After becoming the winner of the 1984 Miss India title, Chawla headed to Miami to compete for the Miss Universe crown. Although she didn't win, she walked away with the Best National Costume trophy, and a film career was practically assured. She had early success with Sultanat (1986) and especially Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988).
Chawla's dozens of hits in the years since include Home Delivery, 7 1/2 Phere and My Brother Nikhil (all 2005). She is also an accomplished concert performer and a judge for the Indian version of "American Idol."