Lakshmi Pandit And Miss India
January 14, 2012 by staff
Lakshmi Pandit And Miss India, 2004 – A scandal over a beauty pagent has exposed a clash of social values, reports Peter Foster in New Delhi, When Lakshmi Pandit, a medical student from Bombay, won the title of Miss India-World 2004, she could have been forgiven for thinking she was on a fast-track to international stardom.
As the extravagant diamante tiara settled on her head and the flash guns fired, she began to dream of a career to rival that of the “Queen of Bollywood”, Aishwarya Rai, who won the same title 10 years ago and was recently tipped to be the next Bond girl.
But less than 12 hours after receiving her crown, a rumour began to circulate that would cost the 23-year-old her title. “Miss” India, it was alleged, was actually a “Mrs”.
The country gasped. Beauty contests are taken very seriously in India and the scandal became front-page news.
The truth, when it emerged, was less juicy, but revealed much about the hypocrisy of social mores in modern India. Miss Pandit was not married, but confessed to having pretended to be so in order to rent a flat in Bombay.
It was the kind of white lie that thousands of young Indians tell to rent property in a society that still frowns upon unmarried couples “living in sin”.
Even so, the story caused consternation, highlighting the gulf between the reality of young people’s lives and the charade demanded of them by tradition.
Most grating for many young Indians is the hypocrisy that requires them not to show open affection or acknowledge relationships – even though their friends and often families know full well what is happening.
Speaking before going into hiding to escape the furore, Miss Pandit said her parents were “aware” of her boyfriend – Siddharth Mishra, a male model – and the “closeness” of their friendship, but she wanted to be independent.
That desire for independence is shared by thousands of educated, wealthy, middle-class youngsters in Delhi’s “smart set”, who have bought into the western cultural values that much of “old” India remains deeply uncomfortable with.
The Times of India, whose parent company coincidentally owns the Miss India brand, described Delhi as a city which is supposedly “as liberal with its money as it is with its values”. But, it pointed out: “Since there is no room for live-in couples, there is room for argument on what Delhi purports to be.”
Others were more forthright. Anil Thakraney, a columnist with the gossipy Mid-Day Mumbai newspaper in Bombay, said: “I have absolutely no probs with Miss India turning out to be a missus.
“Where exactly does this begin and where does it end? If it’s OK she could be a bed-hopping bimbette; if it’s OK that she could have lost her virginity in high school; indeed, if it’s OK for her to be a sl*t, why does being married become an issue?”
As for Miss Pandit, the beauty contest organisers accepted her single status – but it was not enough to save her crown.
As a result of the embarrassment over her “false statement” to her landlady, she surrendered her title, while her boyfriend was dumped from a male pageant, Bombay’s “Gladrags MegaModel Man-Hunt”, for his association with her.
Miss Pandit was, herself, accused of hypocrisy.
Asked her views on marriage during the pageant, she gave the kind of pat answer young Indian women must deliver to their grandmothers to keep up appearances.
“As an Indian woman, I feel marriage is a very sacred institution, which brings two hearts together under the roof of trust and faith for a lifetime,” she said. “I do not feel it’s a game.”
Stars of Indian screen know all too well that they must live up to “Indian” standards of beauty and behaviour. Aishwarya Rai, when offered a starring role as a Bond girl, made great play of turning down the part because it would have meant extra-marital smooching on screen with 007.
In the same vein, no Bollywood actress can get married and keep winning romantic leads, as it would be considered unseemly for a married woman to be held up as an object of desire.
Brinda Karat, general secretary of the feminist All India Democratic Women’s Association, pointed out: “A neighbour of the landlord felt they had to snitch on Lakshmi Pandit to the organisers.
“This show is supposed to represent the ideal of modern Indian beauty, but it is all about patriarchy. The whole story reflects the dire hypocrisy of relationships in this country.”
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