Celebrity lawyer and former model-screenwriter Priyanka Khimani credits her underprivileged upbringing for contributing to her success in the legal battlefield.
Young lawyer and screenwriter Priyanka Khimani moves in and out of celebrity circles in Bollywood – as the co-founder and lead partner of Anand & Anand & Khimani, she has handled a number of high-profile cases, such as representing filmmaker Anurag Kashyap in the #MeToo allegations against him, acting for rapper Badshah with respect to the recent interrogations by the Mumbai Crime Branch on fake social media followers and as a legal advisor to the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. She has also been a model and theatre artist herself.
But not many know the remarkable journey of a girl who started out with few resources and no privileges, and achieved what she did by grit, intelligence and hard work.
Raised by Muslim and Gujarati parents in a typical Mumbai chawl, Priyanka says that it’s still home for her, and a humbling experience each time she goes back there.
“I owe almost all of my personality and strengths to the place and circumstances in which I was raised. Even before my parents were able to afford a room in the chawl, they raised me for the first few months right after I was born in the back of a photocopying (“xerox” as they called it) shop outside Mahim station that they ran. The back of our shop would double up as home when it closed for business for the day,” says the dynamic 32-year-old.
Thanks to these surroundings, she says, she picked up different local languages that she now speaks fluently, and learnt to mingle and have a conversation with people from diverse backgrounds and strata. By 15, she had written her first TV show, Tamanna House, a 60-episode thriller.
“Most of all, I learnt to improvise and quickly adapt to almost every unpleasant, uncomfortable, far-from-ideal situation. And I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.
Given her difficult financial circumstances, Priyanka would make almost every decision on the basis of what could provide a source of income. She took up biotechnology at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College while writing for TV shows on the side.
Later, while studying law at Government Law College, saying yes to a law firm’s offer during placement week was also quite simply a result of desperately needing a paycheck along with a career. But equally so, it almost felt like it was meant to be. “I was fortunate that all of my previous work experience before that serendipitously put me right where I needed to be,” she recalls.
But her career in law has not been all smooth. For Priyanka, her youth and fashionable appearance, besides her gender, became hurdles that she continues to face in this arena. “For most people, there is a certain stereotype of what a lawyer is supposed to be – grey hair, aggressive, argumentative, foxy, even unpleasant,” she informs.
That fact she doesn’t fit this mould surprises a lot of people. “People somehow only expect to see men in control or in charge of certain situations. They’re not expecting to see a woman in command, let alone someone young,” she explains.
However, Priyanka believes that none of these challenges or preconceived notions can act as a substitute for talent, sound advice and a successful end result – which tends to speak for itself above everything else.
Surrounded by big names from the entertainment industry – from Sonu Nigam to Lata Mangeshkar – and solving their legal crises has taught Priyanka that each crisis comes with its unique set of peculiarities and has its own life cycle, even if it causes damage.
What is key is how efficiently one can arrest the damage being caused. “In most cases, there’s a tendency for the person facing the brunt to have a knee-jerk reaction, especially given the nature of news being instantly and easily accessible,” she says.
She explains that advisors often help mount defence on two fronts – legal and public – so multiple factors affect strategy and at times things quite literally change by the hour. “While the broad strokes of the procedure may remain common, each of these matters has one looking at different laws and statutes at play. All this means that one has to have the ability to think calmly and on one’s feet,” she says.
Priyanka’s journey as a lawyer has been a fulfilling one, and she has grown just from the sheer learnings gathered over the years, she says. Advising a client through crisis or a high-stake contentious matter sharpened her instincts and ability to strategise, and advising on transactions tested her skills to negotiate and arrive at consensus.
She also learnt to be patient yet firm, tactful yet commercially adept. “Whether you’re in a court room or board room, two big learnings would be that a successful output can never be found on the basis of ‘my way or the highway’, and that there’s rarely ever a slam-dunk. I never underestimate that someone’s reputation and life are in my hands, and I must do everything I can to protect it,” she explains.
Priyanka, who is also the chairperson of the India chapter of global nonprofit Women in Music, says she is most inspired by seeing someone driven and wanting to push the envelope. Further, she tends to find immense inspiration from everyday experiences and people – judges, investigating officers, fellow lawyers including those on the opposite side of a matter or deal, her artist clients, their agents and managers, all the attorneys in her firm and even the interns.
“I notice things they do differently during the course of their work and draw great influence from it. I think the key is to never really stop learning,” she says.
Her future goals include writing a book and making legal education more palatable to anyone and everyone who needs to apply it in their professional lives. Her #trueorfalse series, which she started earlier this year on her social media, is an attempt in that direction.First published in eShe magazine