-skinned, second generation Indian American. She plays the protagonist Alex Parrish in the series, a driven and ambitious FBI trainee and the best in her program. In the first season, Chopra becomes embroiled in a terrorist attack on a New York subway in which she is the main suspect. In Episode 5, Parrish directly addresses the public (and the viewer) in a video in which she claims that she is innocent and is being framed for the crime only because she is brown. Her public statement points towards the widely prevalent racist trope that identifies brown-skinned people as terrorists. Her skin tone is not incidental but is a crucial part of the narrative arc of the show.
Chopra’s ethnicity in these texts is deployed to mark her as the at-once fascinating and threatening Other, connotations that resonate with those associated with her character in Baywatch. The threat, however, never gets out of hand in any of the three texts mentioned earlier. In these texts, Chopra’s race and/or sexuality is oriented more towards entertainment and popular consumption rather than serious critique, eliminating any ideologically radical deployment of her identity as a racial and gendered Other. Chopra and her character Leeds are both examples of women of color who have been able to negotiate with the dominant system and gain affluence. Yet, certain aspects of their personality surface to make their presence within this system precarious.
In Off-White Hollywood, Negra (2001) has argued that an ethnic female star is readily absorbed and commodified by Hollywood as she symbolizes the myth of American pluralism and meritocratic achievement. Additionally, Negra states, she embodies the potential for “ideological disruption” as she “threatens to expose the fragile construction of white, American patriarchy” (p. 8). In a culture in which capitalism is the dominant ethic, then, meritocracy is used as the smokescreen to justify the logic of capitalism. The ethnic female star is the perfect example of the workability of this system, as she is neither white nor male. The ethnic female star, nevertheless, is not an exemplifier of meritocracy but a randomized exception to the inequalities spawned by capitalism, one of the lucky few that capitalism arbitrarily decides to reward with wealth.
A migrant woman’s efforts to include herself in the dominant consumerist ethic of American society is a complex idea to represent in a mainstream text such as Baywatch. On the one hand, her ethnicity must be used as a plot device, leading to fatal outcomes; on the other hand, the myth of the “American Dream” must be kept alive by depicting her as successful and empowered. The figure of the female migrant is instrumental in creating a subtextual contrast between her home culture as limiting and fixed and the United States as a nation of endless opportunities and multicultural ethos. Chopra, in her role as Victoria Leeds, fulfills simultaneously the stereotype of the oppressed Third World migrant woman and the high-achieving, hardworking US-American immigrant. Yet the fault line of the text is exposed through her extremely violent death, wherein her body (and delinquent individuality) is torn to shreds so that her excessive ambition is not only controlled, but also destroyed.
“Fierce, fearless, flawed”: performing brand “Priyanka”
In a three-part interview titled “Beneath the Surface” (2016), uploaded by the YouTube channel Film Companion, we are invited to visit Priyanka Chopra’s New York apartment for a glimpse into the person behind the star. Chopra takes us on a guided tour of her apartment – the space unfolding before our eyes as a spectacle of her status and affluence. In part three of this interview, we become aware of the marketing logic that underpins the show: a Microsoft Surface tablet computer used in a segment where Chopra watches and then talks about scenes from her most well-known Hindi films. The star Priyanka Chopra and the gadget Microsoft Surface have certain similarities: both are famous, both have internationally recognizable brand names, and both are associated with a lifestyle of expensive consumption. In the specific context of celebrity culture, Klein (1999) has termed this “fluid partnership” between famous people and famous products “co-branding,” – an interaction that enables both entities to leverage each other’s brands (p. 30). This is not a simple case of a star promoting a product. In times when popular culture is saturated with celebrities and products, the two complement each other in the mutual need to be noticed and demarcate themselves from other brands. In the interview, Chopra appears remarkably self-aware of her own brand and discusses her brand identity quite candidly.
When Chopra is asked how she views her success as a woman in Hollywood, she replies that the “exotic Indian girl” persona was an “easy business module” in the early part of her career. She expresses concern about “Bollywood’ stereotypes prevalent in Hollywood and says that she deliberately wanted to work towards dismantling the notion that she is only capable of song-and-dance and melodrama. She also mentions that she is a “princess” who does not busy herself with any household chores and cannot cook and is, therefore, not a typical eligible Indian bride. Chopra says that her staff and cook travel with her between Mumbai and New York so that her life as a transnational star is a seamless affair. Chopra, apart from performing stardom in this interview, also reveals her quintessential Indian class and caste privilege: a woman who will not do her own chores because she can employ people from the working class to do them for her.
