By Nisha Susan
A lovely girl called Anukreethy Vas has won the Miss India this week, joining a long line of lovely Miss Indias, real and imaginary. From Mehnaz Hoosain who sang in 1996 that she was sure she would become one, to Persis Khambatta (Miss India 1965) who was one and Juhi Chawla (Miss India 1984) who was another and at least one woman I went to college with (Lara Dutta, Miss India 2000) who was one. From Veena Sajnani (Miss India 1970), of a generation for whom the swimsuit round was conducted via photos, to at least one vintage Bollywood heroine who refused to wear the swimsuit in an international beauty contest (I have been trying to remember which movie). From Tara Sharma’s character in Page 3 being egged on by hardcore friend Sandhya Mridul to win the Miss India title and get ahead in Bollywood instead of waffling. All the way to Union Minister Maneka Gandhi who trolls like to call a former Miss India. (She was a beauty pageant winner and gorgeous, but not a Miss India.)
We are a long way from the time when Miss Indias were household names, from that glorious moment when I was visiting an evangelist Christian household and the teenage girl of the house and I giggled over the awesomeness of brand new winners Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai. I can’t remember the names of any Miss Indias in the last five years. But we are also a long way from that moment in 1996 when Amitabh Bachchan brought Miss World to Bangalore and was startled by the violent protests. Back then Bachchan argued that he didn’t need lessons in Indian culture, that it was important for our national pride to show that we have the wherewithal to host a beauty contest and that it wasn’t the swimsuit round, it was beachwear and anyway that round is in the Seychelles. (Aisa kuch main karoon ki sari duniya mein hamara naam rahen, as Mehnaz sang but her next line, Bachchan didn’t notice was, aise ye nahi ki kuch karne ke liye sar pe kuch taj rahe.) All nice pointers to the parivar-lover he would become.
Now that no one is burning buildings to prevent the denigration of women, especially Indian women via beauty contests, is it unfashionable to talk about the inherent evils of beauty contests? It is. It is as old-fashioned as the Marxist rhetorical device of saying, “that’s only the superstructure, not the base.” But still here we are in 2018, wondering about the superstructure and the base, wondering about the nature of beauty contests and wondering about Miss America removing the swimsuit round, thick in the middle of the #MeToo apocalypse and a head of state with a thickly documented history of sexual and verbal assault, some of it inside major beauty pageants he owned. It’s too much somehow to be looked at while wearing a swimsuit. But what the Miss America people had to say was that they want to get away from the focus on appearances in a contest that aims to give scholarships to young women. Sure, sure, whatever and you want everyone to also remember that you are not Miss USA, that other pageant Trump owns, the one which he admitted to using for walking in on undressed contestants.
At a certain point in time, the beauty contest would have seemed like the frighteningly sharp edge of a cruel knife of commodification. Today, the classic structure of the beauty contest (and particularly the swimsuit round) often seem as antiquated as a Japanese tea ceremony, as dated as the strange tiara and whipped egg white peak hair that go with these contests. Today as we all look and are looked at, where is the transgression in the quasi slave market gaze of the beauty contest? I have ‘made’ three selfies just this week and posted them on Instagram. Do you think I have a brain tumour, I asked a friend, I cannot understand why my behaviour has changed overnight.
But the truth is that I enjoy the selfie-taking so much, the primping, the acrobatic search for good angles, the confused gazing, is this what I really look like. In an acoustic version of Cream, Prince sings “You’re so good, Baby, there ain’t nobody better (ain’t nobody better)” and then tells the audience “You know I was looking in the mirror when I wrote this right?”. The audience screams with delight. The campy, erotic possibilities that I could not have even dreamt of in a world when Prince was alive and the object of my teen desires can be fulfilled today in the helpful, hypnotic palaces of Facebook and Instagram. We stand on the street and say look at me, look at me, I am filthy cute like Prince said.
The only thing is we are not standing on the street anymore, and we have never been more frightened by the gaze of the stranger. The pardesi — which as a south Indian it took me a while to understand is a dude from another village, not from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka — is now a Creep. So what songs shall we sing now?
I once met a friend from Delhi who was looking about Bangalore and making those “I would like to settle down in this charming island” type noises. One reason, he said, was that his wife, a Bombay girl, was sick of being stared at everywhere in Delhi. I had to pause before I responded carefully. Wasn’t he aware that his wife was a curvy, curly-haired goddess, and it is only the pale Kareena Kapoor aesthetics of Delhi that prevented brothers from following her around like she was carrying a pot of gold, like Kiki said in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (paraphrasing). In Bangalore, the appreciation of her human cupcake qualities would be overwhelming. So I said to him, “well, there is looking and looking.” I explained to him that moving back to Bangalore after many years of invisibility in Delhi made me feel seen as a woman. To be looked at on the streets with desire and not with violence made me feel human. It is not really the same as the internet where also we look and want to be looked at all the time, as my friend Paromita Vohra wrote recently of balconies and auto rides. My Delhi friend immediately changed the subject. To be told by a woman that she wants to be looked at by the aira and the gaira was just too much. If he were a teenager and not a man of old-fashioned liberal values, he’d tweet: I’m shook.
I too shook from laughing afterwards, but never really expected any men to get what I am saying. This week, a chikna male friend who also has recently left Delhi heard my story. He then said quietly… “Well, actually”. Turns out on a brief visit back to Bombay, he was on the street and made eye contact with a girl in a bus. She was cute and had headphones on and looked at him and smiled. He smiled back. The bus moved on and my friend was briefly reminded of himself and his chikna-ness.
My mother-in-law recently was enraged at a man at dinner who complained that “girls are saying they don’t want to be looked at. But don’t they dress up for us?”. “No we don’t,” my mother-in-law argued, “We like to dress up.” The argument raged on. The truth is we all want to be looked at. We all want to look. We do want to dress up to be gazed at by men and women. And that is true. But how to explain to my mother in law’s friend that the Shakespeare lines are, “No sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved” not “No sooner looked but he owned me for life, followed me home/into inbox and complained bitterly when I didn’t send nudies.”
Some of us may live in a post #MeToo world and some of us may worry about creeps. But we are all fixing our hair for Instagram and waxing our legs and spending money on beauty at a rate that once only Miss Indias needed to. ‘Grooming’ that is supposed to be without vanity, insecurity and budgets. Just look neat, we are told. But what if I want to look dirty? To bathe in filthy cute humanity is to remember our sexual selves cut off from the approval of our families and our socially sanctioned partners and socially sanctioned looking.
A lovely girl won Miss India yesterday and I wish her the best and envy her her clarity of her purpose. It is her job to be looked at for a bit and hopefully in a post #MeToo world she will be armed with outrage while it is her job and when she moves on. The rest of us are in a permanent beauty pageant wandering around singing Banoongi Main Miss India under our breath.