The Multifaceted Life of Niharika Singh

Niharika Singh is an Indian film actress and a former Miss India. She won the title of Femina Miss India Earth in 2005, represented India at the Miss Earth pageant in the Philippines and made her acting debut with the film Miss Lovely which competed in Un Certain Regard at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Niharika spent her childhood in various hill stations and small towns in the northern parts of India and regularly attended children theatre workshops before going to a girls’ boarding school in Nainital. Niharika started modelling in 1999 at the age of 17, dropped out of college and moved to Mumbai in 2003. She appeared in several television commercials, print ads, music videos and hosted a reality series before making her debut as an actress with the film Miss Lovely. In 2016, Niharika was selected for Berlinale Talents. In 2018, Niharika wrote a long detailed piece addressing the #MeToo movement in India as a Dalit woman working in the entertainment industry. She was invited to speak at India Conference 2019 at Harvard University and was a guest of honour at the 1st Dalit Film & Cultural Festival held at Columbia University & The New School. Niharika plays the role of a disturbing Sadhvi in The Field Guide to Evil, a global horror anthology, which premiered at SXSW and released in cinemas all over USA and Canada this March. Niharika is currently working on her first documentary; a personal essay film using archival footage and multi media formats.

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Name : Niharika Singh  @n1har1kas1ngh

Birthplace : New Delhi

Métier : Former Miss India – Actor – Aspiring Filmmaker

Sources of inspiration : Too many to count. But women who continue to be a source of inspiration to me because of their courage, contribution to the arts and their extraordinary lives are — Forough Farrokhzad, Emmanuelle Riva and Toni Morrison.

Sources of motivation :  Black Feminist writing, Dr. B R Ambedkar, buried histories of Dalit women around the world.

What makes you happy : Bookstores, Trees and Kindness.

Favorite reads : That’s a difficult one because I’ve loved different books at different stages in my life but my all time favorites are The Hundred Dresses – Eleanor Estes, The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka, Communion: the female search for love – Bell Hooks and The Curly Pyjama Letters – Michael Leunig

Favorite tunes : Ambient Techno, Kabir by Abida Parveen, Kishori Amonkar, Jazz.

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Favorite films : Chronicle of a Summer – Jean Roush & Edgar Morin, Garam Hawa – M.S Sathyu, Touki Bouki – Djibril Diop Mambéty, Lola Montès – Max Ophüls

Favorite foods : All kinds of Fruit, Japanese cuisine, Khasi food, Dimsum, Peking duck and Bitter gourd stuffed with minced meat cooked by my Dad.

Beauty tips : Although I’m a Green Beauty nerd, what I’ve come to realize with time is that — Beauty is not what you see, but the way of seeing things.

Favorite ways to unwind : A walk amidst trees.

What gets you in a working flow : Yoga, breakfast and I’m set for the day.

What are you working on now : An essay film on my family; my first attempt at filmmaking.

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Favorite motto / quote : “So yes, we cripple our children, we cripple each other with those designations that if you’re a brick mason you shouldn’t love the ballet. Who made that rule? You ever see a person lay bricks? Because of the eye and the hands, of course he or she would like to see ballet. It is that precise, that established, that organized, that sort of development from the bottom to the top.” – Maya Angelou

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Last words about the shoot for The Know (clothes/ style/ vibes): Masha and Marija were a delight to shoot with. My first ever shoot in New York City right after a lovely walk at Central Park. Our friend Sabine was kind enough to make some space in her uptown apartment. Bibhu Mohapatra’s gorgeous black dress and the lovely blue kaftan by Bungalow 8 put me in the right mood immediately. The shoot was a semblance of simplicity and sophistication.

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Haridwar, 1986 – my sister’s birthday celebration with family

“The last few weeks have been interesting for women in India. The Hollywood inspired #Metoo movement has made its belated foray into the Indian mainstream media and stories of various forms of harassment and abuse are finally beginning to take center stage. A few men have been asked to step down from their positions of power and some women can heave a sigh of relief as they form solidarities amongst their ilk, process trauma and perhaps begin to get closure of some kind.

