American film-maker Norah Shapiro's documentary focuses on a beauty pageant in Tibet and its implications
Photo of Norah Shapiro is by Ratheesh Sundaram; The Miss Tibet contestants of 2011. Lobsang Wangyal is fourth while Tenzin Khecheo is fifth from left
By Shevlin Sebastian
Director Norah Shapiro breaks out into a warm smile, when a bespectacled man comes up to her and says, “You made this film from your heart. The sincerity is evident.”
This is moments after the international premiere of the documentary, 'Miss Tibet – Beauty in Exile' at the All Lights India International Film Festival at Kochi in mid-November. She also got a similar response when it was screened at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival on December 12.
Indeed, 'Miss Tibet' is a moving tale. Shapiro follows a 19-year-old Tibetan girl by the name of Tenzin Khecheo, from Minneapolis to New York. There, she takes part and wins The Miss Tibet North American crown. The prize is a free trip to Dharamsala. She is one of six participants of the worldwide Miss Tibet beauty pageant. The others are from India, Switzerland and Australia.
“I know six is a small number, when compared to Indian and American beauty pageants, but in the Tibetan community, a contest, with a bikini round, is a huge step forward,” says Shapiro. “It continues to be controversial, because, for many Tibetans, women are supposed to be quiet and demure.”
The former Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, Samdhong Rinpoche, who is one of the foremost scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, is also opposed to the pageant. “He said that it is un-Tibetan,” says Norah. “However, the current Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay had no problems. He just did not like the bikini round.”
Meanwhile, Western scholars read a deeper meaning into the pageant. “While the film ostensibly is about a beauty pageant, truly, it is about so much more -- personal journeys, cultural identity, and the political struggle of a nation,” says Carole McGranahan, a Colorado-based cultural anthropologist, who specialises in contemporary Tibet.
The man behind this radical idea is a charismatic impresario by the name of Lobsang Wangyal, who identifies himself as ‘the Tibetan Donald Trump’ in the film. “He is larger than life,” says Shapiro. “Lobsang promotes film festivals, concerts and multiple beauty pageants. He is a journalist, as well as a forceful campaigner for the Tibetan cause.”
For the participants, it was a chance, in the week before the event, held in October, 2011, to learn a lot more about Tibetan history, politics, art and culture. “They also tried some calligraphy,” says a smiling Norah.
But the most moving moment in the 70-minute film was the girls' meeting with freedom activist Ama Adhe, who was imprisoned by the Chinese, and spent 27 years in labour camps. As Adhe held Khecheo's hand, tears rolled down the girl’s face. “I really understood the suffering that people went through in the early years,” says Khecheo, who moved to America from India at the age of seven.
As Norah films the several rounds of the pageant, where the participants sing, dance, and give speeches, in Western and traditional dresses, there is an unexpected twist at the climax. Not everybody is happy with the result.
Later, in her hotel room, Khecheo cries, even as she is hugged by her mother, and says, “It’s not fair.”
The next day, some of the participants confront Wangyal. He defends himself by saying that points are given based on the discretion of the judges. The group is not convinced.
One of them, Ngodup Dolma, says, “You are a fraud.”
Wangyal gives an enigmatic reply, “Maybe.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)