She’s got Tabasco in her handbag, and the world on a string.
Next stop: Toronto.
Among the flotilla of stars coming to town at September’s behest, Priyanka Chopra — who really does not leave home without a 911 bottle of hot sauce — is the guest of honour at a night-before funder known as TIFF Soirée. In advance of the Sept. 6 event to benefit the festival’s “Share Her Journey” campaign, the stunner took a sec to chat, rain pelting down like Spartan arrows where she was.
“It’s monsoon season here,” she said, stopping to describe the annual opening of the skies that happens on the subcontinent around this time of year, when the sky and sea turn different shades, and an expectant hush falls over much of her country.
“I love the rains in India. It’s my favourite season,” she added. “It inspires me.”
Surely there’s much that inspires the 35-year-old global powerhouse — one who’s busy recalibrating the very idea of 21st century fame these days. With a work ethic that might even rival Ryan Seacrest’s, and a directness that comes through loud and clear when speaking with her, Chopra’s wheelhouse is one in which she’s not only a mega-star, with 50 movies under her belt, in India itself, but also, since 2015, the first Indian-bred lead of an American network show, courtesy of ABC’s Quantico.
An adept juggler, she’s now producing — a show under development at ABC, and Pahuna: The Little Visitors, a film she’s championing here at TIFF. But she also gave good lark in the big-screen adaptation of Baywatch earlier this year, and is seemingly everywhere: from the cover of Time magazine to presenting at the Oscars to, well, front-rowing with legends like Sophia Loren at an Armani show.
Seeing the Instagram pic that Chopra posted of her sitting near Loren, at Paris Couture, this summer — a moment that brought out her own delightful fan-girl — I was struck by the parallels between her and the Italian icon: like Loren, Chopra’s career is built on an undeniable va-va-voom, and like Loren, she has undetected reserves of mettle. In the same manner that Loren was able to balance being an Italian star and a global one decades ago, Chopra is walking that very tightrope today.
“I knew I couldn’t be a doctor!” she started to tell me, reaching back to the childhood that involved having both parents who were physicians in the Indian military. “The first time I smelled formaldehyde, and upon the first sight of blood, I knew it wasn’t me! I was always academically inclined, though.”
What is now a far-reaching career began, instead, with a crowning at the click of the millennium.
“Suddenly, I was Miss World,” she said of her now-storied 2000 pageant triumph. “I had to grow up fast. My mother, a gynecologist, basically gave up her practice so she could travel with me. She became my ‘momager’ — Ha! Helping me to figure out this world. No one opened the doors for me in this industry. It opened to my mom not just being a mom, oddly enough. She’s a friend.”
“Courage of conviction is the important thing.” That’s what Chopra says her parents imparted to her, above all. “They always talked to me as an adult.”
Her father died about four years ago, before he was able to really see his daughter’s fame bloom — beyond the film industry, Chopra’s become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a vocal champion for the children’s rights. When I asked what she most wishes her father had a chance to witness, she processed the question a bit: “Definitely the Time cover” — when she was named one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People — “and then probably being awarded the Padma Shri in India . . . it’s a civilian honour.”
Her father, alas, is never not with her, as amplified by the tattoo she has boasts on her wrist: “Daddy’s lil girl,” it reads.
Her surname rhymes with “Oprah,” and it turns out she’s plenty contemplative, too. She convincingly throws out things like, “I know that life is transient. And fame is transient.” At one point, she said, “Nothing is a straight line.” At another, “I’ve become a bit like water — can fit in anywhere, anytime.”
Everywhere with hot sauce in her bag, but also, a miniature shrine in her carry-on, as she recently revealed to Vogue magazine. A mandir is what it’s known as, complete with incense and a little bell — something to “ward off evil, and start the day on a good, positive note.”
Hopefully it wards off stereotypes, too! Being on the vanguard of a new diversity in pop culture — Chopra famously refuses to put on an accent for projects, and has been adamant about not taking on obvious stuff like “My Big Fat Indian Wedding or something” — she’s also now engaged in pushing a larger diversity even from within India. It’s what’s behind her movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, called Pahuna: The Little Visitors, produced via her company, Purple Pebble Pictures. It’s the first movie produced in the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim.
“We’re launching the film industry there,” she said. “Though Bollywood is huge, Bollywood is mostly Hindi films. Every state, though, has a local movie industry, with its own regional movies, that they never get the spotlight, because Bollywood is seen as so much more glamorous. I’m very excited about the prospect.”
Given her M.O. as a true citizen of the world, I had to ask: precisely how many flights does the extreme jet-setter take in an average month? Chopra laughed.
“It is a lot of travel. Maybe 25 flights a month. The airport is a third home for me, and the airport staff — at JFK, at LAX, ones where I go through a lot — they all know my name.”
No doubt they do.
Single tickets for the TIFF Soiree fundraising gala on Sept. 6 range from $300 to $750 and can be purchased at tiff.net/soiree .