Thank you, Priyanka Chopra, for showing Indian actresses aren't boring in Quantico

​The burning question of Quantico is, will the FBI catch up with Priyanka Chopra before her accent does? But before that, I must give a standing ovation to Priyanka Chopra for what she’s managed with Quantico.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that the ABC series Quantico is about a bunch of recruits at the FBI Academy in the US. That’s not why it’s worth excitement. Quantico is the first time an Indian actor has been cast as the central character in an American television show. Glass ceiling, say hello to Priyanka Chopra.

The opening shot of Quantico’s pilot episode shows debris. The camera zooms in on to the wrist of a prone figure. It wears a wristband with a silver om dangling on it. Attached to the wrist is an unconscious Chopra.

Priyanka Chopra in Quantico. Screengrab.

Priyanka Chopra in Quantico. Screengrab.

Then Shah Rukh Khan steps into frame. Okay, no. But I did keep expecting that to happen.

What actually does happen is that we’re shown a flashback from nine months ago, when Chopra is seen jogging in Oakland, California. She says bye to her mother, who thinks Chopra is going to the train station, only to go to the airport and take a flight to Washington DC. We then see a number of other people – a blonde woman who seems to be living alone in a mansion; a priest from Salt Lake, Utah; a Muslim woman in a headscarf, in Logan, Ohio. They all behave a little oddly and are all headed to the FBI Academy.

Oh, and lest I forget, we are introduced to five different versions of the American desi accent, courtesy Chopra.

Chopra plays Alex Parrish – which is either the name of a monastery or a rock star — daughter of a woman named Sita, just in case we needed any confirmation that she is mostly Indian. Five minutes into the show, she does what none of our crossover Indian actresses (and I’m not counting Mallika Sherawat here) have done – she has sex on screen, that too with a stranger, in a car. Not just that, she enjoys it and isn’t apologetic.

Lord hail the Indian actress who believes in playing her role without thinking about how it will affect the hypocritical film fraternity and audiences back home! The only other Indian actress to have accomplished this feat is Freida Pinto, and it’s no coincidence that she’s an actress in Hollywood with practically no prospects to speak of in Indian mainstream cinema. God forbid one of our heroines do something as normal and blasphemous as kiss or hump on screen. She would immediately be considered tainted goods, unfit to play the sati savitri female lead in commercial cinema.

No such hangups in either Chopra or Quantico. Back at the FBI Academy, the new batch is given an assignment that requires them to investigate each other. Cut to the present: Chopra is lying in the middle of the debris without so much as a scratch on her. No wonder those investigating what is described as the worst terrorist attack on America since 9/11 look at her suspiciously.

Alex is told that one of her classmates is a terrorist and responsible for this attack. She’s asked to recount what happened at the academy. So she does and with each cut back to the present, Alex and the audience both realise that nothing is quite as it seems. Alex is in danger, she’s probably being framed, and there seems to be no one she can trust.

It’s an extremely taut first episode. There’s banter as well as twists and turns. It’s also eventful and stuffed with issues. Random sex, daddy issues, pedophilia, suicide — Quantico’s got it all. This is a gripping beginning.

That it’s an ABC Production is evident from the first frame. The world of difference that is there between our Indian TV or film productions and American television shows is heartrending. Quantico’s sets aren’t particularly elaborate and neither are its locations particularly striking, but they all feel real. Unlike what we see in our home productions, nothing in Quantico is obviously a set. Even our really expensive shows like Yudh and 24 come nowhere near these programmes in terms of production value.

However, what is most impressive is what Chopra has achieved. It’s not that our Indian actresses haven’t tried to cross over before. Nimrat Kaur, first spotted in The Lunchbox, is brilliant in Homeland. However, she is very much part of the supporting cast. Aishwarya “No Kiss” Rai Bachchan starred in a number of big foreign productions, like Bride and Prejudice, Mistress of Spices and The Pink Panther. Mallika Sherawat writhed in Hisss and has been Jackie Chan’s co-star.

But Chopra is the first to helm an American show, and that too one of Quantico’s calibre, playing a role that is not defined by her ethnicity or colour. This is a role which could have been played by a Spanish, Mexican, British, Asian, African or American actress. But Chopra is the one playing it. This is no mean feat. ABC is the home and creator of popular and acclaimed shows like How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Both shows are pivoted upon women played by black actresses. To have landed a primetime drama series on a channel like ABC is laudable enough. Chopra has successfully also pitched herself against women like Viola Davis of How To Get Away With Murder, Claire Danes of Homeland and Kerry Washington in Scandal.

Usually even when we land a big production, our actors choose roles of shrinking violets and refuse to kiss or show any sexual behaviour on screen – because it’s against our sanskriti to do so. Never mind whether the role actually demands it or if it’s a perfectly normal and natural element of human behaviour. This conservatism has kept them from getting meatier roles. Chopra is the first one to have taken on a role and treated details in its personality — like the random, casual sex in the car — professionally and normally.

Quantico isn’t some tawdry production, like Hisss which had Mallika Sherawat fornicating with a snake. With it, Chopra does Indian actresses a huge favour. She shows international audiences that they can play regular women with the same aplomb with which they play the artificial characters of Bollywood. Whether other Indian actresses will be able to follow her lead remains to be seen and the fact that they haven’t as yet makes Chopra’s portrayal of Alex Parrish all the more applause-worthy.

So whether Quantico gets another season or not – and going by the pleasantly surprising first episode, it might just get a second run – I’m impressed by what Chopra has managed to pull off. Who knows, maybe Priyanka Chopra will do for Indian actresses what Washington and Davis have done for black or African-American women on American television? So a big cheer for Priyanka Chopra, for doing herself and the rest of us brown women proud.

My only request to Chopra: Please decide which of the five accents you want to run with for the show and stick to it. Unless of course that’s another secret that will be uncovered in Quantico — which of the five accents is Alex Parrish’s real one?

You can watch Quantico every Saturday at 9pm on Star Premiere HD.​


Published Date: Oct 06, 2015 07:09 am | Updated Date: Oct 06, 2015 07:10 am

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