As she takes us inside the Gaiety Galaxy, the model talks to Vogue Philippines about her modeling journey and how the city of Mumbai allowed her to flex the breadth of her creative vision.
It was early morning in Mumbai when Nidhi Sunil took over the Gaiety Galaxy—five hours before its first matinee, to be exact. Within a limited timeframe, the model could call the place her own, lounging over a popcorn machine; watching over reels in the backrooms; standing within the red-hot glare of a lofty projection. The Gaiety Galaxy is the city’s mainstay establishment for film enthusiasts. It’s where audiences could dance, holler, and allow themselves a freedom of expression that would ordinarily be shut down just about anywhere else.
Over a Zoom call from London, Sunil is relaxed in her living room, remembering the shoot fondly. “No one has shot at Gaiety Galaxy, ever,” she says, eyes shining. “It’s a very, very old theater. They won’t let any local Indian production shoot in it because it’ll become very political, so we finagled it with the owner.”
An internationally acclaimed model, actress, and philanthropist, Sunil says she loves what she does but tells Vogue Philippines that it’s “bringing a vision to life” that makes her the most excited, whether it’s on or off camera. “I love doing stuff like that,” she muses, referring to the “finagling” of Gaiety Galaxy. She explains, “I love being a muse and being in front of the camera. I love movement and things like that, but I feel like I was just challenged on so many creative levels [on that shoot], which I feel like I don’t get to do anymore in London.”
Unlike most modeling hubs, Mumbai’s creative industry has a very “top-down” approach to its processes. “In Bombay, when I started modeling, I was able very much to be an active participant. Because in New York and [elsewhere], I found productions were so vague. Like, I’m not really a part of the process. I just show up on the day of the job,” she explains. “But in India, because the industry was also quite a small circle, I got to be in on the conversations—like location scouting, hair, makeup, and the creative vision of it—and kind of be part of the team, which I really enjoyed.” In a way, Mumbai served as Sunil’s training grounds. “It’s just having those kinds of visual sort of abilities be honed for years.”
In the first place, Sunil appreciated that she could flex her creative abilities in any way she could. “I wasn’t really trying to be a model. I was just a lost law grad,” she recounts. “And it was kind of a serendipitous accident, but I wouldn’t really change anything.” After graduating, she realized that she couldn’t see herself settling into a nine-to-five. “I think I’ve always been a creative person,” she explains. “[Modeling] was, for me, an out initially—I could access the creative field.” But before she knew it, she had found her footing in the fashion industry, at home in the frenetic pace unique to film sets and photoshoots.
For Sunil, who grew up on the fashion and beauty photography of Prabuddha Dasgupta, perhaps modeling was the natural course of her career. “His images with his then-partner Lakshmi Menon were so inspiring for me,” she recounts. “And I was still in school when, you know, she was on the covers of Vogue. And she was walking for Jean Paul Gautier. And she was the face of Hermès. It was just so groundbreaking for us and for me as an Indian girl. And I think, at that point, she was probably the only [South Asian international] model.”
She names model Ujjwala Raut as another hero. “I remember her walking Victoria’s Secret and it just felt very, I guess, unattainable but also aspirational,” she says. “It’s not common for, like, darker-skinned South Indian girls to be able to be cast in very mainstream or commercial projects that will be seen by millions of people.” Sunil understands the power a single image can hold. In her life, images have served as portals. “I think when I saw Lakshmi and Ujjwala, I remember being like, ‘Okay, there’s a door.’ Like, it’s not that open, but there are opportunities available for us as well.”
It’s that door that has led her to Vogue India’s Model of the Year award in 2021, her role as global ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, Dior’s Gateway to India show earlier this year, and more to come in the realm of fashion and beyond.
“I never really expected my career to kind of move from India to New York and London and LA and Paris,” Sunil says. “I just feel very lucky, and I’m very humbled, honestly, to kind of be one of the faces that are representing South Asian beauty and people in an industry where there’s not that many of us.”
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