I decided to write this piece to expand my own understanding of what constitutes abuse, who we choose to punish and whom we are willing to forgive. Like the majority of Indian women, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, my entire life has been dotted with various forms of exploitation. Sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, economic – I’ve been through it all.

Each time I’ve tried to extricate myself from one abusive situation, I found myself caught in the vortex of another. I’ve had to discover myriad ways to disengage, break patterns, forgive, heal, and reclaim my strength in order to survive, grow and find peace.

My father is from Uttar Pradesh, and my mother from Rajasthan; both belong to untouchable communities. An alliance was formed through a Times of India matrimonial ad in the early 1980s. Their tumultuous marriage and everyday violence that was normalized within the family gave me an opaque understanding of what constitutes love and what constitutes abuse while I was growing up. Sent to an all-girls boarding school in the hills early on provided a much needed escape.

Modeling in India

Mumbai. Early modelling days

I moved to New Delhi for higher studies as a teenager, and soon began to realize that daily harassment on roads and public buses, ragging on college campuses, catcalling by anonymous men and rape threats by stalkers was considered normal behavior; something women who grew up in the city learnt to navigate from early childhood. Depending on which part of the city you lived in, the extent of the abuse varied. Your caste background, economic conditions and political affiliations determined that. Law and order were tools reserved for those who had access to power. Since I was ‘fair-skinned’ and ‘photogenic’, I chanced upon jobs in the burgeoning beauty industry that was beginning to thrive in the early 2000s.

The underbelly of the modeling scene in New Delhi, where I worked for a few years, provided me with enough ammunition and confidence I needed to make the big move to Mumbai – the city of dreams; but also of nightmares. Navigating exploitative model coordinators, photographers and older lecherous men in the seedy lanes of Malviya Nagar, I learnt the art of disguise, playing deaf and dumb when required, with one singular goal in mind – survival.

Despite my parents’ disapproval, I moved to Mumbai with my younger sister and some meagre savings when she got admission to St. Xavier’s College, hoping to protect us from the casteist, feudal, north Indian way of life only to soon discover my youthful ignorance.

My life in Mumbai started with me finding an apartment in Lokhandwala with the help of a model I’d met. After sending my pictures to agencies and production houses, I soon began to get jobs in print and advertising. That model’s career was on it’s way down and one day, after a few drinks, he ended up getting violent and tried to molest my sister. When she opened up to me, I went to his studio, broke whatever I could, gave him a few slaps, screamed expletives and told him to never show his face again. That episode shook both my sister and me and I blamed myself for not being able to ensure her safety.

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Manila, 2005 – Miss Earth beauty pageant delegates

Things started looking up in 2005 when I participated in the Miss India beauty pageant. I won a crown, traveled all over the country, represented India at an international beauty pageant, and was treated like a state guest in Uttarakhand where my father worked. I even had a garden named after me by the state that had recently seceded from Uttar Pradesh and needed its own role models.

The Times group, organizers of the Miss India pageant, made sure they got their money’s worth by working us around the clock. Along with the other winners, I flew around for sponsor visits, press meets, fashion shows and hosted a reality show on television. Work flowed in; I endorsed various brands, my face was on billboards and covers of magazines. I now had a social life, dated a young aspiring actor from Juhu, signed a film contract and began to feel at home in Mumbai. Other than my sister, I also supported a younger cousin that came to live with me and dreamed of becoming a singer in the Hindi film industry.

My big ‘Bollywood’ debut ran into roadblocks when Raj Kanwar, a filmmaker who’d signed a 10-film contract with me, did not start work on his films nor did he allow me to work on any other films that I was offered. ‘Nayi heroine band mutthi ki tarah hoti hai’ (A new actress is like a closed fist), he would say. ‘Ek baar khul jaaye, toh aage uski kismet’. (Once opened, then it’s her destiny.)

