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 in 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, Tenzin Khecheo, from Minneapolis to New York. There, she wins the Miss Tibet North American crown. The prize is a free trip to Dharamsala. She is one of the 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 PM 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 it is un-Tibetan,” says Shapiro. “The current PM Lobsang Sangay though 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 an impresario, 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 campaigner for the Tibetan cause.”
In the week before the event, held in October 2011, it was a chance for the participants to learn more about Tibetan history, politics, art and culture. “They also tried some calligraphy,” says the filmmaker.
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 the US from India at the age of seven.
As Shapiro films several rounds of the pageant, where the participants sing, dance and give speeches, in Western and traditional dresses, there is a 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 judges’ discretion. The group is not convinced. One of them, Ngodup Dolma, says, “You are a fraud.” Wangyal gives an enigmatic reply, “Maybe.”