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Bollywood's Priyanka Chopra as pioneering pop act in U.S.

The actress is backed by the likes of mogul Jimmy Iovine as she seeks groundbreaking crossover success in America's music scene, abetted by a new label.

November 20, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra makes the transition from the big screen to a singing career.
Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra makes the transition from the big screen… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

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.

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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.

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"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."

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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).

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