A year later, John Matthew Mathan, a respected filmmaker and Bhushan Kumar, a film producer and owner of a music label, approached me for a film they were making with then-popular singer Himesh Reshammiya in the lead. When I told them about my contract, Bhushan Kumar came up with a plan. He set up a meeting with Raj Kanwar and Shahid Kapoor, a young promising actor then, on the pretext of developing a project together. Raj Kanwar’s previous film ‘Humko Deewana Kar Gaye’ had tanked at the box office and he was very excited at the prospect. Bhushan Kumar asked Kanwar to release me from his contract as a favor so I could be cast in his other film, since, after all, they were ‘one big family’. Bhushan Kumar called me to his office to sign ‘A New Love Ishtory’ where he gave me an envelope as a signing amount for the film. It contained two 500 Rupee notes (less than 14$). I got a text from him later that night- ‘I would love to know you more. Let’s get together sometime.’ I wrote back saying- ‘Absolutely! Lets go on a double date. You bring your wife. I’ll bring my boyfriend.’ He never wrote to me again.

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Miss India Earth 2005

The film took years to make and Bhushan pulled the finance once Reshammiya’s films proved duds at the box office. I was compelled to shoot a couple of songs without director John Matthew Mathan’s involvement just to quickly wrap up the film. I was neither paid nor called for the dubbing. The incomplete and incohesive final cut was sold straight to a TV channel, with another woman’s voice. The cast and crew were never informed.

By then, new beauty pageant winners and fresh faces had appeared on the scene and it seemed like my big Bollywood debut was not going to happen. The newly made friendships, sisterhoods and allegiances in the industry began to falter, and my relationship with the young actor from Juhu who was making his Bollywood debut ended.

I signed a Kannada film and continued modeling to pay the bills. My sister finished college, started working and found love. She was planning her wedding around the time I met a guy named Mayank Singh Singhvi at a friend’s birthday party. He was an investment banker and had nothing to do with film, which to me, was like a breath of fresh air. Within two months of meeting me, Mayank tattooed my name on his chest and told me that he was in love with me. I didn’t feel the same way about him but he managed to get into my social circle and develop a bond with my family and friends who insisted I ‘settle down’. In 2011, on my 29th birthday, he gave me a ring and asked me to marry him.

Mayank, as I found out later, was a sociopath, and I broke off my engagement at the end of 2011. His ego was completely bruised and his anger was uncontrollable. Using casteist slurs, he got abusive and physically violent. I went to a friend’s house to protect myself and left Mumbai soon after with a broken spirit. Mayank created a false narrative about me after I left that many of my friends chose to believe, which hurt even more than the abuse. I moved to Dehradun where my father lived, did vipassana and spent time on my own to heal.

Cannes Film Festival 2012

Cannes, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival

‘Miss Lovely’ got into the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. I felt vindicated and enjoyed the attention of the international press. I posed, preened, finally saw myself on the big screen and returned a changed woman.

I was living in Dehradun that time and had applied for a film appreciation course at FTII in Pune. I didn’t take up any film offers I was getting because I wanted to study post my Cannes experience and had no inclination to return to my previous ‘filmy’ life. I tried reconnecting with my family. My mother who had been living separately from my father for years was struggling with mental health and my father was about to retire from government service.

In 2017, Nawazuddin Siddiqui wrote a memoir called ‘An ordinary life’, with writer Rituparna Chatterjee, which was published by Penguin Random House. Under the title ‘Relationships’, he wrote a completely fabricated account of our relationship without my knowledge or consent. Before the book launch, publicists leaked sensational excerpts to garner interest in the book. A senior theatre and television actress Sunita Rajwar who had known Nawaz since her NSD days confirmed his ‘extraordinary lies’ and filed a case. He offered a token social media apology withdrawing the book. I ordered the book online a week later and it was delivered to my house.

Director Anurag Kashyap, Nawaz’s mentor and close collaborator who chose to turn a blind eye towards sexual harassment within his own company, continues to support Nawaz and his story. Writer Rituparna Chatterjee with her completely unethical, defamatory and poorly researched book is not apologetic either.

I tried to seek legal help and spoke to a lawyer. His advice to me was to ‘meditate’ and forget about the whole thing unless I wanted to get on every news channel and have a media trial. Another lawyer from New Delhi took it upon himself to file a complaint against the actor with the National Commission of Women. News channels and publications regurgitated the sensational content from the book along with images from different phases of my life adding further fabricated layers to the story. This public scandal was one of the biggest controversies of 2017. Penguin Random House took no responsibility and remained silent.