Historically, stars have always functioned as brands, their name and fame used to launch and market films. McDonald (2000) has argued that stars are a “form of capital” and are used to gain advantage in the market and earn profits by commercial industries (p. 5). The foundation of the market value of the stars is their identity and recognizability as “individuated performers” (McDonald, p. 30). A star’s brand, therefore, is constructed around individuality, a notion that under neoliberal regimes of celebrity culture translates to flexible self-commodification to suit the cultural market. As Marshall (1997) has pointed out, individuality is one of the “ideological mainstays” (p. 635) of consumer capitalism, a context within which stars and celebrities operate as “highly organized cultural commodities” (p. 634). However, what is most attractive about the star is that she seemingly exists outside the realm of commodification as a creative individual, constantly changing and enacting creativity of the self. This pattern shows itself in the stardom and branding of Chopra, who presents herself as someone who has become a celebrity only after a relentless investment in herself, her star image, and her craft.
In another public appearance in 2018 for a talk on the topic “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” organized by the Indian news channel NDTV (also available on YouTube), Chopra describes herself as “fierce, fearless, and flawed.” She goes on to outline a twelve-step program that can empower young people to achieve their own dreams and “become Priyanka Chopra.” This list includes catchphrases such as “make choices,” “be greedy,” and “take risks.” She confesses that it was not her intention to break any kind of glass ceiling in her career, but that she only wanted to “chase her dreams.” Chopra’s stardom, in her own words, is a journey of continuous self-invention and of molding her persona to suit the demands of the entertainment market.
Chopra’s self-driven journey to success displays an affinity to the neoliberal understanding of atomized self-invention and enterprise. Gill and Shraff (2011) have argued that the neoliberal subject is gendered as a woman, encouraged to think of herself as an “autonomous, calculating, self-regulating subject” who functions as if she is unaffected by “any idea of individuals as subject to pressures, constraints or influence from outside themselves” (p. 7). Although Chopra refers to instances where she was discriminated against as a woman on film sets in India, she omits the fact that this is a systemic problem in the industry that female stars collectively face. Chopra’s “twelve-step program” advice is based on the presumption that any woman can easily follow these steps and become as successful as her, without referring to her own social privileges. In this neoliberal self-identification, individualism remains a free-floating ethic that anyone can strap on to their personality and precludes any grounding in social, political or economic contexts.
A female star such as Chopra, nevertheless, still exists within the contradictions of a capitalistic economy which dissembles traditional hierarchies but does not radically alter social and cultural mores. In the context of contemporary India, conservative values dictate women’s public and private behavior, causing friction between the neoliberal ethic of individuality and dominant values regarding gender and sexuality. I use a highly publicized instance to illustrate how Chopra’s star brand clashes with majoritarian views about how ideal Indian women must behave and present themselves in public. In 2017, Priyanka Chopra was trolled for posting a photo on Instagram where she is seen with the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. In the picture, she was wearing a knee-length dress instead of traditional Indian attire, and commenters shamed her for “exposing her legs” to the Prime Minister. Days later Chopra posted another picture of her mother and herself, both posing in short dresses with the caption “Legs for days.” Via her cheeky reply, Chopra, without naming anyone specifically, managed to rebuke Modi followers and trolls. Her tweet was a push back against their sexist attitudes towards Indian womanhood and (by including her mother in the shot) their favored trope of deifying motherhood.
Despite her self-assured response to the trolls, the backlash received by Chopra for her picture with Modi exposes cracks in the ideology of “choice” that she regards as an asset she possesses as a modern Indian woman. Chopra’s definition of choice, however, is imbricated within discourses of neoliberalism, wherein choice often applies only to empowerment within the commodity market. Chopra’s celebrity demonstrates the logic behind the apparent egalitarianism of the capitalist system: continuous labor and self-promotion is eventually rewarded. Yet, as King (2010) has explained, this is a form of tokenism specific to capitalism, in which “certain individuals [are selected] from subaltern categories to prove that anything is possible” (p. 17). This selection process, however, is not completely random and rewards only those who are willing to conform to the narrative of “creative” individualism – an endless process of recycling the self to maintain a state of relevance in the market.
“Nickyanka”: the ultimate celebrity brand
On December 1, 2018 Chopra married boyband member, solo recording artist, and actor Nick Jonas in an elaborate multi-day wedding ceremony. Even months after their wedding, social media was inundated with pictures curated from the lavish ceremonies, posted on Instagram by various attendees, the press, and Chopra and Jonas themselves. Their wedding was so high profile that even the Indian Prime Minister attended one of their reception parties. After their wedding, Chopra and Jonas were named “Nickyanka” by the press in the popular tradition of referring to celebrity couples by a “portmanteau name” to indicate their combined cultural value and power (Cobb and Ewen, 2015, p. 1). Diaz (2015) has argued, in the case of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, how the blending of their names into “Brangelina” was instrumental in rebranding the couple as a “new, marketable, celebrity entity” (p. 278).
