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Namas Bhojani Asiaweek.
Bidapi (center) believes India's world-beating beauty queens have helped local models attract attention.

Once Again, With Attitude
From books to beauty queens, the buzz is on the Subcontinent

Is the Moon in the seventh house? Did Jupiter align with Mars? The aura surrounding things Indian haven't been this cool since the Beatles were sitting at the feet of the Maharishi Yogi. There's the fashion. Sari material and other ethnic touches are popping up again in the European couture houses ("Indian" shocking pink is big this year). Material mom Madonna has taken to decorating herself with mehndi, the intricate henna-painting that women use to adorn their hands and feet on special occasions. The Subcontinent also holds a special cachet for publishers, both as a market and as a source of English-language writers, especially following the international success of authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy.

"In recent years, we've seen the world's imagination captured by things we Indians take for granted," says Satya Saran, editor of Femina, the leading English-language women's magazine in the country. Perhaps the most spectacular Indian conquests has been on the international beauty scene. The reigning Miss World and Miss Universe, Yukta Mookhey and Lara Dutta, are both Indians. That's the second double victory in six years — Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen wore the corresponding tiaras in 1994. (Hyderabad native Diana Hayden was Miss World in 1997.) These are no accidental beauty queens either. They are the products of a national campaign initiated by Femina, which runs the local contests.

Ironically, this drive was sparked by a setback. The Indian entrant narrowly lost the Miss Universe title in 1993, but the potential fired up the local glamour industry. Femina hired a consultant to reorganize the way local contests were run and to give the finalists basic training — in walking, presenting a confident image. "We started to pick women with international contests in mind," says Bangalore-based style guru Prasad Bidapa. "We told the judges: Don't look for a Miss India, look for a Miss World." Nowadays, the winners and runners-up, whittled from a field of about 300, are put through the beauty equivalent of boot camp, a rigorous regime designed to groom world-beaters in the glamour stakes. This investment has certainly paid dazzling dividends so far. Says Bidapa: "The beauty has always been there. It's just that the industry in India has gotten more professional."

Femina's remarkably effective program has other knock-on benefits. For the first time, an Indian is breaking into the ranks of the world's supermodels. The trailblazer: Ujjwala Raut, a slim, 1.77-meter former pentathlon specialist from Maharashtra. After a successful first season on the catwalks of Paris, London and Milan, she is now much in demand in New York too. With features typical of the Konkani people from southwest India (light brown complexion and often green, grey or blue eyes after centuries of interaction with European traders), Raut "could be from anywhere," says Bidapa. "The [fashion] world is looking for beautiful girls with the right look. That they are Indian is incidental." Sure, but it certainly helps get fashion agencies' attention if you come from a country that seems to mass-produce beauty queens. It was only two years ago that Bidapa started getting overseas assignments for local models, and he's been in the business in India for two decades.

Some of the international interest is simply cyclical. India was fashionable during the 1960s, then again in the 1980s, observes Bidapa. And it's now cresting another wave. Apparently inspired by a holiday in the country, Donna Karan has been embellishing her collections with bits of Indian fabric. At Christian Dior, vivid kanjipuram silks feature extensively in John Galliano's designs this season.

The book world is swayed by fads, too, though at much more sedate pace compared to the clothing business. Following their love affair with South American magic realism, many publishers developed a passion for Anglo-Indian writing (while mainlining the Victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution formula). This time round, however, the Indian invasion has extended into film and music. Bollywood's most sought-after composer, A.R. Rehman, is to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber on a new musical; the Cats creator was apparently impressed by a song that Rehman wrote for a Hindi movie.

Indian films have long had a global audience. The reach of the local movie industry is "huge," says Bollywood analyst Komal Nahata. Primarily, that is a function of the far-flung South Asian diaspora. The latest Bollywood flicks are regularly screened in the major cities of Southeast Asia, Britain, the United States and a number of African countries, often opening on the same night as in Bombay. But now the films seem to be gaining non-traditional audiences. Take the musical Taal. Last year the Indian production was among the top 20 grossing movies in the U.S. Hindi movies such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil Se have been ranked in the top 10 at the British box office over the past couple of years. Though there is a large South Asian population in Britain, says Nahata, the productions must be able to attract audiences outside the immigrant community to achieve those numbers. Indeed, even Tamil-language films like Mutu ran for months in Japan.

Much of the current buzz, however, has more to do with a more globalized world. Hollywood and the publishing industry are constantly on the lookout for "new" talent with different voices and perspectives. And India, with its deeply rooted film tradition, is home to an enormous pool of skilled professionals. Together with Bombay, studios in Madras (actually the most productive and technically advanced center in the country), Hyderabad, Bangalore and Calcutta roll out some 400 movies each year. That there are an estimated 200 million people in India who work primarily in English means this creativity is more accessible to global business. Windfall earnings generated by writers like Roy further draw international executives' attention to the country.