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Mumbai, 2009 – Backstage ‘Miss Lovely’

Filmmakers, Writers, Publishers, Journalists, Lawyers -nobody can take a high moral ground. They were all complicit in this collective public shaming.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui after playing the role of ‘Manto’ became the harbinger of truth. He was invited by JNU and various literary festivals as a guest where he played the role of truth-teller effortlessly. His fan following on social media multiplied; GQ magazine then awarded him ‘Actor of the year’. Netflix started a second season of ‘Sacred Games’ with him in the lead. Nawaz’s repeated stance that he wrote the memoir while he was preparing for the role of Saadat Hasan Manto makes for the perfect irony.

In June this year, I received a call from a woman who introduced herself as Mayank Singhvi’s wife; the same man I was briefly engaged to, in 2011. She wanted to know my reasons for calling off the engagement. I told her my story. She confided in me that she’d been abused from the first week of their marriage and was trying to get out. We stayed in touch forming a kind of sisterhood. A few days later she was found dead in her marital home under mysterious circumstances. Mayank Singhvi was taken into judicial custody.

Violence against women may be a common feature faced by all women in India, but there is no denying the fact that certain kinds of violence are customarily reserved solely for Dalit women. More so for those who assert themselves and reject caste and patriarchal domination. While crimes against upper caste women are taken seriously and elicit more empathy, violation of rights of Dalit women and the injustice meted out to us has an excruciating long history. Statistics show that crimes against Dalits have risen by 746% in the last one decade. A dalit atrocity is committed every 15 minutes and 6 dalit women are raped everyday. Most cases are neither registered nor acted upon and the perpetrators go scot-free.

Power is an everyday, socialized and embodied phenomenon. In the case of Nawaz and I, it is easy to see how power dynamics changed through the years and with that, also the narrative. Nawaz being an aspirational, sexually repressed Indian man whose toxic male entitlement grew with his success, is hardly surprising. What is interesting to note is that despite not identifying as a Hindu, he carries deep caste prejudices since he chose to protect the honor of his ‘Brahmin’ wife after their names came up in the CDR scam while on the other hand, he felt very comfortable painting me as a seductress wearing faux fur in his book, who he could sexually exploit, for public imagination.

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Mumbai, 2009 – Shooting a song for ‘Miss Lovely

The director of ‘Miss Lovely’, Ashim Ahluwalia, who I had known through the years, had been a friend and a voice of reason. I always shared my dating disasters and Mumbai misadventures with him and he usually helped me put things into perspective. Ashim’s marriage with one of the producers of Miss Lovely ended and he began seeking me out as his emotional anchor. We were there for each other through difficult times and he encouraged me to return to films.

Patriarchy has no gender. Nor does abuse. We can’t forget the role of mothers and wives who are equally responsible in covering or enabling their sons’ and husbands’ crimes. Women in power like Nandita Das and Kavita Krishnan have all shown professional and political allegiance with predators and enabled them through their silence or solidarity. Lending their voices to ‘survivors’ of the #Metoo movement now only comes across as fraudulent.

It’s time to realize that the pompous, neoliberal, savarna feminism is not going to liberate anyone. Unless the Savarna feminists do not dismantle the same power structures from which they have benefitted, women in this country will continue to be gaslit, exploited and maligned; their dreams thwarted, voices silenced, bodies assaulted and histories erased.

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Manila, 2005 – National costume round, Miss Earth beauty pageant

The selective outrage of the supposed ‘liberals’ and ‘Indian leftists’ benefits only their convenience, and we must note that it finally took a Dalit student, Raya Sarkar in academia and a beauty pageant winner, Tanushree Dutta, to burst the Bollywood bubble while they silently looked on for years.

Last but not the least, filmmaker Sajid Khan, who I met a couple of times while he was dating an actress I knew years ago, made a few predictions when a close friend of ours was opening her second restaurant – ‘This place will shut down within a year, mark my words.’ To his actress girlfriend he said, ‘She won’t survive a day without me in Bollywood’. ‘And, this one’, looking at me straight, ‘will soon commit suicide.’

My restaurateur friend is opening her fourth restaurant. It is difficult to get a table at the other three. The actress’ career skyrocketed after she dumped the filmmaker and I, have managed to stay alive.”

Photography by Maria Nova @marianovafilm