Rigging Miss India

THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES | THE INDIA FILES

by James Killough

In honor of the Miss India Pageant having taken place last night, I thought I might hose down the celebration with a repost of a piece I wrote about my experience with the show, which was originally entitled Go Out There And Be Funny:

Watching James Franco and Anne Hathaway at the Oscars this year clash like oil over water – he basically flipped the finger to the Academy with his attitude, treating them to what his generation really thinks about this crap, while she ran off in the opposite direction and sucked up to the establishment — reminded me of the one time I have ever experienced a large-scale televised awards thing like this, which was when I hosted the Miss India Pageant in 1993.  As I like to say, it is something every American should do once in his lifetime.

Times of India chief Vineet Jain, who is actually a super nice guy and had nothing to do with this story personally, with the 2011 Miss India winners.

The reason I was cast as the host is ridiculous in the first place.  A friend of mine was co-producing it, and as this was the first time India was televising the event, they wanted it to look as professional as possible, which meant having an American white man do it.  This was at a time when India was still reinventing herself and feeling insecure about being Indian, so hiding behind an American — a native New Yorker, no less, who was spoon-fed bravado from when he could barely stand in his crib — seemed like a good idea.  In principle.  I had begun my film career in India, see, and had lingered for long enough to start to speak Hindi, which meant I could pronounce the names with some degree of accuracy (linguistically speaking, Hindi has some tricky consonant groupings, and if you aren’t spoon-fed them in your crib, they are very difficult to pronounce).

The producers’ biggest mistake was thinking that, because they thought I looked like David Letterman, I would be funny.  This was typical racial profiling as practiced by non-whites: they think we all look alike.  No white person would every mistake me for Letterman, especially a white comedian.  Just because I liked to lounge around Mumbai on a Rajasthani divan high on opium and ganja, shredding my world with acerbic alacrity didn’t mean I was ready for the level of impromptu comedy that would soon be required of me, in front of over a billion people across Asia, from the Middle East to Hong Kong.

Four days before rehearsals were meant to begin for the pageant, thirteen bombs exploded in different places around Mumbai, a mini-9/11.

The Bombay Stock Exchange after the March, 1993 blasts

One of the targets was the Centaur Hotel, a well-intentionally designed structure that looks like the prow of a beached ocean liner in Juhu, which fortuitously rhymes with Malibu because that’s sort of what it is in relation to the rest of Mumbai geographically; i.e., it’s up the coast from the main city and is a well-to-do enclave. The comparisons stop right there, though.  This is India, so Juhu is plenty funky, and at the time the Centaur Hotel was a complete shithole, albeit classified as a 5-star shithole by the Indian government because, of course, it was run by the Indian government.  I say was a complete shithole because I noticed in Slumdog Millionaire that it was closed for business and being renovated; it’s that abandoned hotel the heroes hide out in for a while.  I’m glad it has (hopefully) been brought up to it’s potential; I always thought that architecturally it was a great concept.

The Miss India pageant was supposed to take place in the bombed-out Centaur, so naturally I assumed that the show would be cancelled or at the very least postponed.  Not at all.  There are a handful of countries that take their pageants very seriously; in places like India, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, it is like the women’s World Series.  The show would go on, even though most of the entire ground floor of the hotel was blasted out.  Not to be outshone, I decided on going, what the hell, it’s a lark, so I packed my bravado, copped some Xanax for those post-large-scale-terrorism-attack willies combined with stage fright (we all know those), and hopped on a plane from Delhi to Mumbai for rehearsals.

When I got there, I noticed they were constructing this massive runway down the middle of the Olympic-sized pool in the center of the hotel right down to the beach.  I could see them building it from my room on the top floor of the hotel.  It was in the shape of a Byzantine double crucifix.  I came to think of that as symbolic over the upcoming days.

The inner courtyard of the Bombay Juhu Hotel, showing my pool of doom, over which the catwalk was built. My room was on the top floor, center, right hand side. The entire ground floor was blackened from the blast that had ripped through the hotel shortly before we started rehearsals.

Just after I checked in, I was sitting in my room catching up with a friend of mine, Milind Soman, a male model turned actor, with whom I had shared another adventure a few years earlier, during which he proved himself to be one of the few real stand-up guys I have ever met.  New Yorkers would call him a mensch.  While we were catching up, the phone rang.

“Is this James Killough?”

“Yes.”

“There’s a bomb under your bed,” said the caller, clearly not the hospitality desk welcoming me to the hotel and making sure everything was all right.  Now, you would think given what had just happened across Mumbai that I would get up and bolt from the room.  But for some reason, maybe trying to impress mensch-of-mensches Milind sitting opposite me, I just looked under the bed and replied, “No, there isn’t.”

“Then you are a target the night of the performance,” said the caller, and hanged up.

Milind Soman, whom I sadly havent seen in a donkeys age. But Im pleased to see hes the spokesman for Just For Men, which I use on my beard. I would use it on my hair if I had enough.

Much as I would have liked to ignore the call, the sensible thing to do was to tell the producers, given that this was a climate akin to post-9/11 New York.  The whole production was instantly put under lockdown, and we weren’t allowed to go outside hotel for any reason.  And we were three days or so away from the main performance.  I was assured there would now be elite force snipers covering me from the roof and a Black Cat commando embedded every fifth person in the sizable audience for good measure.  Great.  Suddenly I felt like was really the host of the Miss Israel Pageant taking place on the Gaza Strip.

Indians are nothing if not expert reassurers.  It’s that sway of the head, the “no problem, don’t worry,” their charm.  You buy it every time no matter how long you’ve lived there, no matter how well you speak the language.  Why?  Because they themselves buy it.

I was promised a rehearsal, but didn’t get one the entire three or four days leading up to the performance, during which I basically twiddled my thumbs in my room.  I was this afterthought who was somehow going to wing it with a script I had written.  I was invincible, I didn’t need what mere mortal performers needed,  because I was David Letterman. Everyone else scurried around, the girls going off to swimsuit contests and shopping sprees and congeniality competitions and other Miss Country things, while the crew frantically tried to prepare for an event they had never staged this on this level before.  Again, this was the first time the Miss India Pageant was to be televised.

As my crucifix runway was being built, the backdrop went up as well.  It turned out to be an enormous peacock, from which I was to emerge at the beginning of the show and make my way down this sweeping staircase.  Just like Liberace.

In case you didnt get the point, I shall belabor it. Another scene from the Bombay blasts shortly before the Miss India pageant.

Ugh.  I was pre-embarrassed for myself.   The Xanax stopped working.  Rudderless, rehearsal-less, increasingly nervous, I snuck out of the hotel to the house of one of the pageant judges next door, an actress with whom I had worked on the first film I ever wrote, which had brought me to India in the first place.  The judge wasn’t there, but her willfully insouciant sister was.

“What are you worried about?” the sister said breezily, as if being forced to perform for two hours in front of a billion people across Asia (in rerun) without a rehearsal, with snipers on the roof, commandos in the audience, K-9 bomb squad dogs behind stage and around it — a stage crowned by a peacock I would emerge from like some burlesque fan dancer, no less — when you have never done anything remotely like this in your life, and you only got the gig because of erroneous racial profiling, weren’t enough to justify a wee case of the jitters.  “The contest is rigged anyway,” she yawned. “Everyone knows that.  Just relax.”

Oh, great.  Thanks, friend’s sister.  Now I have to be the spokesperson for petty pageant corruption on top of everything else.

I am not a quiet, retiring type.  If something bothers me, I’m gonna let you know.  And I was getting pissed as hell.  Still, I was lulled into the usual reassurance with the swaying heads, and lots of “What rubbish!  Of course it’s not rigged!”  As proof, there was going to be a terminal in my podium that would be linked directly to the judges and their voting tabulation.  Furthermore, this terminal would act as a sort of teleprompter for my script.  My friend’s sister had to be wrong.

Indian Army Black Cat Commandos bouncing around. Yes, I willingly put my life in their hands, all in the name of beauty.

I’ll never know what happened in the hour leading up to the performance to cause the mysterious malfunction of the judge’s voting tabulation system linked to the terminal in my podium, which likewise didn’t work.  Maybe the judges rebelled against the rigging and couldn’t be trusted to vote the right way.  Given what happened at the end of the performance, I would like to imagine that something like that happened, that my friends and colleagues had had a crisis of conscience, as I still have.  I’ve never spoken to them about it because I fled in such a hurry.

Just before the performance began and my name was announced, before I emerged from the embarrassingly camp peacock, with snipers overhead, a throng of models and contestants backstage, and nausea in my stomach, I said to the stage manager, whom I shall call Deepak to protect the complicit, “How the fuck am I supposed to do this reading from a script I haven’t rehearsed?”

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “Just go out there and be funny.”

The 1993 Miss India Pageant wasn’t just rigged in a subtle way, it was a full-blown 18-sail-ship rigging in plain view of everyone in the audience, the contestants, judges, and me, its spokesperson.  The show wasn’t broadcast live, but it was still difficult to mask what happened in the final edit, which was shown to over a billion people across Asia, in rerun.

The first hiccup occurred towards the last third.  There was something strange going on in the manual relay of information between the judges and me, which lead me to accidentally read out the real semi-finalists they had actually voted for, not what the producers wanted, which meant that one of the girls, who would of course go on to win second place, was accidentally eliminated.  We had to go back and redo that portion of the show, and eliminate the girl who was supposed to have won, whose name I had already read out, who had mistakenly celebrated a victory that was likely hers to begin with.

In the heat of the moment, I still had time to muster moral indignation — the unfairly eliminated girls, who like me had refused to believe the rumors of rigging, were sobbing backstage — and turned to Deepak when I was offstage for a moment in the wings, “It’s rigged!”

“So what,” he replied with a shrug.  “You’re doing a great job.  Keep going.”

Despite everything, I suppose I had managed to locate my inner David Letterman and was actually managing to be humorous.  No longer.  I wasn’t amused and was seriously contemplating walking off.

Just before the end, I was given a note in handwriting I recognized, James, Please read these names out, and it was signed, the Judges. And the names of three girls who should have won were there, not the names of the three who ended up with crowns on their heads.  Had I read the real winners out, they would simply have made me go back and redo it, and I was tired of this shit.  What had started out as a fun lark had turned into yet another Mumbai nightmare.

Namrata Shirodkar, the woman crowned as Miss India, but who probably wasnt the real winner.

Now, maybe this was an elaborate set-up, we will never know.  Maybe that wasn’t really a note from the judges, but like I said, I had worked with two of them for a long time, and knew a few of the others.  And I had been warned by almost everyone that the show was going to be rigged and that the girl who was crowned, Namrata Shirodkar, was going to win it, which I just refused to believe possible.

I left that note on the podium, along with the microphone I threw down in disgust once the lights cut and the cameras were off.  On my way out, I said to Deepak, “I’m not going to say anything about this, but I want cash, and you can pay the taxes,” and left on the 1 a.m. Air India flight back to Delhi.  They did pay me a month later over a Thai meal in Delhi, in cash, literally under the table.  I hope they paid the taxes.  After all, the organizers and producers of the event were none other than the venerable Times of India.

8 Comments

Filed under Killough Chronicles, The India Files

8 responses to “Rigging Miss India

  1. gyanisan

    well i’m so glad u came out into the open about it. in india, everyone knows thts its rigged but unfortunately refuse to accept it. and these days the rigging is done much more subtly (i dont know if i should be thankful for that or not)
    corruption plagues india!! i feel very sad for the thousads of girls who apply for the contest with earnest sincerity!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Gyansian.

      I don’t know if it’s still the case, but when I hosted the pageant, they weren’t even from every state in India, just the major cities. There are many different kinds of Indian beauty, but there is only a certain kind represented there.

