Coming up in the suburban hems of Toronto, where coriander was de rigueur and Saturday night meant a Hindi movie on the VCR, the idea of a South Asian actor fronting a network TV show verged on the far-out preposterous. Possibly, it never occurred to me. The only Asian, period, coming down the broadcast chute with any regularity was Connie Chung. And the only Indian with any perceptible staying power? Apu on The Simpsons.
In 2012, when the United States-born Mindy Kaling burst onto the scene with her own sitcom, I must admit to having two reflex thoughts when catching the premiere of The Mindy Project. One: This is kinda awesome. Two: Even more "Wow" than a brown gal fronting a show in the United States is that, in India itself, she'd be considered too "dark" to be a star.
Such is the hall of mirrors – complete with its own biases and hang-ups – within a culture, let alone between cultures. Having done a minor in Bollywood, I know a darker-skinned heroine is a near-unicorn, indeed – a driver of India's own skin-tone obsession (complete with a whitening-cream market said to be worth more than $400-million) and the fanaticism itself evinced from Indian marriage-broker sites, on which the quality most trumpeted of would-be brides is that she be "fair."
Enter: Priyanka Chopra. Going where no Indian woman – nay, Indian at all, fair or dark – has gone before, with her new ABC drama Quantico, she's here to cast yet more reflections in that multiculti funhouse. Already a former Miss World and a star on the level of Sandra Bullock on the subcontinent (with more than 40 flicks to her name and 11 million-plus devotees on Twitter), she's on the threshold of being the first Indian global superstar.
And watching the premiere of Quantico, airing in Canada on CTV, I had two more – drum roll – reflex thoughts. One: This is kinda awesome. Two: Chopra's hair alone deserves an EGOT – and Connie Britton better be ready to hand over the crown for queen of small-screen mane.
The Bazaar-ready hair itself is even a metaphor for the kind of show Quantico is, veering as it does from the silly to the deliciously soapy. But besides Chopra's ability to look utterly glamorous while being framed for terrorism, this is a serial that's borrowed highly from the Shonda Rhimes playbook. Explosions! Mormons! Enemies from within! Secret twins (one who wears a niqab)! A gay character who's (maybe) faking it! Having collaged from several female-led shows that have been in the zeitgeist lately, the whole thing reads like How to Get Away with Homeland. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
And then there's the car sex. Barely five minutes into Quantico's pilot, our Jason Bourne-esque heroine has front-seat nookie with a stranger. Coming from an industry in which Indian films forever shied away from depicted kissing – and in which it's still rare enough to cause headlines – this is some gauntlet-throwing-down by Chopra. Not only is her character filmed in flagrante delicto, but "she enjoys it and isn't apologetic," points out Bollywood commentator Rajyasree Sen. "The only other Indian actress to have accomplished this feat is Freida Pinto," she goes on to say, "and it's no coincidence that she's an actress in Hollywood with practically no prospects to speak of in Indian mainstream cinema."
In Chopra's case, how this will all play out remains a question mark, though she has stated while on the press tour for Quantico that she plans to straddle careers both in the United States and India, and is already at work on a historical drama back home (about an 18th-century warrior!). Whatever the specific cultural triangulations, the inside-baseball behind the Montreal-shot Quantico reveals much: By all accounts, ABC wooed Chopra by giving her the opportunity to consider 26 different scripts. She settled on one.
With "real-time" viewing on the ebb – and the networks feeling the heat from online arrivistes such as Netflix – television, like the movies, is becoming more globalized, and the hope was that Chopra's popularity would help to sell the show to foreign territories. Indeed, before the pilot even aired, Quantico had sold to dozens of countries, and in India, the show began airing on Star World just one week behind North America.
It's saying something that the show was trending on Twitter in countries where the show was not even airing on the night of its premiere, owing not only to the fact Chopra is A-list in what is the world's biggest film industry in a country with more than a billion people, but that Bollywood has a following in the Middle East and Africa, plus such diaspora-centres as London, Sydney and Toronto. In many ways, ABC needed Chopra more than Chopra needed ABC.
One thing is for sure, though: Chopra's arrival on U.S. television comes at an interesting time, diversity-wise. There is, for instance, Empire, the King Lear-does-hip-hop drama, which broke a 23-year-old record when it became the first prime-time scripted series in that time to enjoy growth-to-growth ratings during the span of its first season. There is also the shift toward minority casting, as evidenced by shows such as Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin.
In terms of South Asians, specifically, Chopra joins a throng that already includes or has included Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory, Hannah Simone in New Girl, Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and the forthcoming Netflix series Master of None, Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife, Naveen Andrews in Lost, Kal Penn in House etc. And, of course, Mindy. All of which would have rang as balderdash to a young me growing up during another television cosmos all together.
If Gilligan's Island was being cast today, I like to think, at least one of the shipwreck survivors (likely "The Professor") would have been brown.
Follow me on Twitter: