Parineeti Chopra has spent all of March thanking the world. Her Twitter account is on fire: quote tweets, retweets, hashtags, videos, photo dumps, acknowledgments. The prayer-hands emoji (otherwise known as the high-five emoji) is omnipresent. And understandably so. At a time half the Hindi film industry is struggling to complete production and the other half is struggling to conceive a non-disastrous distribution strategy, the 32-year-old star has had a whopping three releases in the last four weeks alone. In other words, 50 percent of the major Bollywood releases in March 2021 star Parineeti Chopra. That's a serious rate. That's Mamta-Kulkarni-in-early-90s prolific. So much so that the actual fate of these films – both critically and commercially – almost feels irrelevant.
Seeing Chopra's digital outpour of gratitude, one would never guess that two of these three movies have tanked at the box office, and the third one, a Netflix remake of a Hollywood book adaptation, has been nearly universally panned. The pandemic appears to have redefined the concept of success, in some cases sparing mainstream Hindi cinema the social ignominy of failure. But seeing Chopra's decade-long career so far, one might find it easier to guess that despite having two author-backed solo leads (The Girl on the Train, Saina), her best performance comes in the most unlikely and low-profile of the trifecta. In Dibakar Banerjee's long-postponed Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Chopra plays an ambitious young woman on the run – from her corporate employers, from a grey past, but mostly from herself.
For the allegorically inclined moviegoer, the self-aware road movie is elevated by the illusion that – under the tutelage of a famously nonconformist director – it looks like the star is also on the run from herself. Or more specifically, from the enigmatic throes of Parineeti Chopra 2.0. In the guise of a perpetually vigilant survivor for the film's two-and-something hours, it feels like maybe Chopra, too, is waking up to the perils of commercial compliance and questionable career choices. But the reality is that Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar was shot four years ago. The meta-narrative bubble was further deflated seven days later with the theatrical release of Saina, a painfully simplistic sports biopic in which she is miscast as an iconic badminton champion.
Let's flash back for context. Cut to the final month of 2011. The box office is buzzing. A new-age YRF film is in theatres precisely a year after its team became the talk of the town. The overnight success of Band Baaja Baarat means that the hype accompanying Ladies vs Ricky Bahl – again led by director Maneesh Sharma, again starring Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma – is through the roof. Everyone wants a glimpse of their favourite new couple. A week later, however, it's clear that someone else has stolen the show. Of the three women duped by the conman hero of the film, one of them – a spoilt rich Punjabi brat – stands out. The character's name is Dimple Chaddha, Delhi lingo rolls off her devil-may-care tongue, and the moment she verbally cooes "lolz," 23-year-old debutant Parineeti Chopra becomes a household name.
There's something different about her: a mix of girl-next-door nonchalance and millennial charisma. For a fresher, she looks at disarming ease with the camera. Kareena Kapoor comes to mind. Unusually, she commences her career as a 'supporting actress,' eschewing the full-blown launchpad route that newcomers with familiar surnames pursue. One section of the media zealously peddles a narrative: Parineeti's established cousin Priyanka Chopra has had four flops in a row, so is this a passing-of-baton moment? Another section questions the new girl's "unorthodox" physicality: Will she ever be a glamorous Bollywood heroine with that cherubic body?
Over the next few years, Parineeti Chopra defies popular convention by leading films that subvert the idea of the Bollywood heroine. It's hard to think of an opening salvo as diverse as hers: A star-crossed small-town lover in a clutter-breaking Romeo+Juliet adaptation (Ishaqzaade), a conflicted commitment phobe in a send-up to traditional marriages (Shuddh Desi Romance), an eccentric geek in an ode to manic-pixie romances (Hasee Toh Phasee). Chopra wins respect and accolades for each of these roles. She is yet to taste failure. But the 'moderate' box-office success of these films perhaps convinces her to be different from being different. In other words, the freewheeling artist then decides to wear the safety harness of star vehicles. The actress decides to sample the aura of a heroine.
As a result, the second half of 2014 sees Parineeti Chopra walking into frames defined by strutting male heroes. Daawat-e-Ishq, a convoluted saga of dowry and Aditya Roy Kapoor's Aashiqui 2 currency, barely breaks even. Kill Dil, a quasi-Western cocktail of bronzed male abs and Govinda, is a total misfire. Chopra herself isn't a problem in both films. But her performances are now examined in context of the male gaze. Consequently, she is scrutinized through the "heroine lens". The more superficial traits of Hindi film acting – like her character's fashion sense and figure, her gait and her dancing skills – are singled out. The criticism is unfair and strange, especially because Chopra has by now become a striking symbol of resistance against mainstream Bollywood's fetishization of the size-zero culture. Following the first real setback of what is primed to be a breakout career, Parineeti Chopra defies the norm again. She takes a year-long sabbatical from acting.
A lot has been written about this sabbatical. Chopra later revealed that she was unhappy with how "fat and bad" she looked in Kill Dil – adding that the flops merely drove her to introspect and use the time to transform her physical and mental health. All the signs pointed towards the incessant early-career body-shaming, and Chopra's desire to shed weight signalled her intent to become a more 'watchable' heroine. Though this makeover was marketed as a triumph ("svelte" being the keyword), it's clear that a young woman seemed to have surrendered to the oppressive showbiz standards that her legacy was once built to dismantle. This isn't unusual in an age of intersection between hypersexuality and capitalism – except that Chopra arguably lost a lot more than some harmless kilos.
Even her most ardent fans won't be hard-pressed to admit that the Parineeti Chopra 2.0 who surfaced from the sabbatical was light years apart from the fearless pre-2017 version. Since her return, Chopra has been fundamentally unrecognizable on screen: more in manner than physique, more internally than externally. She plays to the gallery, sounds overly deferential in interviews, and seems to project a rejuvenated art-of-living vibe that inevitably robs her reel personas of their language and versatility. Which begs the question: What happened? Why such a drastic deviation in form?
Most of this is conjecture, but the obvious explanation is a shift of goalposts. The airy image Chopra aims for, and thereby the style of acting she now pursues, is rooted in the contradictions of the traditional Bollywood star template. It's as though she suddenly set out to emulate not just the heritage but also the conflicts of the Shah Rukh Khans, Kareenas and Rani Mukerjis of the world – in that the acting itself comes so naturally to her that she strives to make the "performing" more visible instead. A change in body is fashioned to support a change in body language, rather than vice versa. An example is her comeback film in 2017, Meri Pyaari Bindu, a bittersweet coming-of-age romance in which Chopra's over-the-top turn is camouflaged by the fact that Bindu is the writer-narrator's excessive version of the girl he loves. He sees who he wants to see. (Or maybe that's just my limp reasoning). Either way, the result is entirely fortuitous. Her character on paper isn't too different from, say, her flaky Shuddh Desi Romance avatar – both messy and impulsive heartbreakers – but the chasm in approach and perception is undeniable.
It's not that Chopra's choices lack ambition either. Two of her first three post-hiatus roles qualify as bonafide risks: Meri Pyaari Bindu and Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. Most contemporary actresses would kill to do a Saina, too. But her compensatory roles – Namaste England, Golmaal Again, Jabariya Jodi – are such distinct "I want a hit" markers of her new default setting that their tonal flimsiness spills into her more serious efforts. The consequence is unsettling. Her infamous meltdown scenes in The Girl on the Train would feel right at home in Golmaal Again, while the restraint of her brooding-ghost act in Golmaal Again could've cut muster in Saina's injury montages. The emotional intelligence of her early work has been replaced by a hammy extravagance, the kind that frames film acting as more of an aspiration than an artform. She even had an opportunity to make art personal in Saina, when the heavy-footed titular character is instructed to lose ten kilos in little time to be a better player. But the resolution is reduced to a single moment – and a triumphant smile – that concludes a generic weight-loss montage. There is no sense of internalization, or deeper insight into the mind of an artist who has experienced this transition.
Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar might have been the norm in 2013 but it is the anomaly today: a reminder of what Parineeti Chopra can be as opposed to who she thinks she is. When her character breaks down on confronting a tragedy late in the film, her grief is so primal that the scream appears to reach the viewer a split second after she explodes. The sound follows the light. It's an ephemeral moment, but one that burns itself into a watcher's memory for its stark rawness. That she plays a woman betrayed – duped, desperate – in this film is however not an anomaly. Deception, punctuated by various iterations of an escape, has been a recurring theme across her filmography: Conned in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, fooling and being fooled in Ishaqzaade, a bolter in Shuddh Desi Romance, a large-hearted scammer in Hasee Toh Phasee and Daawat-e-Ishq and Namaste England, an eloper in Jabariya Jodi, a gaslit wife in The Girl on the Train. In fact, Saina is a rare instance in which she plays neither the hunter nor the hunted.
Being frequently cast as a person at odds with her environment is perhaps no coincidence. After all, the actress has swayed from being a force of nature to becoming a victim of it. There is no middle ground. Maybe it's only fitting then that March stands as a testament to the puzzling duality of Parineeti Chopra. What is March if not an erratic month that bridges a fading winter to an unrelenting summer without inheriting the identity of either? It starts off pleasant before losing its way.