Shortland Street star Nivi Summer talks to Siena Yates about leaving India for love, finding her calling and making a difference.
A young Bollywood actress moves to New Zealand looking for something more meaningful and finds it upon realising: “You don’t need to have all the glamour and riches in the world to be happy, you just need the man you love in a beautiful country like New Zealand.”
Another young woman fights a gruelling battle with her ex to gain full custody of her only child, dealing with “one of the toughest things you can face”, all on her own.
One is a fairy tale; the other is a nightmare. One is the plot of upcoming Kiwi short film Tinsel Over Twizel; the other, a storyline from New Zealand’s favourite soap, Shortland Street.
Both are also real-life events that happened to the actress who played them out on screen.
Nivi Summer has risen steadily to Kiwi stardom over the past two years as Dr Zara Mandal on Shortland Street. She’s a series regular, a fan favourite and is currently starring in the show’s most high-stakes storyline, with her character putting her life on the line to help women in danger. But it’s been a long road for Nivi, 38, to get to this point and, as these cases of art imitating life prove, much of her story is screen-worthy.
She was born in Kerala in southern India and grew up with her older brother, mother and father, until her parents split when she was 16. This became a bittersweet period of her life, as it was also around the time Nivi started acting.
She’d been interested in acting since she was little, but simply didn’t know what to do about it. Her big chance came at 15, when someone approached her mother to see if Nivi would like to do some modelling. She went on to win two major beauty contests, star in some commercials and booked the female lead in a local film.
But right when her career was set to take off, she stalled it in the name of love. She fell for a Kiwi man and followed him home to New Zealand, leaving her friends, family and career behind.
Nivi didn’t get quite the same happy ending as her on-screen counterpart, however. Not only did the relationship not work out, but the breakup was all the more devastating because Nivi then found herself in Auckland, completely alone. She was 20 years old and the only people she knew in the country were her former partner and his sister.
“When we broke up, I had to go out and make friends on my own terms,” she recalls. “Since then, I’ve never felt lonely, but I think for a good six months I was very, very lonely. I was on the verge of depression, but I think having gone through all that made me a lot stronger as well. With everything I’ve been through, now I can proudly say that nothing fazes me anymore. If I can get through that, I can get through anything.”
With everything I’ve been through, now I can proudly say that nothing fazes me anymore
The other main source of her strength came just four years ago, in the form of her son, Jed Boots, who is very clearly the apple of her eye.
“He’s very smart. He started writing letters and numbers at two and now he puts words together. I don’t think that’s normal. His teacher says it’s not, because they’re supposed to start learning how to write when they go to school, but he’s only just turned four and he’s putting words together. I’ve got a child genius!” she jokes.
Then another happy ending came along, in the form of Nivi’s current partner, a boxing coach of whom she says, “It was pretty much love at first sight.”
Theirs has been the definition of a whirlwind romance, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They started talking at the gym at first, then he officially asked her out over Facebook and after that first date, “we never stopped seeing each other”.
They moved in together after just two months and, soon after that, decided they would try for a baby. Now, after only eight months together, Nivi is pregnant with her second son, which will be her partner’s first child. So, she says, “I’m super excited for what’s to come.” Sheepishly she says, “Everything happened very quickly. But you don’t need to go with the norm of what society wants. If it feels right, then it feels right and you just do it.”
Challenging norms is something Nivi has made a habit of.
After having Jed, she bit the bullet and, at 36 years old, quit her corporate management career and went to South Seas Film School to pursue acting – more than a decade after putting her passion on the backburner.
Even her drama school journey played out like a movie: she hadn’t even finished her studies when she got picked up by Gail Cowan Management, one of the biggest talent agencies in the country.
A representative from the agency came to South Seas to give a presentation and took an interest in Nivi. They asked her to send an audition tape and, just a week later, they signed her on.
“I was like, ‘Holy sh**, I haven’t even finished acting school and I’ve already been picked up by someone!’ That was a very unusual thing that happened to me, I was very shocked,” admits Nivi.
Similarly, when she graduated in November of 2018, within weeks she’d auditioned for and landed the part of Zara. “So the whole transition happened very quickly. I didn’t even get time to really pull myself together and think; I just got a full-time role straightaway. I was very shocked and happy and all kinds of emotions – it was terrifying.”
But terrifying as it was, it’s already taught Nivi so much – not just about acting and the industry, but about life.
One of her earliest storylines on Shortland Street was one in which her character fought for custody of her daughter Rani (played by Keisha Jayapuram, 17), which brought back some hard emotions from Nivi’s own battle for full-time custody of Jed.
“That was the toughest thing I have ever experienced, so I could totally relate to that. It was very close to home, so it was very easy to play the truth in that,” she recalls. But drawing from such dark spaces can also be “a very negative thing to do, because if you keep doing that all the time, you could get yourself into a very dark state,” she says.
It was something she’d been taught to expect and taught how to handle in drama school, but this was her first time actually putting it into practice.
“They teach you a lot of things like breathing and meditation for if you do a scene and have gone to a dark place – which happens very often. Last year, all my storylines were really intense with my daughter getting kidnapped, me and Boyd [her on-screen husband] getting kidnapped, and the racism storyline.
“It was very hard and I was already going through a dark phase at the time, but meditation and breathing, going home and forgetting about everything you’ve done and just being grateful for what you have around you; like my son, my dogs, my partner – things like that help just to get back to a positive mind frame again.”
