Will Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone's careers overcome Hollywood's typecasting?
One would imagine that starring as the female lead in a Hollywood blockbuster would lead to offers pouring in for an actress. Or being the brightest spot in a TV series' ensemble cast would catapult the said talent to a new league in Hollywood. Unfortunately, nothing of this sort has happened for Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra.
Not yet, at least.
In an industry where most non-Caucasian actors are still largely seen as add-ons, will Deepika and Priyanka have to endure the same trajectory as an Eva Mendes, Salma Hayek or Penelope Cruz, who were mostly relegated to checking the ‘exotic’ box or will they actually manage to break through, like a Marion Cotillard?
At the time of the release of XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, the latest installment of the Vin Diesel series, most observers were unanimous about two things — Vin Diesel looked the same as he did nearly 15 years ago when the first film in the franchise released and that Padukone, for all practical purposes, was the female lead. The film raked in big bucks across the globe and even though everyone else besides Vin Diesel had thin parts that did not amount to much, a successful film ought to have opened more doors for Padukone.
Similarly, the success of Quantico, the TV series about a bunch of FBI recruits in a post-9/11 world, helped Priyanka Chopra become one of the hottest new talents in the west. In spite of winning two consecutive People's Choice Awards for Favourite Actress for Quantico, her career prospects in Hollywood still seem to be in a state of limbo. The first film that Chopra will feature in post-Quantico is the rehashed Baywatch. As expected, much was made about her joining the cast that included Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron. Chopra was said to be playing the ‘antagonist’ and yet the teaser of the film barely featured her. Even in the first trailer that went on air Chopra’s character, Victoria Leeds only graduated to a couple of more shots and half a line. The latest, and third, trailer has her saying all of one line:
In a world where the rules of the entertainment business are changing faster than ever before, where the mobile phone has come to be seen as one of the biggest markets — can the prospects of Asian actresses in Hollywood truly undergo a change?
In the end, the one major factor that makes most decisions in Hollywood is the size of the market and with the Internet opening up newer avenues there has been a proliferation of Asian faces in mainstream television and films. There was a time in the mid-1990s where Salma Hayek was not only fighting the perception that Mexican actresses were only good for playing housekeepers or temptresses but also century-old prejudices that still reigned supreme. In fact, a major studio executive even told her once that it would be an uphill task for her to find leading roles as “the moment you open your mouth, you remind everyone of their maid.” At the same time many second-generation actresses such as the Chinese-American Lucy Liu, found themselves stuck in the racism rut where either she was “too Chinese” or “too American.” Even when Liu managed to crack the A-list she would continue to be seen as the “Dragon lady” Ling Woo in on Ally McBeal (1997-2002), a martial arts expert in Kill Bill (2003) or simply the prostitute who was in too deep with the… well, Chinese mafia in Payback (1999)!
One of the best examples of how racism works in mainstream Hollywood casting decisions can be seen in the way the careers of a Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra shaped up post-Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Made on a budget of $6 million, the film earned over $76 million at the box office and besides being lauded by critics and audiences alike it was also considered to be a career-defining film for both actresses. But in the years that followed, Knightley became one of the most recognised actress across the globe, landed leading roles in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Pride & Prejudice (2005), for which she also received an Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category while the biggest thing that happened career-wise to Nagra was being cast as a regular on the long-running TV series E.R. In 2008 when Nagra was in her final year on E.R. Knightley became the second highest paid actress in Hollywood with reported earnings of $32 million, which made her the only non-American on the list.
When it comes to their Hollywood sojourn, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra both might be seen from the grand prism of being ‘Indian’ actresses but their trajectory could be very different if you consider their positioning. To be honest, being a part of the XXX franchise might offer a fantastic platform as far as global exposure goes, but it is also a foregone conclusion that barring Vin Diesel nothing else would in the spotlight. While reviewing the film for The New York Times Jeannette Catsoulis mentioned (in no particular context to Padukone) that the women in the film “slink and pose as if inspired by boom-chicka-boom music only they can hear.” To say that this comes as a surprise keeping the template of the film in mind would be incorrect and therefore even if studios were making a beeline for Padukone the best that could come her way would probably be the same kind of genre or what could also be called the add-ons.
In Chopra’s context, however, it may be surprising that the Baywatch trailers hardly establish her presence in the film — but is it shocking? No. Even with their recent success on American television, the options for Asian-American actors are still limited and mostly stereotypical. Ironically even when films such as the Fast and Furious series where Keith Chow argues that a diverse team both behind and in front of the camera grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide, Hollywood maintains it’s not about race. Filmmakers continue to seek refuge in the old-as-hills argument that minorities in lead roles are a box office gamble; Ridley Scott argued that his Exodus was not too white because simply put, he couldn’t “cast Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” considering the scale.
In a way, things are equally pathetic for not just Asian-Americans but for non-Caucasian actors. Even in a film such as The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp was cast as the Native American Tonto and Emma Stone featured as a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. There have been a handful of instances in the recent past where race has not confounded a casting decision and one such was Nimrat Kaur being featured as Rebecca Yedlin in the second season of Wayward Pines. Kaur’s casting is an example of the trade overcoming what Lucy Liu in the past has called an impossibility where people like her would be seen neutrally as an actress who might fit well in a role. For an actress in Hollywood, overcoming racism in casting is still the second biggest challenge, as sexism continues to loom large in the trade. In an industry where till as recently as 2013, women constituted only 18 percent of directors of narrative films, and the pay disparity is appalling even though there is no empirical evidence that male-led movies make more money than female-led films, it's particularly tough for a Deepika Padukone or a Priyanka Chopra to break the pattern.
Perhaps Salma Hayek best summed the whole racist viewpoint of the studios when she quipped: “They’d consider me for prostitute, but never lead prostitute.”