Chopra and Jonas, as a couple, also demonstrate this rebranding: for instance, in the wedding-related videos that the couple recorded for elite fashion magazine Vogue (available on YouTube). In one of these videos, Chopra dances to one of Jonas’ hit songs. The visuals resemble a music video, where Jonas is seen strumming a guitar and singing in one corner of a room with Chopra dancing on a stage in the center, changing her outfit thrice. These videos, then, represent the coming together not only of Chopra and Jonas’ combined brand as a couple, but also of three mega brands – Priyanka, Nick and Vogue – each one contributing to the other’s brand value.
In a post-wedding public appearance in India, Chopra was seen wearing a mangalsutra and sindoor, traditional markers for women that identify them as married. When called out for being a “pseudo-feminist” on Twitter for changing her last name and wearing sindoor, Chopra responded by saying that her definition of feminism is that women should be free to do what they like. Chopra reframes tradition as individual choice and willingly participates in the assertion of gendered hierarchies in the heteronormative marriage. As Kapur (2009) has argued, this is part of a larger trend of ostentatious weddings in neoliberal India, in which members of a transnational elite seek to combine tradition and modern conveniences and view the practice of wedding-related patriarchal conventions as an expression of personal style. Kapur has explained that conspicuous consumption in this Great Indian (Hindu) Wedding
“is symptomatic of a neoliberal subject governed by a regime of consumption where, in order to show that one has ‘arrived,’ every event, including something as conformist as a wedding, must be presented as uniquely individual” (p. 94).
Yet, as an article written soon after the Chopra-Jonas wedding in the online magazine The Cut revealed, this alliance and its spectacular, highly mediatized performance did achieve some degree of scandal. Mariah Smith, in her opinion piece about the marriage (an article that was later taken down after massive backlash about its racist and sexist overtones), called Chopra a “global scam artist” who had tricked Jonas into an extravagant wedding and a “life sentence” of a marriage. According to Smith, Chopra had ulterior motives of furthering her career in Hollywood by marrying Jonas. Smith also critiqued Chopra’s “indulgent” celebrity lifestyle and her sexual autonomy by bringing up rumors of earlier relationships. Apart from the fact that Smith is clearly unaware that Chopra was a film star even before she married Jonas, the writer creates a narrative of panic and fear about the older brown woman marrying a young, impressionable white American man.
In the self-aware positioning of her ethnicity in Hollywood and her “Indianness” in the Indian context, Chopra displays a hard to pin-down star brand that encapsulates the constant and rapid change demanded by neoliberalism. Additionally, Chopra’s stardom brings into relief the contradictions of neoliberal culture: the conditionality of freedom and choice, the precarity of upward mobility, and the exclusivity of success. Her ability to travel across the world with ease and switch between two entertainment industries is a result of her affluence and class privilege. Yet, we know well-enough that women working in commercial film industries (such as the Hindi film industry and Hollywood) are consistently censured and marginalized when they display high degrees of personal and professional autonomy. This is what makes Chopra a fascinating film star and media celebrity: her career is shaped by the continuous self-invention necessary in a media industry that seeks novelty, especially in its female stars; however, her conformity to this paradigm is also what, counterintuitively, makes her seem unconventional, exceptional, or even transgressive, in certain contexts.
When is a star not a star?: citizen, immigrant, celebrity
In 2017, Chopra hosted the annual Global Citizen Festival in New York. Global Citizen is a platform that uses internationally famous celebrities such as Chopra to promote various social causes that affect our world on a global scale. As part of her campaign as a “global citizen” and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Chopra visited Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh. Since the Indian state is engaged in a political conflict of its own with Bangladesh over issues of immigration, Chopra’s act was met with excoriation from nationalist factions in India. In another instance, Chopra had to apologize when she appeared on the cover of Condé Nast magazine in a t-shirt with a message that was considered offensive. The t-shirt showed a list of four words – “refugee, immigrant, outsider, traveler” – out of which all except the last were crossed out. Criticism centered on the fact that Chopra was privileged and, thus, could claim to be a “traveler” whereas the other identities are often imposed on the powerless.
A transnational celebrity such as Chopra exists on what Meeuf and Raphael (2013) have termed “contact zones” of nations and cultures in global capitalist economies. Although Meeuf and Raphael argue that these contact zones can obscure “the constructs of nation or the inequalities of global capitalism” (p. 3), I suggest that, conversely, these can also be zones of rupture where these differences are more than obvious. The controversies surrounding Chopra in cases when she is downplaying her situatedness as an Indian citizen make this apparent, even as they reveal her privilege. It is only too evident in the way our world works today that the words “citizen” and “immigrant” function very differently for those who are without the power and resources that someone such as Chopra can take for granted.
