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ABC's counterterrorism drama "Quantico" airs its winter finale Sunday. "Quantico" made history as the first network TV drama to feature a South Asian woman as the lead. That actor is Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra. NPR TV Eric Deggans introduces us to the person who helped her land the role.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As ABC's "Quantico" begins, Priyanka Chopra is lying in the ruins of a bomb blast. She's playing Alex Parrish, an FBI trainee falsely accused of setting off the explosion.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUANTICO")
PRIYANKA CHOPRA: (As Alex Parrish) What's going on? Do you think I had something to do with this? Because if you do, I...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You can stop, Agent Parrish. We know it's you.
DEGGANS: The story of how Chopra got on ABC start with Anjula Acharia-Bath. She's a venture capitalist who built a business in her spare time, bringing together South Asian and U.S. pop culture. By bringing one of East Indian cinema's biggest stars to American TV, she had one goal.
ANJULA ACHARIA-BATH: I wanted to change the world with this. I wanted people to see my people, you know, in the way that represented me.
DEGGANS: Acharia-Bath's drive to shatter stereotypes began in childhood. Raised a daughter of East Indian immigrants in a London neighborhood, she found an awful thing happened when British TV showed stereotypical East Indian characters.
ACHARIA-BATH: Kids would poke fun at me, and they would, like, pick on me. And they'd be, like, I saw your people on TV. This is what you do; this is how you are. And it was just a really horrible experience. So literally, I would be, like - if there was something on TV, the next day I wouldn't want to go to school, and I would pretend to be sick.
DEGGANS: Many years later, she developed a sideline business mashing up South Asian and U.S. pop culture called DesiHits. She signed Priyanka Chopra to a record deal and put the Bollywood start together with Miami rapper Pitbull for the single "Exotic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXOTIC")
CHOPRA: (Singing) I'm feeling so exotic. (Singing in foreign language).
DEGGANS: Then some good luck. Acharia-Bath met an ABC executive at a dinner party. They hatched a plan to bring Chopra to American TV, but not as a stereotype.
ACHARIA-BATH: When they would ask her to come back for a reading or say can you play up your accent? We'd go no, we can't. We don't want to sound like Apu from "The Simpsons."
DEGGANS: Josh Safran is creator of "Quantico." He says when Chopra auditioned, he had no idea she'd made nearly 50 movies, Bollywood's equivalent to Angelina Jolie.
JOSH SAFRAN: When she walked in, it really was about her performance and not about her ethnicity or the fact that she would be the first. In fact, it didn't even really occur to me that she'd be the first.
DEGGANS: Chopra told the program "Showbiz India" that the role wasn't originally written for an Indian woman. They tweaked the character to make Parrish half Indian after Chopra was cast.
CHOPRA: When I got the part, we had a whole debate about whether we should change her name, make her more Indian, you know, make her Anjali (ph) or something, and I didn't want to change the character. I wanted to be able to act like Alex, you know?
DEGGANS: Some people say such moves whitewash the character and keep Alex Parrish from being culturally authentic. But Acharia-Bath says the character is as Indian as she is.
ACHARIA-BATH: There are some great shows that are, you know, very culturally specific on the air right now, like "Fresh Off The Boat" or "Blackish." But we really wanted to play a role that anyone could play. And it wasn't about her race or her color. Any woman could relate to her.
DEGGANS: She says network TV has only begun to tap the potential of nonwhite stars.
ACHARIA-BATH: South Asians make up one-fifth of the world's population. These shows play in, you know, U.K., Canada, India, Middle East. Diversity pays - like, that's the bottom line.
DEGGANS: No one knows that better than Acharia-Bath, a venture capitalist who says doing the right thing can also be the profitable thing. I'm Eric Deggans.