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Like Other Pageant Winners Harnaaz Sandhu Must Choose Between Stardom & Oblivion

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

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One of my yearly duties, during the last millennium, as a reporter in The Times of India, was to interview for its front page, the freshly-crowned Miss India pageant organised by the daily’s sister publication Femina. The assignment’s focus would be to romanticise or gush over the winners who would go on to represent the nation at the international contests for adjudging Miss Universe and Miss World.

None of the interviews, in retrospect, was unpredictable or surprising. The exhausted winners would skim through the unavoidable ritual, say the right words and aphorisms, and then take off for an intense photo-session for the next cover of the Femina magazine.

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Of them the only one, Sushmita Sen at the age of 18, had seemed to be brooding, almost disenchanted, unsure of what the future had in store for her at the upcoming glitzy global event.

In that state of mind, she had even ended up losing her passport and travel papers just a few hours before flying to Manila, Phillipines. It was thanks, to a last-minute okay by a top minister in New Delhi, believed to be L.K. Advani, to green-light her trip. Therein, lies the razor’s edge story of Sushmita Sen's triumph as the first Miss Universe of India at a ceremony, on May 21, 1994, considered more exalted than that of Miss World, who incidentally happened to be Aishwarya Rai that year.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Sushmita Sen was crowned Miss Universe in 1994.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Six years later, Lara Dutta became India’s second Miss Universe at Eilat, Israel. Now, 21 years later, Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, the 21-year-old student of business administration from Chandigarh has repeated the feat at Eilat, Israel. In the final rounds, the top three contestants were asked, “What advice would you give to young women watching on how to deal with the pressures they face today?”

To this, Harnaaz Sandhu had responded, “The biggest pressure the youth today is facing, is to believe in themselves, to know that you are unique makes you beautiful. Stop comparing yourselves with others and let’s talk about more important things that are happening worldwide Come out, speak for yourself, because you are the leader of your life. You are the voice of your own. I believe in myself and that is why I am standing here today.” That answer is said to clinched the triumph.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Harnaaz Sandhu won the crown for India 21 years after Lara Dutta in 2000.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

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A section of the Twiterrati and WhatsApp were ready with their hectoring on the lines of, “Most of the Miss Worlds and Miss Universes from India want to serve humanity and the nation..but end up dancing in Karan Johar’s films.”

Already the public conjecture is that Harnaaz Kaur Sadhu will doubtlessly enter Bollywood, bolstered by the fact that she has already featured in two Punjabi films. In any case, that’s the seal of fate ordained for any Miss Universe or Miss World from India.

The only exception to the rule was the nation’s first Miss India. At a competition hosted by the now defunct Eve’s Weekly, the Mumbai-born Reita Faria, was declared Miss India, and then Miss World 1966 at the pageant in London. Inevitably, she was barraged with tempting modelling and acting contracts but chose to become a physician and married her mentor David Powell in 1971. They settled in Dublin, where she began her medical practice.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Reita Faria (Centre) became the first Indian to win the Miss World title.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The point is that on the surface, triumphs at beauty pageants are ultra-glamorous, a matter of pride for the winner’s nation, besides a visa to untold fame and fortune. If you ask me, though, I would go with Shakespeare’s homily – “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Meanwhile, lobbies in the U.S. and the U.K. have consistently been of the extremist view that the pageants are sexist and an extension of the patriarchal order.

Indeed, the first beauty pageant in the world was held in the 1800s, parading beautiful women in extravagant costumes across a stage and displaying their talents for the public’s viewing pleasure.
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A research paper has pointed out that the pageant industry has continued to spiral, with approximately 5000 pageants being held in the U.S. every year, including some for children.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Armi Helena Kuusela was the winner of the first ever Miss Universe pageant in 1952.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Overall, the contests it has been generalised lead to eating disorders, low-self esteem and depression among many women. Many beauty contestants lie about their true feelings about certain topics to receive a good score in the questioning/personality aspect of the contest.

