If Bend it Like Beckham and Drop Dead Gorgeous had a love child, Miss India America would probably be it. Telling the story of Lily Prasad, an overachieving, cannot-lose-at-any-cost, plan-every-detail-of-life sort of girl who winds up competing in the Miss India America beauty pageant in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend … sort of.
This is a messy movie that seems to be trying to do a lot all at once and then failing at it as a result. Lily is probably the most unlikeable character I’ve ever watched on screen and is the sort of woman I hope to avoid by drowning myself in the celluloid world, so it was a less than pleasant surprise when someone like her showed up as the star of a movie.
The reason for Lily’s overachieving is never really pinned down, nor is her disdain for people who make a career out of, or are even a little interested in, the arts. Despite the fact that her mother is a renowned and respect poet, Lily considers her a failure at life and looks up to her dad, who is a doctor. When her high school sweetheart, Karim, reveals that he wants to take a gap year to travel and explore the world as well as himself, Lily is furious and scorns him for screwing with their “plan”—a set of goals they set when they were thirteen years old. Karim ends up dumping Lily for a bubbly, but daft beauty queen and thus inspires Lily to join the pageant for some reason.
Lily’s best friend, Seema, is the one who initially wanted to enter the pageant so that she could feel she had a place in the world and an activity of her own, but Lily talks Seema out of it by saying that she, Lily, is better suited to win the pageant and that Seema is better at backstage stuff like being a stylist. Why Seema has remained friends with Lily is beyond me, but they embark on the adventures of pageant life encountering the stunning and intelligent Sonia—Lily’s only real competition, as far as she’s concerned—as well as Sanjay, a cocky and sleazy soap star and the pageant’s MC, who borderline sexually harasses Lily (and looks like he is an awful kisser to boot).
After scandals, close calls with losing, jealousy, self-doubt and a slew of very normal emotions that Lily has apparently never experienced before this time, the film ends with Lily learning that winning isn’t everything and that what you put into the world is what really matters. While that is a fine lesson to learn, I feel that Lily needed to learn more than that after using racist stereotypes to blackmail a girl into helping her, putting down her best friend and manipulating her into helping her, being incredibly rude and inappropriate with her mother just because she is a career artist, and looking down on women who aren’t afraid to use their bodies as they please.
Miss India America is funny and, thankfully, doesn’t rely on stereotypes of Indians to get the laughs. It’s also a refreshing change from the hackneyed culture clash films since Lily actually has no conflict between her American and Indian cultures. It’s refreshing to see in Lily a very average Indian-American girl, one who is knowledgeable about her family’s heritage and culture but who has seamlessly woven herself into the culture of the country in which she was born and raised. She’s probably the only really accurate depiction of an bi-cultural woman I’ve ever seen and, for that, I appreciate her.
Miss India America is playing as part of this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival and will screen on November 6, 2015 at 7 at AGO Jackman Hall.