In her interviews, Chopra often refers to her jet-setting lifestyle and how she spends life on an airplane. She has referred to herself as “nomadic” on The Wendy Williams Show, adding that she continuously shuttles between countries for work. Szeto (2011) has used the term “cosmopolitical” in her study of Chinese directors who have been successful in Hollywood, arguing that their engagement with multiple geopolitical locations is based on strategies that are “not essentialist” and “include a variety of encounters, negotiations, and affiliations” (p. 2). She defines the cosmopolitical as a “transnational, interactive, and complex emergent identity and consciousness” (Szeto, p. 6). In Szeto’s view, the cosmopolitical is a transgressive identity that undermines an individual’s situatedness within a nation-state. Additionally, it is also a survival strategy, useful for those who are “resilient and inventive” to navigate a “global media landscape” (Szeto, p. 6).
Although Chopra fits the definition of a cosmopolitical, I want to emphasize how much this identity, this seeming liminality is in the service of a capitalistic celebrity culture. More significantly, Chopra’s transnational celebrity has emerged amid a worldwide resurgence of nationalism, particularly championed by neoliberal governments such as that of India. Chopra’s celebrity is transnational, yet her identity is defined by the indelible markings of citizenship, nationality and race. Although Chopra can claim to use her ethnic identity as a marketable aspect of her stardom in Hollywood, she also finds herself in situations where her ethnicity and nationality make her conspicuous and, thus, subject to criticism from chauvinistic groups she offends with her actions.
In recent times, Chopra has emerged, among other mainstream Hindi cinema stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar and Kangana Ranaut, as an iconic and open supporter of Prime Minister Modi. In April 2020, the Prime Minister publicly thanked Chopra in a tweet in which he mentioned a donation she had made to the PM Cares Fund, a charitable trust created by Modi specially for coronavirus relief in India. This fund has come under increased scrutiny since it was launched during the pandemic for its opacity in terms of how donation money is being collected and used. Commentators have criticized the fund for being yet another publicity stunt by the Modi government, even as millions in donations pour in from Chopra, her husband Nick Jonas, and other celebrities.
Chopra was once again excoriated for being a hypocrite when she posted on Instagram in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd in the United States. She wrote about how Floyd was a victim of police brutality, adding, “NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color.” Chopra was called out for remaining silent on police brutality in India, which played out horrifically during the wave of protests that surged in India in late 2019 against a bigoted citizenship law, the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Chopra’s star-brand, despite it careful construction, plays out in starkly oppositional ways, wherein she can respond to Modi supporters in a “feminist” post reclaiming her right to dress the way she wants (as in the “legs for days” example) and endorse the increasingly fascist ways of the Modi government. Within the forging of her star-persona, these two strains of political thought, which are otherwise irreconcilable, merge without apparent contradiction. As a result, she can present herself as standing for racial justice and gender equality, while also supporting a regime that is built on Hindu fundamentalism and the suppression of minority rights in India.
In The Society of the Spectacle (1994), Debord has stated that spectacle, in capitalist societies, is the “opposite of dialogue” (p. 17). Stardom, according to Debord, forms a subset of the realm of the spectacle, and celebrity lifestyles are constructed to seem accessible to everyone. However, as Debord explains, what we see of celebrity lives are only “by-products” of their labor (which are power and leisure), projected above labor to appear as the main goal of stardom (p. 39). While inhabiting the realm of the spectacle, the star “renounces all autonomy” to conform to the dominant order, thus betraying her ordinariness over her supposed individuality (p. 39). The loss of autonomy for Chopra, the inability to maintain a genuine sense of individuality is brought into focus if we compare her with other contemporary female actors working in Hindi cinema, such as Swara Bhasker and Richa Chaddha, who openly express their censure of the Indian government on their social media handles. Not only are these women trolled mercilessly by Modi supporters, they also do not fit into an identifiable brand as stars. However, there is no visible contradiction within their personal politics, as there often is in the case of Chopra. The spectacle of Priyanka Chopra’s stardom is, thus, inherently unstable, so that when she is asked to take a position as a person, not as a star, her persona falls through as the person is revealed and struggles to conform.
1. Although the original article was deleted, I have referenced other online sources for screenshots and quotes from the article.
2. The Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Indian government in December 2019. The act, using religion as a basis to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who were fleeing persecution in their home countries, singled out Muslims as ineligible to claim refugee-status in India. The induction of the bill in parliament and its subsequent passing was met with country-wide and overseas protests that called for rescinding the Act that incorporated blatant discriminatory and anti-Muslim language. The protests, many that involved university students, dissented against the authoritarian rule of the Modi government and focused on the Hindu fundamentalism of the ruling party.
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