By Roshni Nair | Hindustan Times
ON THE WEB, 10 September 2017
Raj Chaudhari’s foray into pageantry could not have been more chaotic. He set up the Mr & Ms Maharashtra Fashion Pageant to flex his muscle in the talent scouting business.
What he got instead was a half-empty event hall, a truncated show, hecklers, and two angry contestants — one of whom would not accept her runner-up trophy.
All over a grand prize of Rs 51,000 in cash, hair products, and “a chance to audition for Hindi, Marathi and Bhojpuri movies”.
Organised in a suburban Mumbai theatre space, the Maharashtra pageant was five months in the making. Auditions were held in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Solapur, and Kolhapur. Of 125 hopefuls aged 15 to 35, 21 girls and 15 boys made it to the finale held on September 2.
So when the delay led to the Q&A round being scrapped, some were visibly miffed.
Mumbai girl Komal Chandel refused her second runner-up prize, to the delight of her crowd of supporters, who called out “Yeh sab fraud hai!” and “This is not a show!”
Contestant Durgesh Chauhan had been expecting to win too, and when he was given a ‘Mr Talent’ sash instead, he took it off and marched off stage.
“Sour grapes,” shrugs Chaudhari, who heads a casting and distribution company for Marathi and Bhojpuri films. But that’s how seriously contestants take the small, hyperlocal pageants sprinkled across the country.
“I spent Rs 5 lakhs from my own pocket and had no sponsors. There were bound to be teething problems,” Chaudhari adds. “I am still confident about a 2018 edition. In fact, I’ll have this every year.”
India is home to a multitude of smaller pageants across smaller towns and cities — and they are a world of their own, very different from the Miss India, Mrs India, and Gladrags pageants we know.
Some serve a cultural purpose, like the Miss Himalaya and Miss Tibet pageants, for Tibetan migrants/refugees and people from Tehri-Garhwal and the Lower Himalayas.
In 2014, the first-ever Miss Tiara was organised and open to “short girls, because every other pageant has tall girls”. Girls less than 5’6” could participate.
There is also a Mrs Homemaker, to help women reclaim their identity after marriage; a Miss Plus Size North India, for women with a waist size of 34 or more; a Miss and Mrs Curvy Queen, in which “small and medium-sized women are not eligible”.
Problems can range from scheduling issues to culture shock.
“I got 10 girls — versus 20 boys — to participate, and that too only after assuring everyone there’d be no Western wear, leave alone swimsuits,” says Sandeep Kumar, president of Rubaru Group.
He’s talking about his first-ever pageant, Mr & Miss Bahadurgarh (2008), staged for his hometown in Haryana.
Rubaru now organises an annual Mr India, a Miss India Elite, and the upcoming Face of Beauty International pageant (September 13 – 24).
“North India has a craze for beauty contests,” Kumar says. “And the rules are changing. The first time I had swimwear was for Rubaru Mr India, in 2012. For women, it was only last year. I’ll never forget how shy the boys were just being shirtless.”
Some criticisms about pageants reinforcing objectification are upturned when physical pomp and splendour double as platforms for marginalised identities.
Airhostess Tenzin Paldon, for instance, is also Miss Tibet 2017. The resident of Kollegal, Karnataka, has never seen her homeland but says she’s determined to represent it.
“I want younger generations to be inspired and unafraid, and for more Tibetan women to participate,” says the 21-year-old. “Even if there’s a problem competing internationally, this title has already got me modelling offers.”
Owning a Miss Tibet sash is especially poignant at a time when pageants such as Miss Tourism and Miss Earth insist on sashes that say ‘Miss Tibet-China’.
Lobsang Wangyal, the man behind Miss Tibet, says it’s hard to get sponsors too.
“The bids I have so far aren’t great, but I’m busy with (my other pageant) Miss Himalaya and am hopeful something will come along,” says the McLeod-Ganj-based photojournalist and events manager.
Miss Tibet had a record nine participants this year. If you think that’s laughable, take note: McLeod Ganj’s Tibetan community has been divided about the contest since its inception in 2002. As per Buddhist beliefs, pageants — more so those with swimsuit rounds — place undue emphasis on physical beauty. “As a result, on four occasions, Miss Tibet had only one participant,” Wangyal says.
“So what? I have one crown, and all I need is one head. You do good when you empower even one Tibetan woman.”
Pageants are a celebration of identity for the trans community too. In 2016, Bishesh Huirem from Manipur became the first Indian to take part in Miss International Queen. Next year, Loiloi Haorongbam — also Manipuri — hopes to be crowned Miss Transsexual Australia.
The PhD student, who was the first runner-up at Miss Transqueen India 2017, is a relative pageant veteran: she was first runner-up at Trans Queen Contest North East 2014 and Miss Manipur Queen for Transgender 2016. In both contests, she was up against 29 other trans women.
“Manipur is more accepting. You have fashion shows for trans people. And pageants. Such events help you become more confident on the international stage,” she says. “If I win abroad, I’m going to set up a chain of schools for trans kids across India and give them the education and equality they deserve.”
End of the ramp
While those like Haorongbam and Paldon have international pageants to move on to after their wins, a large number of the pageants spawned by India’s beauty content obsession have no next step.
“Most local events have no plan of action. The drive to be crowned or bag a title has led to so much pageant saturation and opportunities for moneymaking, one can never be too careful,” says Shainee Soni, who styles and mentors contestants for Mr & Miss North India and Mr & Miss Delhi-NCR.
“Payoffs for Bahadurgarh’s king and queen were free make-up sessions five times a year and a portfolio at a professional studio. Winners of Rubaru Mr India and Miss India Elite now audition for shows like MTV Splitsvilla and Roadies, as also international pageants like Mr United Continent and Miss Globe,” says Sandeep Kumar, president of the Rubaru Group
Organisers put the contest together for the sake of participation fees (which can be as much as Rs 10,000 or even more) and sponsorship money.
“The mentality is, ‘We’re promoting you, so you should be thankful’,” Soni says. “Juries are full of wannabe-celebs. Where do the winners go? No one knows.”
Ajith Ravi, chairman of Pegasus Events, which organises Miss and Mrs South India, concurs.
“Some are so brazen, they don’t even hold a pageant. They just announce titles and winners and then send people abroad. This is what ails Indian pageants.”
What about the curious case of all too few pageants for boys and men? Rushikesh Mirajkar, national director of Miss Tiara (the ‘Miss’ equivalent of Mrs Tiara), contends that sponsors have much to do with this chasm. The 28-year-old registered the ‘Mr Suave India’ title in 2014 but is yet to find backing.
“It’s crazy. There are 284 pageants for men worldwide and we aren’t even sending men to a quarter of them,” he sighs. “But the scenario is already changing. There are whispers of a Miss Lesbian India pageant taking shape. For the sake of variety and equal opportunities for everyone, I hope it’s true.”