complaining. “I had a few hectic months after the win, so this forced break allowed me to unwind,” she says. And, even though the pandemic ate into half her regnal year, Rao has nothing but gratitude for the opportunities the title brought her, which included her first trip overseas, to London, a city she had only ever visited through Indian films.
While the last few months may seem unreal to many of us, Rao has been moving through a haze of disbelief since June last year, when she was crowned Miss India at the 56th Femina Miss India ceremony. Until then, she was a diffident young woman, studying chartered accountancy, who, sometimes, allowed herself to dream of a career on the silver screen.“Since I was a little girl, I’d watch videos of Indian film songs on TV and copy the steps,” says Rao, who started learning Kathak five years ago. “I would love to work in Bollywood, and I feel this platform has set me on the right path.”
Rao speaks with a confidence that belies her years, and she puts the sangfroid down to all the training she received during the Miss India pageant. “I was a completely different person before June last year,” she says, talking candidly about her simple upbringing in a middle-income household. “My family is somewhat orthodox, and, at school, I was an average student, at best. So, I had no idea how to represent myself then,” says Rao, whose family moved to Mumbai from Rajasthan shortly after she was born. “The trainers had their work cut out for them with me,” she says, with a laugh, and shares that when interviewed, she had a tendency to take the most circuitous route to answer. “I still can’t understand what the judges’ saw in me,” she says, and adds that she’s delighted with the transformation the experts brought about in her.
The grooming also went a long way to ensure she had no trouble fitting in and holding her own among the 120 contestants of the Miss World competition in December 2019 — where she made it to the podium. “I had never been on an international flight before that,” says Rao, of her trip to London, where she spent practically every waking hour surrounded by her counterparts from around the world. She taught some of her competitors Bollywood songs, and learnt, among many things, about the famous French étiquette, including the right way to air kiss. For Rao, who had never interacted with foreigners, “those 25 days in London felt like a tour of the world.” The cultural exposition was fun, but the most exciting part of the trip, Rao says, was spending her 21st birthday with the contestants at a pizza place. “I loved everything about London — from the museum and monuments; to our visit to the Houses of Parliament… it was incredible to see these structures that I had only seen in films before. But I love my Indian food, and the local cuisine was a tad bland for my taste. So, pizza was a real treat.”
Both pageants also opened her eyes to the issue of women’s rights. Discussions about the need for an egalitarian society resonated with Rao, who had grown up around women who neither expressed their opinions, nor had ever been invited to offer them. “My family is part of an orthodox community. But it’s inspiring to see how willing my parents have been to embrace change,” says Rao, referring to her family’s decision to support her dreams, even though it was a departure from their traditional way of life. “They were conditioned to think a certain way, but they’re open to change — and I think that’s the definition of progressive.” Adding that her mother Sushila and her father Ratan Singh have been wonderful role models, she says, “My father worked selflessly to pull the family above the poverty line when I was little, and my mother has been our rock, caring for the household, which included my ageing grandparents, with such dedication.”
It’s been a year of introspection and learning, says Rao, who is glad that she’s had the last three months off to take it all in. The lockdown has also allowed her time to study for her chartered accountancy exam. “It’s not so unusual for someone with Bollywood aspirations,” she says, and shares that Siddhant Chaturvedi (Gully Boy’s MC Sher) studied chartered accountancy, too. The twin paths certainly aren’t incongruous. After all, what is Bollywood if not a numbers game.