This American beauty queen is an assassin on a TV show in India

Nikkitasha Marwaha dropped out of Northwestern, to join Bollywood.

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By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: An Indian American model and former beauty queen is now making a splash on Indian television in the new hit series “24.”

Nikkitasha Marwaha
Nikkitasha Marwaha

Nikkitasha Marwaha, a native of northern Virginia, plays the assassin Mehr in the new show that’s being produced by and stars Anil Kapoor. The show’s entire first season is directed by Abhinay Deo, who shot to fame two years ago as the director of the Imran Khan-starrer Delhi Belly. The first season is scripted by Rensil D’Silva (Rang De Basanti, Kurbaan) and Bhavani Iyer (Black, Lootera). The Indian “24” will also star Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi, and Mandira Bedi in supporting roles.

With so many Indian actors starting to feature prominently in American TV shows – namely Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), Aziz Ansari (“Parks and Recreation”), and Kunal Nayyar (“The Big Bang Theory”) – it’s unusual to see an Indian girl who was brought up in the US decide to go back to India to do TV and film work. But after years of working her way up the ladder and paying her dues, Marwaha is slowly starting to make a name for herself. The road to get here, however, was anything but easy.

“I’ve been in India for quite some time now auditioning [and] finding different roles,” said Marwaha, in an exclusive interview here, to The American Bazaar. “Although the trajectory of my career was going very well, I wanted to [have] a good magnitude of work on television. When “24” came along, I auditioned for it, and luckily I was chosen as the assassin, Mehr.”

Marwaha first rose to fame as a contestant on the North America version of Sony’s “Boogie Woogie” in 2007, on which she won first place in the senior category. Her dance background is extensive, and was indispensable to her and her budding career.

“I grew up [in Northern Virginia] and attended India International School, which is a school for performing arts and languages, [and] I learned Indian classical dance from Guru Saikantha Raparla Ji,” said Marwaha. “She originally hails from Andhra Pradesh but she is based here, [so] I got to learn Kucchipuddi from her and because of her instilling that dancing [skill] in me, I was able to gain the confidence to go on many different levels and many different stages [to perform].”

After discovering her comfort with being on stage, Marwaha decided to push herself further and go into pageantry, where she has made a name for herself as a model. In 2009, she won Miss India Worldwide in South Africa, and last year she placed second on the Kingfisher Calendar Girl Hunt television program in India.

“Miss India Worldwide is the biggest pageant [that is held] outside of India for [NRI] girls,” explained Marwaha. Indian girls from different countries – the US, the UK, Australia, and so on – each represent their own nation and go head-to-head with each other for the crown of Miss India Worldwide. “We’re all Indian girls who love our culture, are immersed in it, and respect it so much, [and] it was so nice [to have] met a range of girls of different ages and different talents.”

She holds fond memories of winning that particular pageant because it happened on February 14. “It was my Valentine’s Day gift,” she joked.

She then appeared on the second season of Zee TV’s “Dance India Dance.” Having learned Kucchipuddi since she was a young girl, her skills as a dancer got her all the way to the Top 10 of that season’s crop of dancers before she got eliminated.

“That journey [on Dance India Dance] took me to living in India for six months, and really facing what Indian mentality and not just Indian culture, but how Indian life is,” she reflected. “Those six months really showed me that this is the side of the industry I can join if I choose to move to India.”

At the time, however, Marwaha was completing her higher studies at Northwestern University, a prestigious institution in Illinois. After attending for over a year, she made the bold decision to drop out to pursue a career in modeling and acting. She now splits her time between the US and Mumbai, and has appeared in low-budget, independent English movies like 9/11 and Bollywood films like Ishq in Paris, which starred Preity Zinta.

Having grown up in a Hindi and Punjabi-speaking family, Marwaha can speak and understand the languages well, which she says has been of immeasurable help in getting her roles and assuaging skepticism in India that an NRI girl can properly speak their languages. Marwaha appreciates the faith many of her directors – including Abhinay Deo, the director of Delhi Belly who is now directing “24” and who cast Marwaha for the show – put in her linguistic skills.

“Sometimes I really messed up [my Hindi],” she admits, “but it was at least able to make someone laugh!”

As for any advice Marwaha has for others aspiring to step into the Indian entertainment industry, she says, “It’s all about hard work. I always see [events in] life as stepping stones; you don’t see where you’re going next, but once you step on that stone, then you can see the next stone and you keep on going. So if you work hard and focus, you can definitely achieve what you want. And along the way, respect your parents.”

[Priya Potapragada contributed to this story.]

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