On a star trek

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 2 August 2018

Chatting up film journalist Aseem Chhabra, who has penned a biography of Priyanka Chopra. He talks about being fascinated by the actor’s journey.

When is Priyanka Chopra not in news? The answer to this rhetorical question is, ‘always’. Last week, her exit from Salman Khan film Bharat did the rounds alongwith the juicy tidbit that her engagement to singer-songwriter Nick Jonas was the reason. Soon came the news that PC had bagged a role opposite Chris Pratt in Cowboy Ninja Viking.

With so much information being fed to the masses on a daily basis, one wonders what a book on the actor could tell us that we don’t know? As it turns out, there is lots that we don’t know. And there is more than one book being published on her — Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse (Om Books International) and Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star (Rupa Publications) are already out in the market. And, Penguin Random House is all set to publish Unfinished, a collection of personal essays, stories, and observations by the actress herself.

We talk to Aseem Chhabra, author of Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star. His work is more journalistic, with references to her tele interviews, and interviews with her mentors, co-stars, directors etc. The biography talks about her ‘wonder years’ while growing up in Jameshdpur, New York and Bareilly and then moves on to her Miss India, Miss World success. After that comes her acting phase, getting into production and then starting from scratch in Hollywood — with her singing career and Quantico series. It concludes on ‘Life Post Quantico’. 

All the chapters tell us how strong and determined Priyanka was and continues to be. As far as rumours about her love life are concerned, they are there in the book, but stripped of any masala. All in all, the journalist-author intends to present it as a well-rounded story of the actor. Over to Chhabra...

What does it mean to write a biography? You have written one of Shashi Kapoor and now of Priyanka Chopra. Do you, as a writer, find it necessary to walk in the shoes of your subject?
I didn’t realise what it takes to write a biography until I started working on the Shashi Kapoor book. Since both these are actors — I first started to watch their films — old, new, good and some bad ones also. I then made lists of possible people I wanted to interview — mostly filmmakers who had directed Shashi and Priyanka, to understand how the actors performed in those films, their acting methods, what they were like on the set. I also talked to people who knew the two actors personally — friends, family members and others who had observed their careers.
Writing star biographies entails living with them (well, not literally) and spending a lot of time thinking about the subjects of the books. One doesn’t walk in their shoes. Instead the writer gets to study, observe and understand the subjects.

Have you approached the project as a journalist, trying to dig in details and providing an all-rounded report?
While writing both the books, I wanted to be fair and objective about the subjects. And yes, I worked like a journalist — digging up stories, background information, lesser-known facts about the two actors and their films. And then I weaved in all the information that I had gathered about the two actors, along with my own observations about their work, lives and careers.

Would it have been a different piece of work had Priyanka collaborated with you on it?
Yes definitely. I think the book is more objective, fair and yet it celebrates Priyanka’s life and work. I had wanted her to collaborate with me but in hindsight, I think I prefer the way I approached the book on my own.

How was it to see Priyanka through the eyes of Sabira Merchant, Vishal Bharadwaj, Dia Mirza etc? Did any of your impressions of the actor match with the inputs you got from these people?
Every person I interviewed for the book knew Priyanka intimately, as a close friend, mentor, director or colleague. Each of them gave me valuable insights into who Priyanka Chopra is. I could not have written a book like this just based on my impressions of the actress. I needed solid evidence, anecdotes and details — much of that came from the people who I interviewed. 

You don’t have any inputs from her cousin, Parineeti Chopra, who followed the actor into filmdom...
I was told I should not talk to anyone close to Priyanka and her family. I only talked to her mother in the context of a film she had produced and I had seen that film at the Toronto International Film Festival. I wrote about that film for an article. Later I used some of that material in my book.

Which part of Priyanka’s journey fascinated you the most?
I think the segments that I really enjoyed researching on and writing about were — the Miss India/ Miss World contest and the process by which young contestants from small town are selected; and the strategies and the decisions that were made by Priyanka’s team to build her career in the US — first the music career and later her acting work, on television and in films. I found it fascinating that she became a star twice — first in India and then in the US.

Do you look forward to reading her autobiography, Unfinished? 
I definitely look forward to reading it. I am sure it will be very different. I read some place that it will be inspirational. So I am not sure if Priyanka will discuss all her film work. Rather I think she will talk about the challenges she faced in her life and how she overcame them. And I think that is equally important to the readers and especially her fans.

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