It was about four years ago, when I was on holiday – casually flicking through American Vogue that I came across a double-page spread featuring an Indian model displaying Hermes scarves. She was languishing in a desert landscape – canoodling with elephants. At the time, that single image seemed to epitomise the relationship the French label had with fluorescent fuchsia and holy orange – but I read it as a larger social comment. The mise-en-scene (model, colour, location, props etc) seemed to speak of a bigger Indo-French connection. France, or Paris in particular, was demonstrating its love for all things Indian. The city was now brimming with a healthy Indian community, so it was perhaps no wonder that The Association Artistique Franco-Indienne (AAFI) was best set to create Miss and Mister India France, in an attempt to embrace this connection further. Amidst a flurry of catwalks, Miss and Mister India France attempted to create a ‘platform’ to showcase this marriage, and pick out the ‘best-bits’. As its 2010 pageant fast approaches, I spoke to Veronica Tharmalingam, Director of Miss India France, to find out more:
Miss and Mister India France emerged as a product of the AAFI embracing India's rich customs and art in France: What's the current Indian community's reception of the competition? How might this pageant vary from Miss France for example?
The Indian community in France is not comparable to the one in UK. Nevertheless the French territories are made up of a significant number of people of Indian origin. On the one hand there is a growing sense of unique identity in the Indian community within France, and as such our initial target was to focus on this segment of the population. The Indian community has reacted well to our initiative as it is one of the rare platforms which provide them with visibility for their identity.
There is increasing interest in the general French population for Indian culture, as can be seen from the good reception of Indian films in France. We also have Bollywood mega stars come over for Cannes and for our Indian Film festivals; recent high-profile visits from Indian politicians such as Mr Manmohan Singh; long-running shows such as Bharati and Indian themed campaigns by well-known French brands such as Hermés, Dior, Chanel, L’Oréal, Wella etc. These trends have contributed to our event gaining an initial foothold in a niche segment and then expanding it beyond the Indian community.
Our event is tailored so as to transport our spectators to India during our two-hour show. The event includes traditional and Bollywood numbers, and as such has both cultural and entertainment value. This is different from the Miss France event, although we share similar values. Miss France is for instance attempting to fit more with the multi-ethnic diversity of modern France, in this way events such as Miss India France contribute to this trend, albeit by focusing on a specific origin. In addition, you can participate in Miss France only if you are born in France and French Territories, whereas in Miss India France and Mister India France (in association with B India) candidates are more often born in India or have Indian parents /ancestors. We do not do Swimsuit round for Miss and Mister, another difference with Miss France or Mister France.
What are the main criteria you are looking for from candidates, with regards to what you hope they'll achieve for the Indian community?
We choose candidates with beauty and brains, and with different, sometimes, peculiar backgrounds, this year for instance we have a medical student, a film set decorator and a student from Science Po as candidates.
Our goal is to promote Indian culture in France and introduce new talents not only to the Indian community but show they can make a significant contribution to France in general. We also want to fight the clichés which are prevalent about India (call centre country, people dancing in the streets, poverty). Our Miss had participated in French and Indian cultural events in France, for example Diwali celebrations at the town hall.
Do you think as France is stereotypically known for adoring beauty, aesthetics and culture, this means they naturally embrace this type of event?
France is a beautiful country and could be compared to India for its rich culture. It is not easy to impose a new culture in this environment which is focused on integration but still the French have a love for exoticism and culture, thus sparking their interest in Miss India France. The French call India the mystic country and they love our culture so it was natural to find our place.
In your time there, have you seen this type of event occur amongst other cultures?
There are many cultural events mostly from Africa, due to French colonies in the past there is a very strong North African community in France which has different events throughout the year.
Without giving too much away – what have been some of the exceptional and unique qualities you've seen amongst the candidates?
One candidate wanted to participate in Miss India to prove herself! She was handicapped for some time due to a rare disease and had to spend time in a wheelchair. Doctors doubted that she would walk again, but through her strong will power she overcame her illness just a couple of months before the event. Even more surprising, she chose dance as her talent, although she could barely walk few months back.
Another candidate was adopted from India and wanted to get to know her country of origin. She had a moving story and also wanted to show her family and friends that she could achieve something. One day during the training session she even broke into tears and told me that even her mother thought she was plain and wanted to show them that she wasn’t. She was stunning on stage.
Miss and Mister India France takes place on May 10th 2010 in Paris. http://www.missindia-france.fr/