Niharika Singh shares her #MeToo account: Neo-liberal, savarna feminism isn't going to liberate anyone

FP Staff

November 10, 2018 12:27:10 IST

Former Miss India and actor Niharika Singh shared her #MeToo account through journalist Sandhya Menon, who has been at the forefront of the movement. In her post, Singh wrote of her experiences as a Dalit woman trying to crack films while navigating encounters within the corridors of patriarchy.

Niharika Singh. Image via Facebook/Niharika Singh Fanclub

Niharika Singh. Image via Facebook/Niharika Singh Fanclub

Singh wrote that her experiences as an aspiring model living in Delhi gave her the confidence to move to Mumbai and pursue her dreams. However, living in the city also taught her that a person's caste background controlled the degree of abuse and harassment they were subjected to as "law and order were tools reserved for those who had access to power". She further adds that being 'photogenic' and 'fair-skinned' gave her an edge over other women in the rapidly growing beauty industry, and things started looking up once she won the Miss India pageant.

Soon, she moved to Mumbai, determined to make it big as an actress. In the initial phase of career, Singh writes, she met Bhushan Kumar, chairman of T-Series, to discuss a film. Kumar offered her a film but allegedly tried to engage with her in a personal capacity.

Then in 2009, Singh says she met Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the two got involved with each other although she "did not know what to make of their relationship". She later put an end to their relationship after he allegedly lied to her on multiple occasions and engaged with other women. She states that Siddiqui, in his memoir titled An Ordinary Life which he later withdrew, "wrote a completely fabricated account of our relationship without my knowledge or consent". She alleges that Siddiqui, using his position and the power at his disposal, conveniently painted her as the "seductress wearing faux fur" in the book while jumping to protect his Brahmin wife's honour when her name came up in the CDR scam.

Shedding light on the atrocities against Dalit women, she writes that although crimes against women are common, certain acts of violence are meted out only to women of lower castes and rarely elicit enough empathy. She also called out Nandita Das, Kavita Krishnan and Anurag Kashyap for allegedly enabling predators with their silence and continued allegiance. "It’s time to realise that the pompous, neo-liberal, 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," she adds.

Read the full text of her post here:

"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.

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.

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.

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.

In 2009, I signed a small indie film titled ‘Miss Lovely’ with an all new cast and crew. I was required on the set for not more than 15 days. An actor named Nawazuddin Siddiqui who liked to call himself ‘Nowaz’ was signed for one of the lead roles. I’d never heard of him so I wasn’t sure whether he could act at all. During one of my interactions on the sets with Nowaz, he gave me a CD that had a short film on it called ‘Bypass’ which also starred actor Irrfan Khan, his senior from National School of Drama who was helping him get acting jobs. I was amazed by his performance and screen presence. The Nowaz on the set was nothing like the Nowaz on screen. Since I’d barely noticed him on the set before, I was intrigued. The next time I met him, he sensed my curiosity and invited me to his house for lunch. His frugal apartment and grandiose generosity warmed my heart. We talked about his life and I found him real, after all the superficial ‘filmy’ interactions I’d had in the past years.

One morning, when I was home and he had been shooting all night, Nowaz sent me a text saying he was near my building. I invited him over and asked him to come and have breakfast with me. When I opened the door, he grabbed me. I tried to push him away but he wouldn’t let go. After a little coercion, I finally gave in. I wasn’t sure what to make of this relationship. He told me it was his dream to have a Miss India or an actress wife, just like Paresh Rawal and Manoj Bajpayee. I found his little confession funny but endearing. I was drawn to the stories from his life. I introduced him to my sister and my friends but he was very insecure around them and preferred to spend time with me alone. He often complained about how he was judged on his looks, skin color and that he wasn’t fluent in English. I tried to help him deal with his insecurities, but he was stuck in a state of victimization.

In the next couple of months, I began to discover one lie after another. Nowaz had engaged multiple women, giving each one a different story; one of them even called me from his phone and started yelling at me. I also found out about a woman he’d married in Haldwani, whose family had sued him for making dowry demands. I told him to clean up his mess, be honest with himself and everyone around him; also that I did not want to see him again.

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.

‘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.

Nawaz and I met at Cannes after three years. We hadn’t spoken to each other since 2009. He was apologetic for his past behavior, told me he’d worked on his issues, dissolved his first marriage and married a second time. I started laughing. He started crying, confessing he and his second wife were living separately and it was even more complicated since he now had a daughter who he missed dearly. I looked at him with compassion and told him that he could call me if he needed to talk. There was one caveat though – He must never lie to me again. 2012 was the year he got his first brush with ‘fame’. He wasn’t used to public life or much attention. He would call me everyday not knowing how to deal with it and I tried to guide him through the madness.

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. Nawaz had family in Dehradun who I had been introduced to. I was very fond of his brother Faizy and his wife. We all even celebrated Eid together once.

In 2013, Nawaz was offered a film by Buddhadeb Dasgupta titled ‘Anwar ka ajab kissa’ and he called me to ask me if I would do a small role in that film. I would only be required to shoot for 3 days. I gladly agreed and went to Shimultata where the shoot was scheduled. He tried to re-engage me sexually, begging me to be with him but I refused, saying I was happy to be his friend and nothing else. After coming back from the shoot, I didn’t take his calls and maintained my distance.

I met Nawaz again in 2014 at the ‘Miss Lovely’ India release. This time he came in a SUV, with an entourage as the ‘star’ of the film. He was constantly throwing tantrums, upset with the way the promotions were being handled. He complained that the director should’ve just made a painting at home if he didn’t care much about box-office. He was very awkward around me so I tried to overcompensate by praising him in media interactions and indulged him to make him feel secure. One evening, after a promotional event in Ahmedabad, he tried to grab me again. I just walked away.

‘Anwar ka ajab kissa’ didn’t get a theatrical release and I heard from various sources that Nawaz had started telling people that I was a terrible actress. I didn’t get too many film offers after that.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Niharika Singh is an Indian film actress and a former Miss India. She made her acting debut with the critically acclaimed ‘Miss Lovely’ that premiered at Cannes Film festival in 2012. She is next seen in ‘The Field guide to Evil’ a global horror anthology that premiered at SXSW (South by Southwest) 2018.

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 17:13 PM