Speaking of the racism storyline – in which Zara came up against Shorty bad guy Tim Myers (played by James Wells) – Nivi says working on the show has also exposed her to discrimination in New Zealand and taught her how to deal with it.
Prior to Shortland Street, Nivi had only personally experienced racism once, when she was 24 and a café worker tried to avoid serving her. Now though, Nivi and her co-star Keisha are the frequent subjects of abuse in online comments sections.
“It’s so sad,” says Nivi, shaking her head. “People just want us kicked off the show because apparently we ‘don’t belong’. But you know, what can you say? All you can do is to take it in one ear and out the other and just ignore it.
“But,” she admits, “it does affect me. Why am I getting scrutinised for my colour? Am I not a good human being otherwise? How am I different from anyone else? We breathe the same air, we eat the same food, we do the same things in life. Why? Just because of my skin colour I’m going to get penalised, I’m going to get negative comments thrown at me?”
However, having come to the acting game later in life and having been through what she’s been through, she says, “that makes me stronger. I can learn to ignore it.”
Besides, her time on Shortland Street has given her confidence like never before, and that’s come from one of the most unexpected aspects of the job: love scenes.
Kissing her Shorty husband Boyd (Sam Bunkall) was her first time having to be intimate on-screen. He made her feel very comfortable and an intimacy coordinator made sure everything went smoothly – but there’s only a certain amount of preparation one can do.
“It’s still weird because there are 30 people watching me and, initially, it was very uncomfortable,” she admits. Now though, it’s become such a regular part of the job and she’s built such a close relationship with Sam that “it just automatically comes to me and I don’t even think about people around me anymore”.
That’s also trickled down into her real life. “Now I can do anything without having any kind of shame, which sounds weird, but it’s true,” she says. “You gain so much confidence doing something like that every day for two years.”
Perhaps one of the best things to come from Shortland Street, though, is that Nivi has managed to make a difference to the LGBTQ+ community – something she never expected or purposefully set out to do, but that she’s beyond pleased has happened.
Nivi’s character Zara is bisexual, which has seen her kissing other women on-screen – a pretty big deal given her cultural background. And as such, it made Nivi something of an icon for the LGBTQ+ Indian community, both here and abroad.
“My mum obviously has an old-school way of thinking – it’s a generational thing – but I can proudly say that I made my own way of thinking about things. I made sure I had an open mind and went against what my cultural beliefs would be when it comes to that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of things I do enjoy about my culture, but there’s also certain things that I just don’t condone,” says Nivi seriously.
“I thought I would cop a lot of flack from people; I thought I’d get social media messages which were quite negative but, believe it or not, I didn’t have one negative message. Instead, I got positive messages from lesbian and bisexual Indian women telling me how proud they were of me and that I actually encouraged them to come out and open up to their parents about what their sexuality was. It brought tears to my eyes. It was a really emotional moment for me.”
I got positive messages from lesbian and bisexual Indian women telling me how proud they were of me and that I actually encouraged them to come out
That wasn’t all though. Nivi’s work on that storyline also managed to change her mother’s long-held mindset, despite the fact that, when she first found out Nivi’s character would be bisexual, she “was not happy”.
Once she saw how it all played out, and the positive effect Nivi had on the queer community, she called her daughter to tell her, “I’m actually really happy with how it came out.”
“I explained to her, ‘You’ve got to understand, things are changing. How you grew up is not how people grow up anymore.’ The world has changed and what I pass on to my children will be exactly that: to have an open mind and accept people who are culturally diverse, sexually diverse and, you know, just be a nice person. That’s all you need to be.”
It’s been easier for Nivi than it has for her mother. She says she was more Westernised than her mother, largely because of her father’s influence. He comes from a wealthy family and had the luxury of education, travel and the life experiences that come with those things. Nivi’s mother, on the other hand, was from a lower-middle class family and did not have those same opportunities.
Thus, she says, “Mum is very, very old school. But she’s also a lovely person. The other thing is, my dad comes from a rich background, but there’s a lot of problems in his family. Whereas my mum’s family is a lot nicer to deal with.”
She and her mum talk on the phone two or three times a week and, while they’ve only visited each other twice in the last 18 years, Nivi hopes to be able to take her children to visit when international travel is possible again.
While there are aspects of her culture she doesn’t agree with, she says there are so many that she simply adores. The food (“I will never stop eating Indian food”), the fashion (“just the bedazzle of it all!”) and especially the weddings.
“My favourite part about being Indian is the weddings; the most colourful and happiest time you could experience in your life is when you get married as an Indian.”
Her son is also learning Nivi’s mother tongue – which not even she knows, due to her parents raising her and her brother as mostly English-speakers. However, Jed’s caregiver, who looks after him while Nivi is working, is also from Kerala and is teaching the language to Jed during their time together.
“I’m kind of making sure that he gets a little bit of what my culture is, so when I do take him to India, it won’t be such a big shock to him,” says Nivi.
As much as she loves her culture and can’t wait to go back, Nivi is sure that New Zealand is home.
Even when it comes to her career, where “the ultimate aim is obviously Hollywood”, or maybe Bollywood, she maintains the film and TV industry culture is better in Aotearoa – particularly with how it treats women – and she has her growing family here in “one of the most beautiful countries in the world”.
The fairy tale is practically complete, and as far as dreams of Tinseltown go, she says, “Hollywood’s coming to us now, we’re in the best position possible! So if I can do everything from here and make my career here, then that’s what I’ll do. Why wouldn’t you?”