Harnaaz Sandhu, Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen: Beauty pageants to Bollywood, realising a dream – #BigStory – Times of India

Miss Universe 2021, Harnaaz Sandhu is on the threshold of an exciting and long journey. She brought home the crown, 21 years after Lara Dutta won the title back in 2000. She is in truly illustrious company along with Lara and Sushmita Sen, who won the crown back in 1994. And like her more established counterparts, Harnaaz too has her sights firmly set on another coveted prize. A career in the movies. In an interaction with ETimes, months before she competed in the Miss Universe finals, Harnaaz had proclaimed about her future plans, “I would want to focus on Bollywood”.

This beautiful and confident, young lady has aspirations of being an actor, just like many others before her. Manushi Chillar, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Yukta Mookhey, Dia Mirza, Celina Jaitley, Neha Dhupia, Tanushree Dutta, we’ve already spoken of Lara and Sushmita. The list is truly long and impressive. But there’s no thumb rule that a pageant winner and/or contestant must set their sights on a career in Bollywood. They could very well choose to be engineers, doctors, politicians or entrepreneurs. Take Reita Faria for example. She was the first Indian woman to win the Miss World title back in 1966 and she went on to become a doctor. Garima Yadav became a Lieutenant in the Indian Army just a few years ago. But, a lot of women also actively pursue a career in the movies because it’s the most organic, natural and logical career to pursue once you’ve acquainted yourself with the world of flashbulbs and fashion.

In this week’s Big Story, ETimes looks at the many successful careers in Bollywood which have started on the beauty pageant stage. It’s a setup that makes beautiful, confident and all-conquering women who go on to craft a legacy in both their personal and professional lives.

History proves pageant winners can succeed in Bollywood

India won the double pageant honour in 2000 when Lara Dutta got home the Miss Universe crown and Priyanka Chopra earned the Miss World title. And as destiny would have it, both women found themselves in the same debut movie, ‘Andaaz’ (2003), opposite Akshay Kumar. ETimes spoke to producer Suneel Darshan to know what compelled him to sign on both the ladies as heroines. Recalling his decision Darshan reveals, “Andaaz was planned to star two established heroines in 2002 opposite Akshay Kumar, but I couldn’t figure out the novelty to the proposed casting and wondered how it would attract audiences. That’s when I decided to work on a fresh look for the film and decided on Lara Dutta, who had shot for the Filmfare cover earlier. I called her over from Bangalore. Then, one day Priyanka Chopra and her secretary dropped in at my office and insisted on meeting me. They entered my cabin and I respectfully asked them to sit across the table to figure out if she could be considered for the second role. She appeared a bit nervous, as I initially felt that she was unlike all the other conventionally beautiful actresses I had worked with (Meenakshi Seshadri, Juhi Chawla, both beauty pageant winners, Karishma and Kareena Kapoor). But Priyanka’s expressive eyes and her haunting voice were two factors that reminded me of the sultry Rekha. I agreed to cast her with just one condition that ‘Andaaz’ must be her first release, to which both Priyanka and her secretary willingly agreed.”

Looking back, Darshan exclaims that the pairing turned out to be just as exciting as he had imagined. He says, “On second thought, I felt that Akshay Kumar in a youthful romantic triangle with a Miss Universe and a Miss World seemed like an attractive trio.”

Filmmaker Subhash Ghai, who gave 1981 pageant winner Meenakshi Seshadri a break in ‘Hero’ alongside Jackie Shroff had different reasons for casting her. He reveals, “It’s a landmark moment speaking to you on the day that we celebrated the 40th anniversary of launching Meenakshi with Jackie in ‘Hero’. We are used to seeing models, Miss Indias and Miss Universes becoming actors but they aren’t always the right fit. Because actors express themselves with their voice, face and body. It takes a separate talent for becoming an actor. I cast Meenakshi Seshadri not so much for being a Miss India but for the fact that she had learnt Bharatanatyam for 7 years. Dancers are capable of expressing bhav in the art of acting.”

Finding the X-factor

So essentially, it takes an X-factor for even the best beauty pageant winners to break into the world of Bollywood. But Suneel Darshan offers another reason why pageant winners like Harnaaz and Manushi Chillar are a natural choice for being actors. He says, “As a filmmaker with over a decade of work experience, I feel that these girls go through sufficient fine-tuning and are well-groomed to face the flashbulbs. Further, the confidence they develop with their success at the pageant shows gives them further power to take on the challenges before the arclights.” Clearly the grooming these girls receive during the prep of pageants holds them in good stead long after the show has ended.