An example of this is when a Miss California described her anti-gay marriage beliefs to pro-gay marriage judges. She may have discussed her true feelings but she was negatively judged. In other words, the contestant has to be politically correct.

Of course, our Miss Universes and Miss Worlds haven’t ever been assailed by such tricky situations. Theirs is quite another dilemma altogether. After the pageant’s crowning glory is done and dusted in a year or two at most, the next level can be reached only via a high-profile career in Bollywood. The other option is to fade into oblivion.

For sure, access is guaranteed into Mumbai’s showbusiness circles as it is for the progeny of star dynasties. Then what? Take the example of Priyanka Chopra, anointed Miss World in 2000, who had initially aspired to become an aeronautical engineer.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Priyanka Chopra as Miss World in 2000.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

For over two years, she had to wander in and out of film producer’s offices, to decide whether an acting career would be the right fit for her. Debuting two years later in a Tamil film (Thamizhan), she consolidated herself in the star firmament only after a couple of box office successes Andaz and Aitbaar.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Joseph Vijay and Priyanka Chopra in the 2002 film Thamizhan.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

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The interim period of uncertainty, one suspects, must have dismayed her. Patience and luck worked, elevating her steadily to the A-list of Bollywood heroines followed by international stardom. Did she go through low, self-questioning phases? Did she suffer heartbreak? That we’ll never know unless she chooses to talk frankly about the trying phase in her most vulnerable years herself.

By contrast, it was a smooth ride for Aishwarya Rai, who as a model had already drawn filmmakers to her in droves before she was crowned Miss World. In fact, she was to star in Raja Hindustani with Aamir Khan, but it was felt at the audition that she looked far too ‘westernised’. She obviously had the last laugh since she was snapped without much ado later by the frontline directors Mani Ratnam, Rahul Rawail, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Subhash Ghai.

And although the two Miss Universes – Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta – have featured in a mixed bag of films, their careers have always witnessed a graph of a few highs and many lows. Despite the fact that Sushmita Sen is rated as a terrific artiste, one can’t help feeling she hasn’t yet received her just dues, the popular OTT series Aarya notwithstanding.

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Lara Dutta won the Miss Universe title in 2000.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

As for Manushi Chhilar, Miss World of 2017, she is still biding her time – as a result of delays caused by the pandemic- for the release of her first film Prithviraj, a Yash Raj production, toplined by Akshay Kumar.

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Consider some of the major snafus in the way of beauty pageant winners. There are far too many faux Hollywood-style casting agencies, impenetrable ‘camps’, strict contractual obligations and freelance star secretaries who cannot be described as pukka professionals.

Indeed, several careers have gone awry because of the so-called secretaries, untrained in the skills of business negotiations, which is why actors from A to Z have been often known to have hired and fired their secretaries.

With the advance of time, the corporate culture – companies which claim to work transparently – has set in deep. This has led to the controlling and the monitoring of every star’s publicity campaigns. Interviews are conducted mainly on the eve of a film’s release. In the process, there is something quite mechanical about that lost art of creating a ‘star image’.

Above all, the film selected as a newcomer’s launch project is frequently just not on the right track. Much is being said about ‘content is king’ but has anyone even vaguely defined what ‘content’ is?

Before Harnaaz Sandhu, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen had won the Miss Universe title for India.

Harnaaz Sandhu in the Miss Universe 2021 national costume round.

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

Bollywood has impractically modelled its grid on Hollywood. That India’s most high-profile film industry needs to redesign itself to the local conditions, ensure that the projects are cost-effective instead of agreeing to unprecedently, sky-rocketing salaries as well as a hefty share in a film’s profits for the market-friendly male lead actors, would amount to an understatement.

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In effect, then, here’s the complicated and chaotic system which Miss Universe, Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, will have to contend with. Here’s hoping she will contend with it triumphantly, by treading with caution on the path where angels fear to tread.

If I had been assigned to interview Ms Sandhu after the pageant victory, would I have dared to say this? No, because that’s a decision only she can make.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Sushmita Sen   Miss World   Lara Dutta 

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