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It has been ages since a beauty contest had India’s cheering millions at the edge of their seats. A look at how the Miss India title lost its glamour

A look at how the Miss India title lost its glamour since it had India’s cheering millions hooked

A look at how the Miss India title lost its glamour since it had India’s cheering millions hooked

Fat chance. Would you dare use this phrase for a beauty pageant contestant in the age of anorexia? It depends, it depends. As Ekta Choudhary takes the stage at Paradise Island in the Bahamas this Sunday, it’s anyone’s guess whether she will win the Miss Universe crown or fail to even make the top 10. What’s sure is that she won’t have a billion hearts beating for her back home in India. With a current rating of 2.53, her beauty credentials rank her 41st among 84 contestants. Even the bookies are yawning, forget taking bets. Fat chance, they say.

Spare a thought for Ms Choudhary, though. For nine years at a stretch, Indian beauty queens have won absolutely zilch at the international pageants. If she fails, that will be an entire decade of ‘misses’, so to speak.

And to think that just a decade-and-a-half ago, a beauty contest was an occasion to get yourself a swollen lip and bruised knuckles. Those were the good old days, when, at least in all-male settings, it was an honourable thing to get into a jaunty brawl over whether Aishwarya Rai or Sushmita Sen deserved the Miss India crown. It was 1994, a tie-breaker question: if you could change one thing in history, what would it be? Aishwarya wanted to change something about herself, her birth. Sushmita, speaking second, wanted to undo Gandhiji’s assassination. One could almost see Aishwarya’s eyes roll and hands rise to her face. Hers was the ‘wrong’ answer, she knew. The jury knew. We all knew (that’s the beauty of it). Sushmita became Miss India—and Miss Universe soon after. Aishwarya had to content herself with runner-up and Miss World (a much smaller domain as any astronomer can confirm, until of course Bollywood takes over).

So here’s the question now: whatever happened to India’s Beauty Superpowerhood? How did a country on the rise, not just on the planet but in the entire universe, go from all three crowns in 2000 to nothing on a trot for nine straight years? How come—and we have polled our office on this—we now have so much trouble remembering who this year’s Miss India is?

As 1994 showed us, becoming Miss India was supposed to be a springboard to celluloid success, a direct leap to eternal glory and Internet fan sites. Or perhaps to an even more lavish life as the arm-candy of some corporate bigwig; a Miss India bride was considered the toast of India Inc.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll wonder. The scarcity value of domestic beauty queens has crashed, by the look of their earnings. These days, former Miss Indias are being made to audition for fashion weeks. And some of them are signed up for fashion shows for as little as Rs 10,000, though the market price for having a Miss India go down the runway is supposed to be in the region of Rs 35-40,000. As for Bollywood, the most generous role they have for a Miss India these days is that of an ‘item number’—which has its own tooth-and-claw competition from thousands of wannabes.

So what went wrong? Apparently, everything. It’s a rather vicious circle, and it hurts almost as much as Ogden Nash’s visit to the dentist. The beauty pageant is losing its charm. It’s losing its charm because people are losing interest. People are losing interest because the girls haven’t won anything that glitters across the globe for almost a decade now. And girls haven’t been winning because they aren’t unforgettable anymore. They aren’t unforgettable anymore because unforgettable girls are getting good work elsewhere. They are getting good work elsewhere because the pageant is losing relevance. The pageant is losing relevance because people are losing interest...

Phew! It might be complicated. But try explaining it any easier, and there’s a reward in this for you—a crown maybe. Jokes apart, image guru Dilip Cherian takes a shot: “We don’t remember the newer lot of Miss Indias simply because many of them are quite forgettable now. The quality of girls participating has definitely decreased...

Drop Dead Gorgeous girls no longer compete. And those who do compete are finished off in a manner that completely productionalises them.”

Nikita Anand, Miss India Universe 2003, agrees. “I do feel the standard has gone down,” she says, “it’s my opinion as well as others’.” Amrita Thapar, Miss India Universe 2005, is also dejected by what she sees around her. “The crown is supposed to set the Miss Indias apart from even A-grade models,” she says, “These days, I see a lot of Miss Indias doing the same work they were doing before the contest.”

Both Pooja Sharma, Miss India World 2009, and Ekta Choudhary, Miss India Universe 2009, are far from successful models. According to an industry insider, before Ekta became Miss India, designers weren’t exactly tripping over each other to get her to their shows. In fact, Pooja Chopra herself admits she was never really “modelling material”.

But why exactly did beauty flee the beauty pageant? Elite’s Sushma Purie ventures a guess: “Girls don’t feel that they need the contest to propel them into the limelight or the industry anymore.” According to her, upcoming models can get plum assignments without winning any such crown. “Since the good models are getting work anyway,” she adds, “it’s the mediocre ones who are ending up at the pageants.” Her modelling agency is no longer hounded by girls wanting to be groomed for Miss India, something that was once as staple a diet for Elite as mineral water and an apple to a model. Purie thinks the contest has lost the prestige associated with it.

