Pooja Pandey has made a scintillating debut with Manish Mundra’s directorial debut film, ‘Siya’. The film revolves around a rape survivor in a small town in India, who doesn’t give up hope and takes the baton of fighting against the system, taking revenge and trying to better things for future generations.
Pandey went through an intense shoot and a little chit about the film reminds her of all those traumas which she went through to get the emotions perfect for screen. Talking to Prateek Sur, Pandey opens up about the gruelling shoot, especially in that abduction scene in the movie. Excerpts from the candid conversation:
Playing a rape survivor on screen is a very bold choice for a very first film. What drew you to this film?
Yes, playing a rape survivor for my very first film was a very bold choice indeed. The narration by director Manish Mundra convinced me for the film. When he was narrating the story, I could feel the pain that the girl would have gone through. I felt that depth of emotions. I got connected to the character and the script.
Such a serious character definitely needs a lot of preparation. What did you do in order to get that perfection to the character?
Yes, a lot of prep went into the character. But I didn’t get time to do the workshops because everything happened really fast. I had gone for the recee of the movie with the team. The creative producer in the film, Rashmi Somvanshi, she is born and brought up in the place where we shot the film, Pratapgarh. I used to stay with her, in her village so as to pick up the nuances of people there, the way they talked, etc. I spoke to quite a lot of girls in that village, and I went to their houses and talked at stretch and got to know them. Also, I used to watch videos of a lot of rape survivors and that was very straining and very traumatizing for me. But in order to feel that pain, which a girl has gone through, I had to go through that. I had to know and understand what kind of changes a girl’s life goes through after such an incident happens to her. So, all of that was very necessary for helping me build my character and to be able to deliver it properly.
Many actors draw inspiration from incidents they’ve seen or heard of in their real lives. For playing this character, did you also draw inspiration from any such incident?
Yes, even I did take inspiration. Usually, you’ve heard something, or have known some stories around – so you’re drawing inspiration from all of them. People try to take those instances and bring them into their character, and even I tried to do that. In most of my auditions, I try and take references from real-life instances so that the performances can have that natural feel to it. For this film, not just me, but the entire team had met many real-life survivors to understand the depth of emotions and the pain of what she has gone through.
Getting into the mind space of a rape victim is very tough. Were you able to dissociate yourself from the character when you finished the shoot? Or did the angst of the character of Siya stay on with you for long?
It’s true that I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from the character after the shoot and even in between the shoot. It is very challenging for an actor to perform something like this. While shooting there were so many scenes which were mentally traumatizing and harsh that to get out of it or even to get into that mould was very tough. There are times when you start getting monotonous or you go blank, and I just couldn’t speak or give out my emotions that well. Even now I feel that I am not out of that character entirely. Even now whenever I see a scene from the movie or listen to a song from the film, I end up getting goosebumps again just remembering feeling that pain as to what a girl might have gone through.
While the entire film was very heavy, there is one specific abduction scene which I felt must have been the toughest to shoot. How difficult was that abduction scene for you? What was going on through your mind then?
The entire film was indeed heavy, but even I feel that the abduction scene was the toughest to shoot. We shot it for about 5-6 days, and it was a very dark and intense scene. So, obviously, it was very difficult to shoot as well. I was chained for hours and hours with no food and no water. I can remember all of that. But I didn’t give up. I could have easily told the director that I need food or water or need a break, but I also somehow didn’t want to give up as I wanted to get into the depth of the emotions.
A lot of things that are shown in the film have for sure happened to many girls in India. All those commenting and eve teasing etc. It has happened to me as well in my school life or my college life. To add to that when I met these survivors and their families there was a sort of silence, which also I have tried to bring into my character. It doesn’t have dialogues but that silence speaks a lot. That silence helped me a lot, and it’s quite relatable. Also, during that abduction scene, I used to get panic attacks and my body used to shiver a lot. That’s also how I was able to get more connected to the character. There used to be not many people around and I was almost locked inside that dirty shabby room for hours. Even the food was given after a long time, and that too it used to be very dry with even ants walking over it, and the entire room used to be such filth – it was really traumatising not just as an actor but also as a person while I was playing that character.
From all the interviews that I’ve seen or read of you, you seem to be very different from the character of Siya. Do you also feel that you are not like Siya in real life? If yes, what differences do you feel between yourself and Siya?
I feel I am quite similar to the character of Siya. As you’ve seen in the film, Siya doesn’t speak too much but talks through her eyes and it’s quite similar to me. When I heard the narration, that time itself I realised that this character is very similar to me. The character also doesn’t give up easily, which is why she fights against the system, and I am also quite similar in that way and I don’t give up easily.
In India still, there are no strict laws for rape convicts. What, in your opinion, should be the punishment for such rapists?
In my opinion, they shouldn’t be hanged because that would make it very easy for them. The person on whom you’ve done such a heinous crime, minor or of any age, I feel they should also be made to feel a similar pain because hanging would just make it too easy for them. The amount of pain and other things that the girl goes through, a repetition of the same should happen to that person so that he also feels that pain and realises how much it hurts, and how traumatising it is for a girl, whose entire life gets spoilt because of that once incident.
In India, when we hear of such rape incidents, we write a lot on social media and even take out candle marches, but after a few weeks, everything goes back to normal. What do you think should be done so that people shouldn’t forget such incidents like just a piece of news?
I feel that the media and the law need to be a lot stricter. The laws need to change and that’s very important. Also, the number of such incidents that come out in the newspapers, if they end up reaching the right authorities who can help implement the law, then I think it would be a lot of help. That would help make a significant change in the law and in society.