When Meera Chopra first arrived at Saginaw Valley State University’s campus as a student in 2001, she was 18 and eager to escape a life in her Delhi family home that felt too small for her big ambitions. When she returned to visit her alma mater in September 2019, Chopra — now twice the age she was back then — was a bona fide Bollywood movie star beloved by fans overseas in much the same way Scarlett Johansson might be beloved in the U.S.
Still, despite the massive success she experienced during the years in between, at least one thing never changed for Chopra:
She is still dreaming big.
“Every actor has a shelf life,” she said, “but I have plans for what comes next for me.”
To see where Chopra is moving, she said it is important to understand where the momentum started. In many ways, it started at SVSU.
Growing up in Delhi as the middle daughter in a middle-class home, Chopra’s life for a time seemed pre-destined by her family’s tradition of finding a spouse at a young age. By the time she was 18, Chopra — who had yet to have a boyfriend — already received several marriage proposals. Her parents hoped she would accept one of the offers — and soon.
Her plan instead was to attend school overseas. A friend who attended SVSU recommended the university, and in fall 2001, Chopra enrolled as a graduate student in the communication and multimedia graduate degree program.
“I remember coming here and crying for the first two month,” Chopra said. “I was leading a very dependent life in India and it was hard to adjust at first to life in Michigan.”
But she did make the adjustment. Socially and culturally, her experience at SVSU widened her perspective on the world, Chopra said.
“In a lot of ways, SVSU made me who I am today,” she said. “When I came here, I became responsible for myself. When I came here, I became myself.”
She lived in SVSU’s Pine Grove Apartments and worked at a campus eatery, where she met friends who remain connected with her today through social media. She became popular in part for her growing reputation as a first-rate cook of Indian food, which she shared with her peers.
“Some days, there were 10 or 15 people coming over to eat,” she said. “I became a good cook.”
Chopra graduated in 2003, and after a year spent working in New York City, she returned to India. Pursuing her passion for a career in communications, she landed her “dream job” as a TV journalist reporting on crime.
Her road to Bollywood arrived almost by chance. While on assignment, Chopra met a photographer looking for a model for a magazine. She accepted the job, thinking it would be a one-time experience.
Two weeks later, she received a call from a movie producer in south India who spotted Chopra’s image in the magazine and saw the face of a leading lady in his next film.
Despite never possessing any ambition to work in the film industry and possessing no acting experience, Chopra agreed to the role and left her TV reporter job. In 2007, she was cast as the leading female actor in the south Indian film “Anbe Aaruyire.”
“When I faced the camera for the first time, my heart told me that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she recalled of her first time on set. “So, I followed my heart. I was an overnight star in south India.”
In India, there is more than one film industry, in large part because of the many languages spoken in the country. “Anbe Aaruyire” and Chopra’s follow-up performances were filmed in the nation’s second-most popular film industry, viewed primarily by its southern populations. After growing fatigued with the roles being offered to her, Chopra’s ambitions turned toward finding work further north in India’s top industry, globally referred to as “Bollywood.”
For two years, Chopra struggled to find a role in Bollywood, but she caught a break in 2016 when producers cast her in the lead female role of a popular horror franchise’s third installment. “1920: London” found fans beyond India, even streaming at times on Netflix.
Chopra remains most proud of a movie released in late September. “Section 375,” a film that examined anti-rape laws in India as well as the way victims are treated by the justice system, received critical acclaim overseas. Chopra was praised for her performance as a woman seeking justice.
“The reception to that movie has gone above and beyond what I hoped for,” she said. “We plan to take it to international film festivals.”
The film currently is available on Amazon Prime.
Chopra next will star as a police officer in “Kamathipura,” an Amazon Prime series set to debut in the coming months.
Chopra returned to SVSU in September as part of the university’s 2019 Scholars & Artists speaker series. She also visited with theatre classes during her week-long stay.
While she remains proud of her career in front of the camera, her long-term goals reside behind the scenes. Chopra hopes one day to develop a movie production company in Bollywood. She said the possibilities are endless for her as a producer in the 21st century.
“I call this ‘The Golden Age of Cinema’ right now because of digital,” she said. “Look at what’s on Netflix and Amazon Prime — there’s a huge market for movies made all over the world. These things were not happening 10 years ago but it’s very real right now.”
And it was not happening 18 years ago either, when Chopra sought an escape from home and found herself at SVSU. Although, at least one thing has not changed since then.
“It’s been a crazy journey, and my parents are very happy with where I am, but they have one concern: They still want me to get married,” Chopra said.
“That’s ok, though. They are happy I found peace with what I’m doing.
So am I.”