      It makes for a funny anecdote, but it was a very unpleasant experience at the time. Indians are very sensitive to criticism, but I do it out of love. I am very proud of how far the country has come in the past decade or so, and like where it is going. When Indians used to make apologies for the country, I would stop them and say, “I choose to be here because I love it. And believe me, I have other choices.”

  2. ATUL

    It was a nice read but i really find it difficuilt to believe because
    1) In 1994 when aishwarya rai participated she was well established model but the crown went to hitherto unknown sushmita sen(Its a different story that both suhmita and aishwarya won miss universe and miss world respectivly)
    2) priyanka chopra(miss world 2000) yukta mukhi(miss world 1999), celina jaitly (miss universe 4th runner up 2001) were middle class family daughters
    i am not saying its all lie but i reallly dont get it that how can these victories be explained then

    • You shouldn’t find it hard to believe, Atul. I have nothing to gain by making these statements 18 years after they happened. I tell the story as part of my on-going memoirs in this blog; it’s such an exotic thing for any American to have done. But I have no vested interest in making up what happened, other than telling the story as a whole with all of its elements, including the bombings. The Times of India certainly has the wherewithal to sue me for defamation, but then they would have to prove that I am lying, and that is a sticky mess because clearly I am not and there were so many witnesses.

      The 1993 Miss India Pageant was definitely rigged. You can see it in the tape. It’s too hard to mask. I read out the real winners in the second-to-last round from a piece of paper I was given by the judges, and “accidentally” eliminated the girl who went on to win 2nd place, I believe. We had to go back and redo the whole thing over again and put her back in the contest. They tried to cover it up in the edit for TV, but it’s still there. I believe I may have been mistaken in the post and it was this “wrongly” eliminated girl who came from a wealthy family — was it cement? — not Namrata.

      However, to your point about middle-class girls, remember that the 1993 pageant was the first televised pageant and therefore more expensive than ever before. Still, I’m not sure why the Sen/Rai wins in 1994 are an argument for it not having been rigged. Just because a girl is from a middle-class background doesn’t mean there aren’t vested interests in her winning; in other words, it’s not about family money. It’s about the entertainment/media biz in general.

      I worked with two of the judges, Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna, on Muzaffar Ali’s “Zooni” for over a year. It is to Dimple’s house next door to the Centaur that I went when I couldn’t take the chaos any more and wanted to whine a bit; she is a very soothing person. Dimple wasn’t home, but Simple was, and she is the one who said, “Relax, it’s rigged.” She added, “That Marathi girl is going to win.” She couldn’t remember her name, but she did know she was Shilpa’s sister. And if you saw Namrata’s backstage demeanor throughout rehearsals and events leading up to the show, believe me, she knew she was the next Miss India.

      Bollywood is deeply corrupt, but so is the film business the world over. As I’ve said, there are not just financial incentives for the organizers to rig an event like that. I really don’t think the Jain family needs a bribe from some businessman who wants his little girl to win the pageant. Being Miss India raises a girl’s visibility astronomically; for all I know, they were trying to launch Namrata’s film career to put her ahead of that untalented lump of a sister of hers, with whom I’d done a fashion shoot a couple of years before in Colaba.

      Please remember that I say “petty pageant corruption” in the article. It is petty. Compared to what happened to the US elections in 2000, when the man who had won the popular vote, Al Gore, lost to the man whose brother was governor of the state that ultimately decided the election, it is nothing. Namrata is still a very beautiful woman. Again, my guess is the gamble was to launch her as a film star, which never happened. It did happen for both Ash and Sushmita the following year. Remember that Femina magazine and the all-powerful Filmfare are both owned by the Times of India, so for all I know, and I do not know for sure, the rigging could be related to this star-creation machine. But it is by no means a fair contest. Even the Miss America pageant is plagued by rumors of rigging.

