Since the time of this interview, Poonam Pandey has built an online empire for herself, going from posting sultry pictures on Twitter to diving into full-blown soft porn with her then boyfriend, now husband Sam Bombay. Pandey recently accused Bombay of molesting and abusing her during their honeymoon.
Ages ago, when she wasn’t just as famous, we were fortunate enough to be the publication that carried her first ever magazine interview.
This piece was first published in August 2015.
Men are imaginative beings, which is why I suppose porn is such a successful industry. By nature, we choose to escape into a fairytale filled with nymphs and goddesses who exist for our pleasure, dropping a bath towel (or a brassiere) at the drop of, well, a hat. Seeing is believing. Vast hordes of men believe that Poonam Pandey is a naughty seductress, a sex goddess, who some day (very soon, really soon, maybe tomorrow), will take off that tiny g-string just for them. Pandey makes herself available for public consumption with every tweet. In an online world where nip-slips and wardrobe malfunctions are juicy click bait, here is a woman who is happy to flaunt generous amounts of T&A, sans pixellation, sans emoticons, sans blur tool. Poonam Pandey wants you to want to see her naked.
We are sitting in a claustrophobic office in an industrial estate in Mumbai’s film suburb. The office is lit by dim, yellow bulbs and a bunch of producers, complete with thick gold chains and expansive equators, sit behind a glass partition, shrewdly keeping an eye on the interview. Pandey looks like she is dressed for a media event – extra make up, white (and bursting-at-the-seams tight) pinstripe formal skirt and blazer over a blue tank top, which supports her attention-hungry cleavage with some difficulty. Men must find it extremely difficult to look her in the eye while talking to her. Pandey is warm and forthcoming, and she often breaks into peals of laughter.
We chit-chat to break the ice; she chooses to use the Bengali pronunciation for my name and then asks what this interview will be about. I tell her that no one has done a profile on her before. Pandey politely tells me that she is just a few years old in this industry and maybe that is why no one has bothered. I tell her that this is “the” interview, then. Cut the bullshit. Let’s get real. She laughs again, wide-eyed and then says, “Okay. I will be honest. I will tell you everything.”
After a few modelling gigs post-college, Poonam Pandey was selected as one of the top ten Gladrags models in 2010 and then cracked her way into about 29 fashion calendars by 2011. Soon after, though, she was almost forgotten. That is when she found Twitter and drove the country crazy with her “will strip if India wins” proposal during the 2011 cricket World Cup. Tabloids and gossip columns lapped her up, and numerous stories about her – mostly untrue – started doing the rounds. India duly won the tournament, but Pandey claims that the BCCI did not allow her to take her clothes off as promised. Make of that what you will.
In 2012, she was featured in the Kingfisher calendar and Pandey was back in the news for stripping naked for the Kolkata Knight Riders after their IPL win. Her blink-and-miss Bollywood debut, Nasha, happened in 2013. Twitter has been her best friend since then, and if her recent International Yoga Day video is anything to go by, her fan base has increased by four million views. These days, Pandey is busy posting skimpily-clad selfies on Twitter and hunting around for a male lead for her next film, Helen. According to Google, in 2014, she was the ninth most searched-for person on the internet.
“I always wanted to be in this industry since I was a kid,” Pandey starts. “But I never planned anything. My parents never took me seriously. When I told my dad I wanted to audition for Gladrags, he laughed and casually agreed. They thought all of this was a phase. We are a small family of six – my folks, two siblings and a dog. But being from a Hindu Brahmin family, there were too many rules and baggage. They finally sat up and took notice when the Kingfisher calendar happened, but they never wanted me to be in this industry. Honestly, even I don’t know what I am doing. Things just happen.”
What drove her to films, then? Was it the usual transition? “I always wanted to be a model. I believe I still am. But then greed gets the better of you. When movie offers started pouring in, I was like, try karke dekhte hai.” Pandey’s story is as bland as it sounds. Out of the millions of women who want to be where she is (and are possibly much more talented), it is sheer luck and a lack of inhibitions that have helped her. While I ask her about Twitter and her fan following there (706,000, at last count), in my head, I am trying to grapple with morality, personal code of conduct and other serious shit like that.