Agrees Cherian, “The crown had lost its halo sometime back, and the fact that it was no longer a fail-safe entry into Bollywood only contributed to it.” Ask the long list of Miss Indias this decade how their film careers are going, and they report the same thing—they’re all “reading scripts”. In their book, this is code for being picky about film roles. To everyone else, it’s a sign of joblessness. Some of them are back to modelling after delivering duds at the box office.

Even those like Parvathy Omanakuttan (Miss India 2008 who finished first runner-up at the Miss World contest, the closest anyone has got to global glory this decade) are failing to net offers to play the leading lady. Omanakuttan’s debut, in fact, will be in a movie titled United Six, with five other leading ladies. For her, it’s still a lead role. For its producers, it’s risk spreading. But the notable thing is, even this role didn’t land in her lap because of her pageant performance. Her own website says, ‘The six girls were selected from amidst 1,000 girls screened nationwide, followed by the look test of 30 girls.’ Clearly, the free ride into cinema halls is long gone.

In this case, however, Bollywood is no less to blame. Somewhere along the line, as Purie says, filmmakers decided that just being a pretty face with a crown wasn’t enough, the lady had to fit the role as well. In pursuit of this radical recruitment policy, the doors were thrown open to everybody and anybody with a portfolio. “Many girls are now bypassing the Miss India contest and getting straight off the runway into Bollywood,” says choreographer Prasad Bidappa, who is contestant advisor designate for this season’s Miss India contest.

Successes like Deepika Padukone and semi-successes like Vipasha Agarwal and Urvashi Sharma alike have charted a new path to their cinema debuts, hopping straight to the silver screen, abandoning a stardom route that goes all the way back to the days of Zeenat Aman and Tina Munim (now Ambani).

According to Bidappa, it was the Miss India contest that did the Miss India contest in—that and its partiality towards tinsel town. In his view, the reason that India has started losing international pageants is an obsession with making it big in Hindi cinema. “The contest started identifying girls who would be successful in Bollywood rather than international contests,” he says. It’s only last year, he points out, that the pageant has realised its folly and gone back to looking for a supermodel—which is how Parvathy Omanakuttan became first runner-up at Miss World.

There are also those who, like Bidappa, argue that it is other kinds of market forces at work. The make-up products lobby, for example, no longer needs a blaze of televised publicity to make inroads into the Indian market. Back in 1994, beauty cosmetics were at take-off stage, with excise policy being reworked (duties were slashed drastically around that time) to place such products closer within consumer reach. The business focus has shifted away from India to other lucrative markets that could be pried open.

But then again, India is seen as a market in a perpetual state of emergence. There are millions and millions who are always potential first-time users of just about anything, beauty products included. So, shouldn’t this give the Miss India contest—which, at 62, is as old as Independent India itself—an extended lease of life?

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever business lobbies may want, it is the audience that’s trailing off. Pooja Chopra, Miss India World 2009, concedes as much. “The fact that people are losing interest means I will have to work even harder at the Miss World contest,” she says. But then, again, she’s not so sure about this ‘fact’. We ask her again and she does a volte face. “The people I have come across haven’t been losing interest. It’s just that expectations are rising, since [a big win] hasn’t been happening, that’s all,” she reasons.

Plus, let’s not forget, it’s a competitive world out there. “There are 110 countries participating,” adds Chopra, “and every country has something.” Sarah Jane Dias, Miss India World 2007, also presents the 110-nation theory. “At any given point of time,” she argues, “there are 110 participants. What are the odds India will win every time? Just because we haven’t won lately doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the girls.” True. It’s like Indian football. It’s not that our team is no good. It’s just that most World Cup playing countries are better at it. And when was the last time Indians crowded round TV sets to watch India play?

Exactly. “Miss India is dying down,” says Simran Kaur Mundi, Miss India Universe 2008, and then hastens to clarify, “When I say it’s dying down, I mean 95 per cent is still there, it’s just because we haven’t won.” She has a historical perspective to offer. “It took 20 years for Aishwarya and Sushmita to win the crowns and then it took eight years for Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza to win.”

This is a version of the gap theory. The first Indian Miss World was Reita Faria in 1966, and it took 28 years for Aishwarya to reclaim it, though the last three beauty queens Simran mentions won their international crowns in 2000, just six years after the 1994 twin wins. And like all gap theories, the assumption is that there is some divine principle at work, granting Indian Beauty its due with cyclical providence.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe an Indian beauty will swing it again, and there’ll be much jumping for joy in powder rooms. But will people at large bother? “The high noon of pageants has already gone by,” pronounces Cherian.

Whatever you make of beauty—‘a currency system like the gold standard’, a relic from the past, as Naomi Wolf calls it in The Beauty Myth, or ‘the truth’, as John Keats does in his poetry—what we do know is that beauty pageants are doomed.

Forget the ranking, forget the bookies—and kindly roll back your sleeves, gentlemen.