      I personally have no doubt in my mind about what I experienced. As the saying goes, “If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck.” I refused to believe it was rigged right up until it was just too obvious to deny; I even had a fight with Simple about it that night I went to their house. And I will admit that I had my personal favorite to win. Even though I identify as gay, properly speaking I am really bisexual. During the days that I was locked in the Centaur Hotel, I developed a heavy crush on Mehar Bhasin. Indeed, according to the slip of paper I was handed at the end of the pageant, she was the real winner.

  3. Dave

    Offering some clarity –
    The pageant wasn’t rigged but there was a tabulation error. 1993 was the year of firsts. Madhu Sapre had just placed 3rd in the Miss Universe contest and she came back and the pageant, which had literally not attention, suddenly had a television audience. And for the first time computers were being used to tabulate the results. We’re not talking about our fancy high speed devices we use now days. We’re talking about 1993, where only a handful, and you can count them on your fingertips had computers. Computers that required a lot of effort. COmputers that no one knew how to use.
    This btw is NOT a new controversy. And what exactly transpired was that Karminder Kaur (NOT Namrata Shirodkar) was erroneously eliminated from the Top 5. This has been documented by the media. Her scores were mis-calculated. Not to mention that it wasn’t a simple add all the judges scores and then divide by the number of judges. Femina was using the Miss Universe system as there was only one Miss India, the rep to Miss WOrld and Miss International were essentially runners up. The lowest score and the highest score given by a judge are eliminated to avoid one judge from affecting the results of the competition. And the scores of the remaining judges are average. Add that to a 1993 computer, with people who’ve never used computers in their life and you got yourself a blooper. Karminder Kaur was called back on stage after being eliminated since the error was caught and the competition then took place as needed to. The scores of the final round were manually tabulated to avoid any further glitches. Karminder went onto place 2nd and represent India at Miss World. Namrata Shirodkar, undoubtedly the prettier placed in the Top 6 at Miss Universe and was 2nd Runners Up at Miss India.Of course the hotch potch received its share of talk in 1993. Femina published the indivual scores of the each contestants given by each judge to put the controversy to rest. This also started a trend where every year Femina/TOI would publish the scores to avoid any claims of rigging especially when beauty is subjective and there are bound to be people who think the pageant is rigged. The only questionable loss is Mehar Bhasin, who I personally don’t find attractive, but many do. And She went on to become the face of Revlon.

    • Offering clarity how? Who are you? Were you there? What qualifies you to offer this clarity, with a view to obfuscating my own as host of the pageant?

      I never said that Namrata was eliminated. I did say that the second runner-up — and I had forgotten her name because I erased the whole incident for many years — was eliminated. And it was probably no accident that Karminder was eliminated. As far as I knew, it’s what the judges wanted.

      I assume you are one of the pageant organizers, or were somehow involved. I do give the organizers the benefit of the doubt in my post, and I continued to give them the benefit of the doubt right up until the last 15 minutes of the show.

      But, dude, or dudess, whoever you are, when your own stage manager admits to the rigging, don’t blame the computers. It was a lame excuse on the night, and it’s lamer excuse now.

      • loi

        is it ,namrata did’nt win the pageant !!one of my frenz had told me dis a 2 yrs ago,dat she paid to bcum the winner .well, i was convinced ven i heard her answer in miss universe pageant 1993.the most stupid answer she has given in one of d rounds!!well,is it still continuing lyk dis!!plz tell.

        • The 1993 pageant was a big scandal and an embarrassment for Femina/Times of India because it was all taped and impossible to edit out. Once I eliminated the wrong sardarni girl by reading from the list the judges actually gave me, we had to go back and redo that portion; she had paid to be second runner-up, I think. Karminder Kaur was her name? Don’t remember. Plus, there were a lot of people backstage, not just the contestants, but models; they had somehow incorporated a fashion show into the whole thing. It was such a mess. So I basically pitched a fit backstage after the show was over. I was upset that I had been lied to, the whole week was really stressful with the death threats and bombings, being trapped in that hotel. So I lost it with the producers. And a big American screaming backstage that the show has been rigged is going to be heard by a lot of people. And Mumbai is ultimately a very small place.

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