She laughs. “I love using Twitter. I love reading the comments.” So you enjoy the attention, I say. She frowns and feels that the word has a negative connotation. When I assure her that it does not, she agrees. “Yes, you can call it attention or whatever, I enjoy it. And I love my fans. See, no one can pull you down if you have a loyal fan base, and I have one.” She refers to her fans as ‘Tweethearts’ online. I am still trying to figure out how she can be fine with the sort of comments men post on her timeline. A certain “fan” unabashedly posted the following on her Yoga Day video – “I don’t know how to say it nicely but PLEASE MADAM HUM AAPKO CHODNA CHAHTEY HAIN.” I tell her that I think most men can be pretty disgusting. She disagrees. “I think men in this country are good and nice. I have no issues with being objectified. People call me sexy and I think that is the biggest compliment you can give any woman.” Pandey must have a well-nurtured thick skin.
What led to this unbridled hunger for attention and fame? Was it growing up in anonymity and being bound by strict rules? Is this her way of snubbing the societal structure she has been brought up to blindly adhere to? Pandey is not one of the most beautiful or striking women you will come across. If she did not dress up as provocatively as she does, she would be quite anonymous. When she speaks, there’s a strong vernacular accent, and she stutters often and leaves sentences unfinished because she cannot find the right words. She’s your typical middle-class girl from the Mumbai suburb of Mulund – was that the biggest trigger?
Maybe I’m just over-thinking it. Here is a young woman who does not mind being seen as a pin-up girl. Her fans call her a “slut”, question her morals, propose sexual intercourse with everything that has her name on it, describe in detail what they would like to do with every part of her body – and she laps it all up because, hey, they are talking about her. How does she draw the line? What is her idea of privacy? She becomes serious. “Entertainment is a business, and it is a different thing to act upon that. I am single. I am asocial. I don’t party. I prefer to be with myself. I have had boyfriends when I was in school and college, but not since I began getting famous. I think I am too innocent and I can be fooled or trapped easily. It’s not difficult for me to lead this dual life. Mentally agar itni stupid or weak rahungi toh photos kaise dalungi?” Can anything other than raw ambition fuel such hardened bipolarity?
Other than a few film premieres and store openings, Pandey is not a Page 3 regular. She has had no link-ups with anyone famous, and her personal life is not for public consumption. Her shrewd business mind has done a steady job in keeping Brand Poonam Pandey separate from humaari beti Poonam. How do her parents react to everything that she does? “We fight all the time. But again, it is easy to convince your folks. They say that kaam achhey se bhi ho sakta hai, why do all this? So I tell them that theek hai, yeh last baar hai, phirse nahi karungi. I try to make sure that they don’t find their way to the internet, but these days, they do.” A part of me is impressed. Here is a woman who uses her body to make men eat out of her hands; she has kept them hooked for almost five years, with the promise of unclasping her bra. Pandey is proving every single day that Indian men are hormonal idiots. Or pubescent boys. Or both. “Agar sab kuch dikha dungi tab kaise chalega? I love teasing men,” She laughs.
I broach the subject of the World Cup strip promise in 2011, and she lowers her voice conspiratorially. “It was a planned controversy, which was successful. I wanted to do something overnight, because I didn’t want to struggle any more. I wanted a shortcut. What happened was, on my birthday I was chilling with a bunch of friends, some of who were journalists. I used to always say that ‘Kuch bada karna hai’ and someone came up with this idea, and at that moment jhatka toh lagaa mujhe. On a second thought, I was like, this is not a big deal. But when India started winning all the matches, I really got excited and I wanted to do it. I even wrote a letter to the BCCI, but then permission nahi mila and all that drama happened.” And did she really pose naked for the KKR team after they won the IPL in 2012? “It was a publicity stunt which again went well. It was an edited photograph which went viral, and it was edited by my team. I have not stripped for anyone in my life. See, I am going to be honest because, if I am going to do stuff and then cry foul, that’s silly. Jab mujhe jo chahiye tha woh mil hi gaya hai, then why lie?”
We start talking about her foray into cinema with Nasha, in 2013. I had seen the film and was quite surprised by its mature storyline, which was on the lines of Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate. Pandey debuted opposite newcomer Shivam Patil, and while both faltered as actors, the film itself wasn’t as sex-crazy as I thought it would be. “I am not here to do porn. Skin show is okay. Everyone does it. I love doing it. But when you are here to act, you are playing a character,” Pandey says. That is a sensible statement to make for someone who banks on “skin show” for daily publicity. But then, she says this – “But then again, what the audience expects from you, you have to give them that. I know what my audience wants. Kal ko agar main koi sati savitri ka role karungi, they will be like, what was that? I know what they like and I know what to serve them.”
