IT was supposed to be Bangalores much-awaited date with Beauty. And it began in the wee hours of November 11 as 88 aircraft-weary beauties slipped into the sleeping city, baggage in tow, conjuring up an overwhelming sense of surreal juxtaposition. Much like the city itself. Bangalore has been adorned with contradictions and has been trying in vain to cope with its newfound celebrity status for more than a week. Waking up to a sublime tinkle of toasts, raised as the sun makes way for the bevy of moving mannequins, giggling yet poised, confident yet tied-up, friendly yet diplomatic, all raring to go for that prized title of Miss World.
Like disciplined students at a residential school, they all alight from their air-conditioned coaches and fall in line. Just as they need to do to board it. "Hi, Im Miss Costa Rica," grins the 57" Natalia Carvajal Lorenzo, 21. "I speak English but it isnt spoken in my country. India is a beautiful land," she gushes. Their names seem not to really matter, at least till the big day on November 23. They are all Miss Whatever, ambassadors of their countries who are celeb enough to be sought after by ardent autograph-hunters. A drunk freelance public relations executive at a charity dinner received on his palms these twin signatures: Miss Cuba and Miss Spain, and their names. He was, needless to say, pleased as Punch.
A camera is all that is needed to grab the attention of the attention-grabbing ladies. Pop a flashbulb and the message is registered instantaneously: strike a pose, theres nothing to it. It comes quite naturally to them. And they do it with practised aplomb. Especially if the hazel-eyed six-footer Miss Sweden, Aea Johansson, is for the first time draped in her yellow readymade silk saree with broad zari borders that would attract the envy of anybody visiting the saree shop Nalli. Or when the spastic children who are to benefit from the pageant charity are to be hugged by the beauties with a purpose. Enough to send Bangalores corner-cutting cameramen haywire.
For the Cinderellas, it all happens after nightfall. Be it the Diwali carnival which recreates a Surajkund-like crafts village in the IAF Training Command grounds or the charity dinner beside the Windsor Manor pool. At the IAF grounds, the army band plays on and motorcycle stuntmen display their daredevilry as the beauties sit around. Not sure what to make of the proceedings. There is Indian culture aplenty in all its crafts-mela splendour: Karnatakas tribal dance to go with a Rajasthani folk dance choreographed to an Ila Arun techno-beat by some Bangalore college girls; and a 100-per cent vegetarian buffet of bisi bele bath, sweet pongal and curd rice to go with Kingfisher beer. But the guests at the charity dinner, having coughed up Rs 40,000 per couple or Rs 1.4 lakh for a table of six to dine with two contestants at the table, are clearly bored.
Just like the girls, after the daylong grind of rehearsing for the finals and completing their profile shoot at the magnificent Bangalore Palace, are forced to put behind their weariness for lots of flat, polite conversation. Its not easy, but the girls dont show the strain. "Can you teach me Spanish?" a middle-aged housewife asks Miss Chile and Miss Colombia at their table even as Bangalores own Rani Jeyraj holds fort for her hometown: "Bangalore is much easier to live in than Mumbai." Everything they utter is avidly lapped up, but nothing really needs to be stored away in the recesses of anybodys memory.
Ms Jeyraj has few other celebrities to support her contention. Rajnikant, Bangalores prodigal son, walks out as abruptly as he walked in and Vijay Mallya saunters along at midnight after the guests have left and the hotel staff is cleaning up. And that is as much of Bangalore the girls under virtual house-arrest get to see. Hundreds of protests before their arrival, a self-immolation in far-off Madurai, and the stoning of two mini-coaches used for the pageant have converted downtown Bangalore into a city under a khaki siege. Security of the beauties is uppermost on everybodys mind. Their movements severely restricted, the girls are not happy but they have little choice. So at the Windsor Manor, no efforts are spared to make the girls feel at home. The cuisine is carefully selected to tickle the girls palates. One day, the chef rustles up Khidmate Murgh at the request of Miss Spain and the next, he lays out a spread especially for Miss Bangladesh.
The zest of 460 dancers rehearsing for the big day at the Chinnaswamy Stadium is not affected. The magnificent Sabu Cyril recreation of the Hampi palace ruins are awaiting the 2-billion plus teleaudience for director Priyadarshans exposition of Bharatavarsha. The extravagant cultural journey of 20 dances from Kashmir to Kanyakumari through the land of the Indus and the Cauverywith a little bit of Alisha Chinai and Prabhuis Amitabh Bachchans answer to the effigy-burning protectors of Indian culture.
"Two billion people will see that were not a primitive country. They will realise we can do it better than the West. Ive heard so many people treating India as a backward country that I want to prove them wrong," Bachchan told a weekly recently. Its a beauteous burden: playing host to a star-spangled show thats being dressed up as a showcase for India; lining up in the glam race, hoping to put even Sun City to shame; offering oneself as the cynosure of two billion TV-glued eyes. The desi audience, the Big B has reminded us, will be minuscule when compared to the global one. (Of course, he never let out that such shows have moved off centrestage in the Westpressure from feminist groups seems to have worked against such whos-the-fairest-of-em-all contests.) And so, voyeurs of the world can expect to gaze upon the edifying spectacle of 20 caparisoned elephants. Compensation enough for the bathing-suit parade part of the finals, cancelled as a token of respect to the Indian sense of mystery? Controversy, alas, never sticks to rules of sense and sensibilities.