Indian film talent seems to transfer abroad far more successfully than that of China, despite the cinematic genius of its fifth-generation directors. For example, Bombay veteran Shekhar Kapoor directed the British historical drama Elizabeth, which was nominated for a best film Oscar last year. India's star shone even brighter when Madras-based director Manoj Night Shyamalan turned out a sleeper hit in The Sixth Sense. Now, after a delayed introduction, U.S. and European audiences are beginning to rave about Santosh Sivan's wonderfully nuanced film about a woman suicide bomber, The Terrorist (1998). The London-based Merchant-Ivory production team has signed Terrorist's lead actress, Ayesha Dharker, to appear in The Mystic Masseur, an adaptation of the novel by V.S. Naipaul.

Global considerations are shaping Indian ways too. For instance, local filmmakers typically earn about $2 million on every movie that is exported, compared to $9 million from a blockbuster in the domestic market. "Now producers factor in how much they can earn overseas when they make a film," says Nahata. Individual attitudes also change with the freedom to travel, greater choice in the marketplace — and rising incomes for professionals. Suresh Ramachandran, a marketing manager in Bangalore, remembers when his family would plan vacations only within India. "But now we have the ability to go to Singapore or some other country with the kids," he says.

The most profound effects, however, have been in the perceptions of women — in society and among themselves. To many young women, particularly in the urban middle class, the high-profile global beauty contests are keys to a more liberal environment as well as new opportunities. "It has removed the purdah [veil] from society," observes Bidapa. "Sushmita and Aishwarya led people to say, Our girls can do this; they can get on stage in a swimsuit and still remain respectable. It has given the girls more options."

That's not the case for the vast majority of Indian women, of course. Many walk several kilometers from their homes in dusty villages each day to scrounge for firewood and to fetch water. There are bonded laborers toiling at granite quarries, some chained to prevent them from escaping. These are women whose entire lives will be dominated by hard labor and pitiful wages, their contribution to society unrecognized. Most are probably unaware that one of their countrywomen is considered the most beautiful in the world.

Nonetheless, Femina gets tens of thousands of applications from young women all over India each year. "We don't know how many, we don't bother to count," says Saran of the sacks of entries. Bidapa believes the contests produce a "tremendous" sociological impact. "These women's self-image has changed completely. Everybody dares to dream."

Take Sheetal Ramachandran, a management graduate and the current Miss Bangalore. The 21-year-old, who has been accepted for an MBA course at Michigan State University in the U.S., wants to head her own textile company some day. But Ramachandran has decided to postpone her studies for a year. "I am giving myself a shot at the Miss India title this year," she says. "Lots of people say I can make it." She probably won't get another chance later, she adds, as that would mean seriously disrupting her studies.

Even concepts of beauty are reshaped. Indian society traditionally favors more generously proportioned women than demanded in the modeling and beauty-queen business. Indeed, former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen admits having had her breasts enhanced to fit that ideal when she sought a showbiz career in the mid-1990s. But over the past couple of years, skinny actresses like Urmila Matondkar and Preity Zinta have become very popular. "Thin is definitely in," says movie-industry commentator Nahata. And that, he says, is the impact of freely available international cable television and the winning beauty queens.

Some parents find the new images deeply troubling. Bombay school teacher Carmen D'Souza, for one, frets that teenage girls in urban centers are almost obsessed with becoming models and beauty queens. "Unfortunately all this [glamour] business has focussed attention on women's bodies rather than their minds," she says. "It is also an imported, alien standard of beauty and we fear that children may risk anorexia trying to stay thin."

Feminists' comparisons of beauty contests with cattle markets don't make much of an impression on most young women. But an increasing number are making lifestyle choices based on their careers rather than home and family. Meenakshi Mathur, 23, is one of them. A Miss India finalist in 1997, the New Delhi native is now a professional model. "Some people are doctors, some are engineers, and I am a model. This is just another job," she says. "I am the commodity and I want to sell myself." And unlike women in her mother's generation, Mathur is in no hurry to get hitched. "I want to build up my career and establish myself first, you know, like the men do before they get married."

According to editor Saran, whose monthly magazine claims a readership of about one million, there have been radical changes in attitudes among urban Indians over the past few years. These have come about in spurts rather than evolving gradually, and "it has had a lot to do with women going to work professionally," she says. "The confidence that they have gained is very important. The Indian woman has realized that she has the ability to change her environment."

Films (and studio bosses) are beginning to mirror the new social mores. Consider Kya Kehena, one of the biggest domestic hits of the year, starring the hottest young actress in Hindi moviedom, Zinta. Unusually for a Bollywood production, Zinta doesn't share the limelight with any hero. What's more, the script takes a bold plunge in allowing the principal character to be made pregnant by her boyfriend. Art-house movies have tackled such "forbidden" themes before, but Kya Kehena is the first mainstream production to do this — and get away with it.

There's a personal bonus for young actresses, says Nahata. Where older stars such as Madhuri Dixit were once expected to have impeccable private lives (or at least present the appearance of one), newcomers are now finding it much easier to be their own person. One day, this choice might even be extended to the millions of women who labor in India's fields and factories. That would be a crowning achievement indeed.

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