Rigging Miss India
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.