So she is trying to strike a balance between quality content and titillation? She agrees. “I don’t want much of skin show in the films I do. The content has to be strong.” Isn’t her Twitter avatar off-putting for the industry’s A-listers? I mention Pandey to a bunch of Bollywood’s biggest film-makers, and they either refuse to comment or laugh her off. They don’t even want to be quoted in this article. Off the record, one of them says, “Bhai, porn nahi bana raha hoon. Itne bhi bure din nahi aaye.” Pandey is unfazed. “I don’t care what people think. I get offers and scripts from big and small directors, but I am not ready to do films that are not content-driven.” Pandey’s honesty and brazen sexuality are impressive. Or so I think.
I ask her whether she stays by herself. “No, I live with my parents. I don’t want to become a bad girl.” And who is a “bad girl”? “See, I would rather stay with my mom. If you stay alone, your timetable goes for a toss, aapka aana-jaana, aap pe koi rok-tok nahi rehta… my mom will call me every few hours to keep track of where I am. I prefer that.” But does she not want to go out there and have some fun? If she stayed by herself, surely she could bring guys over. “I don’t think like that. I would rather be with just one man forever. I think everyone should be like that. It is not a new generation thing, I think it is stupidity when people talk about multiple relationships.” I am suddenly finding this conversation somewhat confusing.
We all have needs, I tell her. Sometimes, you don’t want a relationship – you just want to get laid. “I think every person wants love. It is not about sex, if you love someone everything happens.” This is the first time she has uttered the ‘S’ word, and she does so with hesitation and discomfort, in the way parents use the word while having the “birds and bees” conversation with their children for the first time. Her definition of “bad” women and her views about sexual desire are in stark contrast to the image she portrays online. She thinks women who party, drink, live alone, bring guys home, have sex and avoid committed relationships are, in fact, “bad” women. While she criticises the rigid mentality of her orthodox parents, she appears to conform to the same rigid rules, with her personal views.
I bring up marriage. She says she wants to get married, and wants five kids, too. So, while selling the image of a free-spirited seductress might be a winning business strategy, in her personal life, Poonam Pandey doesn’t seem to mind resorting to the age old diktats of family life. She’s a bundle of contradictions – proudly liberated in many ways and blandly regressive in the same breath. Baba Ramdev would be very happy with this yogini.
We talk about what she does when she is not being Twitter Poonam Pandey, and she laughs at me for referring to her by that name. “I am always on Twitter. When I meet my team, we are generally discussing projects and films. But Twitter is all me. I feel like taking a selfie, I take it.” She single-handedly comes up with internet-breaking, top-trending hashtags like #YogaKaroTohPoonamPandeyJaisa, #ThisWorldCupPoonamPandeyWill, #TittyTuesday and the tongue-in-cheek #AurDikhao. And when she is not on Twitter? “I am in the kitchen. I love cooking. I am a pure vegetarian, though.” Why do we never see any selfies in the kitchen, then? It’s always bedrooms or bathrooms. “Honestly, you think my fans will like it if I put up a picture of me cooking?” Depends on what you’re wearing, I say. “I spent seven hours in the kitchen yesterday and I was looking really sexy,” she retorts. “If I put up a picture of me cooking, that’s not me. That is not a good picture.”
Feminists try to detach public and domestic spaces from such bogus connotations every day. They fight against slut shaming, against reducing women to the submissive gender and against the dreary propaganda against sexual desire – but Pandey is clearly not one among that number. I can sit back and chuckle about how Pandey is toying with men in this country; her bharatiya naari act, however, is off-putting. Shedding your clothes doesn’t mean shedding your inhibitions, I suppose. Horny men of India, here’s the rub of it – Poonam Pandey will never strip for you. She wants to become the perfect wife in the perfect household, with five perfect kids. Whatever plans you have with her are going to have to stay within the realms of your imagination – and since men are such imaginative beings, you should be just fine.
(Header Credit – Instagram, Poonam Pandey)