Cast your minds back to 2002 when Devdas was released in cinemas. At the time it was the most expensive Bollywood film ever produced. I was 14 and debating with my local shopkeeper about the film’s potential success. I scoffed when he said it was destined for greatness. Madhuri Dixit in old-fashioned clothes wasn’t a match for the bubble gum Bollywood that Karan Johar had released in the form of K3G only the year before. I was wrong.
Devdas was selected at the Cannes film festival that year and the world met Aishwarya Rai. Up until then Rai’s beauty had a cult-like status in the West. Julia Roberts dubbed her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ a title that the Mail Online still wheel out when she’s featured. As a South Asian audience we were ready for the West to embrace the drama and magic that came with Bollywood and it felt like Aishwarya was the woman to do it.
We were wrong.
Rumour had it that Rai’s clean cut image was something that was dear to her. She didn’t want to do any Hollywood films that could damage her look (i.e. films with sex scenes), so we ended up with some Indo-Western films from Gurinder Chadha that never quite hit the spot. I won’t even discuss The Pink Panther 2.
Then came a new wave of Bollywood films and with it a new adage; ‘The only things that sell are sex and SRK’. There were new leading ladies in town and Western actresses were flocking East that it was only a mater of time that Bollywood returned the favour.
Priyanka Chopra by her own admission is an ambitious woman; telling the Guardian earlier this year; ‘I am a little – I won’t say arrogant – self-assured’. She dipped her toe into the lure of International stardom with a pop career back in 2013 and although collaborating with the likes of Will.i.am and Pitbull she never became an International Pop Star. However it did open doors for her at American Network ABC. Fast forward to 2015 and she’s the lead in a hit Network television show Quantico, whilst still doing very well for herself back home in India.
So how has Priyanka succeeded where other haven’t?
I believe the answer lies in television not in sexuality. Bollywood actors have shied away from the behemoth that is US TV and being cast as a lead in an ABC show is no easy feat. The TV show dubbed Greys Anatomy meets Homeland is the first show with an Indian lead. In a time when diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood, Priyanka has become a byword for diverse success. The show has already been commissioned for a second series and most notably Priyanka won a People’s Choice Award; an award voted for by the American public. Leading on from this she’s been cast in Baywatch and hot on her heels; Deepika Padukone has been cast in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.
South Asian women are often deemed as “exotic”. This level of fetishising of women is undoubtedly damaging. Take Priyanka for example. She was deemed a “sexy goddess” for attending a film premiere for a movie in which she lent her voice for a talking plane. As a man it might be easy for me to ask the following question: there’s no denying that they’re both beautiful women but if we start accusing the Industry of fetishising South Asian women do we then run the risk of losing out in seeing a diverse Hollywood?
The larger issue I believe resides in Hollywood’s portrayal of women. The fact that it leaves a lot to be desired is an understatement.
Priyanka and Deepika’s crossover into Western cinema could very well be on their own terms; which should be viewed as a win for people of colour. But the odds are against them due to the deep-rooted patriarchy that Hollywood is known for. So are they just playing the hand that they’ve been dealt to their best of their ability and is that good enough?
No, it’s not.
There’s no easy solution as race and gender (alongside sexuality) battle it out for equality within the entertainment industry. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an opportunity for parity for all parties concerned. Movements like #WeDoItTogether (which Freida Pinto is a part of) highlight the deficit in gender equality. It seems now that Asians are beginning to have their voices heard more prominently too, as the Tilda Swinton/Doctor Strange backlash highlighted. I don’t believe that these causes have to be separate entities and in fact uniting to denounce casting of Asian characters portrayed by non-white actors would help the equality cause.
Now as a British Asian man I’m looking at this from the perspective of race and as I said that it should be deemed as a victory. Hollywood is constantly accused of whitewashing therefore their rising prominence should be welcomed so that the next time a South Asian female lead is required there won’t be the argument that there wasn’t anyone prominent enough. Equally some may say that both Priyanka and Deepika have gone into this situation with their eyes wide open. They know the types of roles they have taken on and it could be astute career politics.
We have so few role models that we pin our expectations on a couple of individuals. The industry needs to change to reflect a greater diversity across the board. However the steps that Priyanka and Deepika take next in the new stages of their career will be interesting to see in how it impacts not only them but also the wider entertainment landscape.