ETimes reached out to designer and transwoman Saisha Shinde who had designed the silver gown that Harnaaz won for the event finale. Having worked with divas like Aishwarya, Priyanka and a whole lot of others, she was the perfect person to reflect on the evolution of a pageant winner into a Bollywood actress. Saisha reveals, “I think people underestimate the power of pageants. People only focus on the superficial aspect of pageants without realising that numerous women have made their careers after winning a national or an international pageant. The dedicated training and hard work that goes into making a winner is truly underestimated. Over the course of the last 9 years, I’ve seen so many young women who’ve worked hard and reached their goals after winning a pageant or merely being a contestant.”


Model-turned-actress Mughda Godse, who had also participated in the Femina Miss India contest in 2004, echoes similar sentiments when she says that the pageants help forge strong and confident women who can conquer any professional field. She says, “A lot of hard work goes into being a pageant contestant. It’s totally a game of personality and confidence. The girls at the pageants are so young that they really can’t be Albert Einstein on the stage, but their upbringing, behaviour and overall personality is what boosts their confidence. And that is exactly what’s important.”

Success comes with time and persistence

Confidence alone can’t be the driving force of a whole career. It takes more. As Darshan points out, with Lara and Priyanka it was a simple case of their talents and determination. He says, “One meeting with both of them and one would shrug off any confusion about whether they would make it in Bollywood or not. Firstly, both spoke not just Hindi but Punjabi fluently as well. Secondly, both had faced cameras and flashlights. And thirdly, their hunger and determination was so obvious, there was no looking back.”

According to Subhash Ghai, the debut of pageant winning girls is just the proverbial foot in the door. Once they’ve gone past the initial anticipation, their careers are made on their personal mettle. He explains, “There’s no guarantee that your debut will work. Meenakshi’s debut ‘Painter Babu’ did no favours for her career. But she bounced back. Look at Aishwarya, Lara, Priyanka and many more. These girls can have the initial attraction for the audience, but beyond that first impression they need to prove their talent through action. Which all these wonderful actresses managed to prove, later on in their careers.”

Mughda feels that persistence is a result of the confidence that the pageant system builds in the young girls. She says, “All these years being in the industry, I have realised that the pageant format focuses on the contestant’s personality and grace, even when they answer the questions, rather than the answer itself. That’s what worked for Harnaaz in her Q&A segment, too.”


Disappointments and reinvention are a reality, too

Where so many pageant titleholders have succeeded, some have tried and bid adieu to the world of glamour, too. As Suneel Darshan points out, it takes a certain hunger even for these confident girls to succeed. He says, “It’s a question of their individual potential. Kareena Kapoor was totally prepared to take up even the most challenging role in her first movie, just as Priyanka Chopra. On the other side we have had several beauty pageant winners like Yukta Mookhey who fell short of expectations that the media built up for them.”

Subhash Ghai seconds that notion as he adds that it’s not easy to succeed in front of a motion picture camera. He adds, “Success in showbiz is not easily attained. These girls need to groom themselves further, get trained in acting by practice or through film schools. A formal training always helps.”

The future is bright

Coming back to Harnaaz, while she may have said that she will focus on Bollywood at some point, fact is, she’s no stranger to the world of movies. In fact, before she became Miss Universe, she had already signed Punjabi movies. This Chandigarh girl is slated to play the lead role in ‘Yaaran Diyan Poo Baran’ and also feature in ‘Bai Ji Kuttange’. With all eyes on her, it would be obvious to note that Harnaaz might have to hone her skills and pick up some key lessons from her illustrious predecessors. Saisha though says, “I don’t think Harnaaz needs any lessons. She needs to live her journey her own way. She has a heart of gold, she’s extremely patient and super hard working. She will definitely be an inspiration as years go by.” Mughda sums up in the end when she says that Harnaaz’s answer on the Miss Universe stage was a clear indicator that she’s cut out for success. Mughda says, “Harnaaz’s answers on how women should deal with the pressures they face and her views on climate change won her applause. She’s definitely got a bright future.”



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