Bollywood’s Priyanka Chopra as pioneering pop act in U.S.
Priyanka Chopra looks like a pop star when she struts into Hollywood’s Chalice Studios, entourage in tow. Her sultry smile, body-hugging dress and towering heels command attention.
She has the image, sure. But not the name. At least not outside of India.
Yet Chopra, 30, is here to listen to her debut album helmed by Grammy Award-winning producer-songwriter RedOne (a.k.a. Nadir Khayat), the same guy who catapulted Lady Gaga into superstardom.
For the last decade Priyanka has been a Bollywood celeb. But now she has her sights on American pop stardom — an experiment that’s as calculated as it is risky.
Remember the Indian “crossover” films “Bride & Prejudice” or “Bollywood/Hollywood”? Thought so.
Regardless, Chopra’s album will officially launch Desi Hits! Universal, a new label headed by Bollywood music mogul Anjula Acharia-Bath and Jimmy Iovine, the label head behind Gaga, Eminem and Black Eyed Peas. Their goal: to break an Indian pop act in America.
It doesn’t sound like much, but as acts from Europe and Latin America continue to find crossover success, South Asia has remained largely untapped in the global music market. If her sound sticks, Chopra’s transition from the world of Bollywood to U.S. charts could break ground. And the machine behind her is working aggressively to ensure it does.
“It scares the crap out of me,” Chopra says and laughs while seated in front of a large control board at Chalice.
Acharia-Bath says she saw an opportunity to break an Indian act after the success of 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” The film grossed more than $140 million in the U.S. and its soundtrack by Indian composer A.R. Rahman sparked Bollywood fervor with “Jai Ho.”
But even before the film came out, Acharia-Bath co-launched Desi Hits! as an online entertainment and lifestyle hub to promote South Asian entertainers in the global pop music market.
“We’ve seen our beats … culture and a lot of our community influences in Western pop culture, but we’ve never really had a face that represents us, especially in music,” she says. “That’s been tough for us, but this should open up the door for more.”
To get the listener’s attention — and guarantee a hit — Desi Hits! recruited RedOne to guide the project, a no-brainer given the Moroccan-born hit maker’s credentials. He’s one of pop’s most in-demand producers and aside from Gaga has crafted platinum smashes for Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias and Nicki Minaj.
At Chalice, RedOne dials up the volume and starts dancing along to a pounding club beat. As the track “Relax Me” plays, Chopra’s voice fills the room, and then somewhere between flirty lyrics and sexy coos is the surprising beat of Indian tabla drums. It caters to pop radio, and Khayat flashes a smile of confidence when the song concludes.
He’s certain the record, and every song he plays next, are hits.
“Priyanka fits perfectly,” says RedOne of her potential appeal. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this girl could be a huge global star.’ It’s something fresh for the world to hear.”
Chopra is the first, and so far only, act signed to the new label, and her debut album is set for early next year.
Her record will be released through Iovine’s Interscope and RedOne’s 2101 Records imprint — both part of Universal, one of the biggest labels in the U.S. Chopra’s music career will be guided by Lady Gaga’s manager and she is the first Bollywood star signed to talent juggernaut Creative Artists Agency.
The lead single, “In My City,” which debuted in America last month, got a major push when it was chosen as the anthem for “Thursday Night Kickoff” — the pregame show for NFL Network’s Thursday night football. “Our first real validation was the NFL,” Acharia-Bath says. “It shows that she can break mainstream and be as American as apple pie.”
Chopra’s NFL placement was bold considering it places her in the company of major recording acts such as Faith Hill, Pink, Hank Williams Jr. and Cee Lo Green, who have contributed themes. In the pregame clip she channeled pop star prowess as she danced to the single wearing sexier versions of team jerseys.
Having already lent her face to global brands such as Pepsi, Nikon and Levi’s in India, Chopra’s team is fielding stateside tie-ins, such as the NFL one, that can coincide with the album.
The reaction to Chopra’s singing debut is mixed. “In My City,” which she co-wrote with RedOne and Ester Dean (Rihanna, Katy Perry), has garnered praise from Entertainment Weekly and Ryan Seacrest, though online commenters have shrugged it off as “generic.” And while she engages nearly 3 million Twitter followers, some have criticized her new career as an attempt at being Gori (South Asian slang for Caucasian).
At her urging, Interscope made the single available in India before its NFL kickoff. “It was important for me to see there was a sort of acceptance from my country and community because I’m doing an album in English,” Chopra says.
In the first week of release, “In My City” moved more than 130,000 copies in India and shot to No. 1 on the Hindi pop chart. But in America, the single has been slower to catch on and has yet to be serviced to radio (a music video is forthcoming). It sold about 5,000 downloads on iTunes, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Chopra, however, is not a pop star in India either. She is an actress, and outside of singing and performing music from her films she has never released music. The team wants to break her in America first, before taking the music back home where there is an audience of more than 1.2 billion people.
"[Indian] radio plays Hindi movie music and there’s nothing else,” Chopra says. “Their idea was no pop act has been able to break India in a big way because the music is so monopolized. What they wanted to do was take an Indian actress and see if they can break her globally first.”
Despite cultural and geographical divides, Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M;, makes the sell on Chopra sound simple: “Many [new] artists in the record industry these days lack an idea. When I met Lana Del Rey, there was an idea. You meet Eminem, you get it. When I met Lady Gaga, before I heard the music, it was clear what the idea was,” he offers. “Priyanka is an idea. You get it within 30 seconds.”
Chopra says she never really had pop-star ambitions, despite falling in love with American R&B; and hip-hop (she is obsessed with Tupac Shakur) while going to high school in the United States.
Born in Bihar, India, she originally studied to be an aeronautical engineer before her mother submitted photos to the Femina Miss India competition, which catapulted her into the pageant world. After she took the Miss India and Miss World titles in 2000, film roles poured in. Her latest film, “Barfi!” is the country’s entry for the upcoming Academy Awards.
Most Bollywood actors lip-sync to playback singers, but Chopra is one of the rare personalities who sings. It’s one of the reasons she was approached by Acharia-Bath and Universal in 2010.
In conversation she is candid about taking vocal lessons and facing the pressure of breaking a new audience. “I don’t want to come into [America] saying I’m this big star,” she says. “I’m a new artist and nobody knows me here and I’m not delusional about it. I know I have flaws.”
Why an Indian pop star hasn’t emerged, especially when an artist such as M.I.A. can transcend underground electro-hip-hop to perform at the Grammys and Super Bowl, is something that frustrates British R&B; singer Jay Sean, who is of South Asian descent.
Sean, born to Punjabi Sikh immigrants, amassed a following with his fusion of Bhangra-R&B; before inking a deal with urban powerhouse Cash Money Records to break America. His debut U.S. single, “Down,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009, making him the first solo artist of South Asian origin to do so.
“As frustrating as it may be, in all honesty I feel like it’s still early for us and it will take time for South Asian acts to break the mainstream,” he wrote in an email from Jakarta, Indonesia.
“For some reason we still seem to be put in a box. It’s almost as if ‘You’re South Asian, you should be singing in an Indian dialect, shouldn’t you?’”
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