A rudimentary internet search about Manushi Chhillar will reveal plenty of images of her crowning moment- when she won the Miss World crown in 2017. In the same search are pictures of her in her scrubs, bespectacled and towering over her fellow students. The girl who sashayed down the ramp, waving to a crowd that was rapt with admiration, was also the one walking down the corridors of medical school a few years ago, convinced that the noble pursuit was her true calling. That both her parents are doctors might have something to do with it.
When we set up the interview for Manushi, Murphy’s Law quickly came into play and every gadget at my disposal failed miserably. I struggled for 20 minutes straight – my laptop wouldn’t record, Zoom wouldn’t allow me to log in. Manushi was carving out some time from her busy promotion schedule for Prithviraj, all her scheduled appearances and various commitments and I hoped I hadn’t bungled up my chance to interview her.
But when everything was finally functional and I sat down for the chat the next day, Manushi was wonderfully accommodating. She was on time, and when I apologised profusely for all the glitches, she said it was no problem at all. I could tell she was on her way to some place, the horns in the background could be heard, and despite the chaos, she was calm and collected, thoughtfully answering my questions.
Scrubs To Screen
Coming from a family of doctors, I wanted to know how she ended up in the world of glamour. She knew little about it, she admits. But her parents were extremely supportive and weren’t dismissive of her ambition. In fact, it was quite the opposite.“I think they have encouraged me the most,” says Manushi. “ I remember telling my mom I have to audition to apply for the pageant and she was like, ‘Oh my god, we need to find you a dress, find you a nice pair of heels to do this’. They’ve been my biggest cheerleaders. And the fact that I’ve been able to do all this is actually because they’ve been there. Even when I decided to let go of college and pursue a career in acting, they were supportive and gave me reassurance.”
When you step into a space like this with glitz, glamour and competition, it can quickly get overwhelming. I ask Manushi who she turned to for advice, to navigate her way around. Manushi says, “When we were training for the international pageants, we had this talent head who was managing us. I remember him saying he just wishes to only guide us to the right path. And he said he will give us two rules to implement in our lives. He said, ‘Please don’t pick up the habit of smoking now that you’ve come here and please don’t focus on boys.’ That was a very funny thing because I was just a kid at that time, I was only 20. But I was very focussed and stuck to the rules.”
Now, Manushi is all set to play Sanyogita, wife of Prithiviraj in her debut movie Prithviraj, under the Yash Raj Films banner. It’s her foray into Bollywood and understandably she was nervous. The set life is very different from the sash life. But Manushi was undaunted. She says, “ I would like to give myself some credit for never getting overwhelmed. I was, of course, very nervous the first day, I wanted to do a good job and it was a very heavy scene. If I were to count and tell you my four toughest scenes- it was one of them. When you practise, you’re only practising the scene. It is when you reach a set that you realise the technicalities that go into filming, things like where your eyes are moving, if you’re swaying, the camera captures that and it can be distracting. It’s the small things that you don’t realise when you’re acting in person vs when you do it in front of the camera. The whole environment was also new and on set there are hundreds of people that are working to make sure that every scene is shot perfectly. It’s not just the director, the actor-there’s an entire team, the lighting department, sound, it’s like an army. Something that’s also wonderful about the film industry is the extent of employment they provide.”
Beauty And The Beholder
Manushi has held an international beauty title, so you would assume that she and the mirror have been confidantes. You would be very wrong. In fact, Manushi says that her focus in life was never about how she looked. “When I was a student, I got that whole attention of being this pretty girl, being this one who looks really good. But we were all just students. We were never focusing on how we were dressed; make up was very alien to us. But I remember this particular moment. The national director of Miss India was in the car with me. We had gone for an event and she was dropping me back home and she said ‘You are a very beautiful girl.’ And for the first time I thought, am I pretty? That’s when I felt like maybe I am pretty. I think that was a very vain moment for me,” she smiles and says.
At this point, I knew I had to ask her how she then reconciles with the fact that beauty pageants are essentially about looking good; the exterior is all that counts. Manushi’s answer is introspective and interesting. She counters, “Like everything else in this world, beauty pageants have also evolved over time. There was a time when society made women believe that beauty was their most important asset. That’s probably how beauty pageants started but they have changed over time. I would be delusional to think that I was the prettiest girl at Miss World. Beauty pageants are more of an experience, a journey and an opportunity for young women to celebrate what they have. During the year, your work is aligned towards attending events, raising money, making sure that the money is being used across the world or the projects are being supported. It’s more about that and less about what you’re wearing, etc.”
But they can provide a great platform to young women, Manushi points out. “There has always been a debate about whether beauty pageants should exist. At the end of the day, we should not take them as seriously. I was just a student and today, I am getting to chase opportunities I didn’t even think were a possibility. For me, it has been an opportunity, a platform. The whole experience of working, competing, the kind of women you meet and the kind of exposure that you get, it changes you. You grow, you learn so much.”
That being said, she says young girls need to know that at the end of the day, it is a competition. “And you need to treat it as any other competition. Someone else might get crowned one night but that doesn’t mean you are not beautiful, you are just not maybe fit for the crown. Young women should look at the whole journey and not just the crowning night. It’s only one day out of 365.”
Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown
Manushi is refreshingly unassuming in her answers. She’s honest, confident and real. And this is why I want her to weigh in on various topics that would be considered touchy by most. And her answers don’t disappoint. We discuss the overwhelming criticism that Harnaaz Sandhu is facing for her weight gain. Manushi says, “I feel that this is not the doing of beauty pageants but maybe a segment of society. I don’t think anyone in that industry is raising questions about her weight fluctuations. She is still Miss Universe. She’s still being her amazing self. It is unfortunate that people have an opinion because it’s normal. She’s a human being. It’s a body, not a machine. Opinions on anyone’s physical appearance should never be taken into consideration. Also, the beauty pageant tours are very hectic. Sometimes, the only time you get to sleep is on the plane. So it’s not very easy to work out regularly, you may not get the same kind of food that you get at home. People have to realise that she has a bigger job now and that is to represent an international organisation and that should be her focus.”
The network starts to break at this point, and I get the impression that she’s reached her destination, the persistent honking has been relegated to the background. We end the interview here and I walk away with a distinctly different impression of beauty queens, and I have Manushi Chhillar to thank.
Content director & editor: Kamna Malik; Photographer: Aneev Rao; Fashion Editor: Zoha Castelino; Words: Mansi Shah ; Hair and Make-up: Maniasha Faze Managment; Production: Imran Khatri Productions; Assisted by: Komal Shetty, Disha (styling); Artist’s management agency: Yash Raj Films