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|October 25, 1997||
Each girl who entered the room where the judges were sitting in a semi-circle, walked straight to Amitabh Bachchan and was so star struck, she forgot the other nine judges which included Zeenat Aman, Simone Tata and Vijay Amritraj. Manpreet (Brar) was the only contestant who firmly and assertively introduced herself to each of the judges and although she was not a classic beauty, she won points from at least nine of the judges for her presence of mind
The contest that year was, of course, highly awaited, and electric with excitement. Sushmita and Aishwarya were nearing the end of their reign and by now were bonafide stars in the firmament, generously dropping in at the rehearsals to encourage the new aspirants
Winning the pageant was now considered only an intermediate stop in a Miss India's itinerary and for her journey The Times of India provided Manpreet with an ethnic wardrobe designed by Ritu Kumar, some of the lehengas costing over Rs 2,00,000. After all, Manpreet was going to Windhock, Namibia, to compete not only against 80 contestants but against history itself. No other country had won the Miss Universe two years in a row
Because there was no direct telecast of the final contest in India, a friend in America kept telephoning the family in India of her progress through the final ten, the final six and the last three. "As I made it through each round," Manpreet recalls, "the hosts would keep drilling it in for the judges by announcing, 'If Miss India wins, it will be history in the making because no other country has won it twice in a row.' On the other hand, whenever Miss USA came on stage she said, 'This is Miss USA and her country has not made it for the last 14 years.' So there was a delicate balancing act going on. When I later saw the videotapes recorded from Namibian TV, one of the hosts actually sighed after Miss USA won, 'Gosh, I was so scared, I thought Miss India would actually win it.' The next morning there were strong comments in the Namibian newspapers about this unwritten rule that no country can win twice. I have not told anybody this, but the next day when we were having evening tea at the prime minister's residence, one of the judges came up to me and said, 'I don't know whether I should be telling you this, but I can't stop thinking about it. During the final round, there is a buzzer we have to press to rate our choices for the first, second and third place. If we don't press the button in the specified time it automatically goes to the minimum points. I wanted to give you the maximum rating but I knew it would be eliminated so I was wondering whether I should or not, and I took so much time deciding that the timer went off. You lost so narrowly that I am feeling really guilty about it.' "
Excerpted from Pride of India by Persis Khambatta, Rs 1495, Parijat Media Limited, with the publishers permission. Special copies, signed by many of the Miss Indias and priced at Rs 5000, are also available. The proceeds of this special copies will go to the Missionaries of Charity.
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