“I was inherently competitive” – Priyanka
Would that be enough to reach where she eventually did?
To jump to the crown that changed it all would be shortchanging the person who had more of the “brownie” brand of heartbreak and rejection in store before fame changed her story.
“Priyanka didn’t have it easy at any stage,” commented Pradeep Guha, former President, The Times of India group. It was Guha who spotted, nurtured and watched the girl from Bareilly that the first panel of judges had initially set aside, blossom into the savvy beauty queen who conquered the world.
The best man to track her trek – it wouldn’t be out of place to call Pradeep Guha the Columbus who discovered Priyanka Chopra.
“Discovered in the sense yes, in the year 1999, we were looking for contestants for the 2000 beauty pageant. Priyanka came in as a potential candidate from the North Region, actually from Bareilly. I remember the panel of judges didn’t think much of her. I mean if I had just left it to the panel, perhaps she would not have come through.
“I think Sathya Saran as the editor of Femina was on the panel. I think Lubna Adams (former model) was there. There were four or five people including myself. I kind of found something in her, I don’t know what it was, some chutzpah you might call it. So I insisted that we keep her; what was the harm in putting her in the contest? That’s how she came into the contest. She was pretty raw at that time.
“It was simply a ‘this one is better than that one’ kind of scene. Just an opinion that each one had. There was no scientific method except some basic cut-offs and she was well within all of that. On all those parameters (like height, age), she merited being in the contest. But after that, it was a matter of whether you thought she had winning qualities or not. Subsequently, once she was in, I saw her grow in the contest. She was clearly the dark horse.”
What also grew was a close friendship between PG (as PC calls him) and the seventeen-year-old he took under his wing. “In fact, she celebrated her eighteenth birthday at my home,” he revealed to me.
But when the Miss India pageant was held in Pune, it was a daunting evening for the contestants.
Guha had turned it into a glittering event with entertainment drawn from Africa, and former contestants who’d scored at various international beauty pageants on stage. It included Priyanka’s role model Sushmita Sen, Yukta Mookhey, Namrata Shirodkar, Diana Hayden, Manpreet Brar and Madhu Sapre. Miss Universe 1994 Sushmita Sen was the belle of the evening. With tears in her eyes, Sen cheered the contestants and asked the audience to applaud the parents of all the contestants. She also won hearts when she addressed the parents of those who didn’t make the cut and asked them not to be disappointed with their daughters. They’ll be achievers in some other field, she pointed out, and being a part of that event was itself an achievement.
In this intimidatingly electrifying atmosphere filled with celebrity presence, Priyanka was not even a favourite.
All bets were on Lara Dutta, she was a shoo-in as Miss India. Long before the eliminations began, former journalist and Juhi Chawla’s manager KS Sanjay reported that he’d heard the following whisper from a well-connected person in the auditorium:
“Lara is a terrific girl. Though she has no formal training she has been working from an early age. She has bagged quite a few prestigious modelling assignments to date. She had supreme confidence even when she was a novice. She always had this I-know-what-I-want-to-be-and-I-will-achieve-it attitude without a trace of arrogance in it. She is supremely confident.
It was that composure that got Lara Dutta the Miss India crown, concluded KS Sanjay in his report.
The only reason to mention the spotlight that was on Lara is to underline how Priyanka was the under-betted underdog, and would continue to be one even after triumphing at the contest in London. But how the tables would turn one day.
For the moment, however, it was Priyanka who came off as second best.
On the high-powered judges’ panel sat superstar Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, a sought-after celebrity pair at the turn of the millennium. Within a dozen years, equations would change dramatically and the girl from Bareilly would displace Juhi Chawla in Shah Rukh Khan’s life and career. But in 2000, it was unsettling, unnerving, certainly formidable for her.
You couldn’t tell from her countenance.
Incredibly, Priyanka’s first introduction to the man who would one day play a huge part in her life, was that evening when she stood on stage as a seventeen-year-old contestant and he asked her a hypothetical question: “Who would you choose to marry?” He gave her a choice from the judges’ panel. A great Indian sportsman like Mohammed Azharuddin, the former captain of the Indian cricket team, or a creative businessman like Marcus Swarovski “who has a difficult name to pronounce” or an Indian actor like him, Shah Rukh Khan?
Even more astoundingly, Priyanka chose Azharuddin over Shah Rukh, explaining that she’d go for a sportsman who’d do the country proud, so she could go home and tell him that she was as proud of him as the country was.
Priyanka became Miss India World, the 1st Runner-up, in a pageant that saw everybody’s favourite, fashion model Lara Dutta walk away with the main Miss India sash.
Guha expanded, “In fact, even after Priyanka won the Miss India World title, I remember a lot of my friends in the fashion and glamour industry told me, ‘Yeh kaisi kaali kalooti tum logon ne chuni (Who’s this dark girl you guys have chosen)?’ Those were the words I’d hear and I’d say, ‘Nahin yaar, is mein kuch baat hai (Not quite true, she’s got something in her).’ I couldn’t put my finger on it and say what it was but it just felt right. It was the year of Lara and she was a sure-shot at the Miss Universe pageant. But that impression of mine about Priyanka became stronger and I became more and more sanguine about her as the days passed. She was definitely impressing us much more as the days went by.
“Lara was clearly a winner. Everybody knew her. By then she was already a model and a biggish one at that. She’d been on the ramp and so on. Whereas Priyanka was an entity nobody really knew. She had done nothing, nothing of consequence. So, in that sense, she was a dark horse. But what one did notice was that she was making a lot of effort right through in whatever way she could. She came into focus the day we had the talent round where she sang an English song and she sang beautifully. That was the day a lot of people sat up, noticed her and remarked, arre (wow), she sings wonderfully.
“By the time we got to the talent round, we were well into the contest. Since it was the millennium year, we had a really big powerful jury with Shah Rukh Khan, Subhash Chandra Goel and Carolina Herrera (from the house of perfumes). I’d gone all out to get the best power-packed jury of the day.
“They were good jurors, people who had an understanding of what works and what does not work internationally. At the jury meeting also, Priyanka was a toss-up; she was not like a sure-shot. But she was inching closer and closer, and then in the final round she answered very well and got through. Miss India, the No 1, went to Miss Universe and the 1st Runner-up or the one placed second went to Miss World.
“I can say that one noticed winning qualities and a lot more in Priyanka. In a way, maybe I pushed her a little bit harder because I saw something in her. When she won and was going to be Miss India at Miss World, I said, let me pay a lot more attention to her. Somehow, all of us were confident that Lara would get through. So in terms of time spent, I think we gave more attention to Priyanka than to Lara. Lara became Miss Universe that year, so the pressure on Priyanka Chopra began to build up.
“She was the next one to go for an international pageant in a few months and as the expectations mounted, everybody began to back her and say, let’s hope she can do something there. We had all felt that we had a good candidate in Dia Mirza (who won the third place), so she was sent to represent us at the Miss Asia Pacific pageant.
“But it was Priyanka I pushed and she was extremely hard working. She was focused and could take criticism on the chin, at least those days. She knew people were calling her uncomplimentary names like ‘kaali kalooti’ (dark-skinned). These things are not said silently and one hears them, sunayi deta hain na. There are people who make it known to you in different ways. There are nasty people all over.”
The nasty brigade didn’t realise that it would work the other way around on her. Priyanka was not the kind one should have pushed against the wall because she does not get pinned down by intimidation or rejection. She is of the breed that recoils and returns with force, rearing to wrest out the best.
Excerpted with permission of Om Books International from Priyanka Chopra: The Dark Horse by Bharathi S Pradhan