Poonam Pandey and the cry wolf syndrome

More people will be talking — and already are — about Pandey and her fake death news, rather than cervical cancer as she supposedly intended

Controversy to stay in spotlight as usual? (photo: @iPoonampandey/X)
Controversy to stay in spotlight as usual? (photo: @iPoonampandey/X)

NH Entertainment Bureau

Actor Poonam Pandey, who hit the headlines in 2011 with her declaration that she would strip down to nothing if India won the cricket World Cup, died of cervical cancer at the age of 32. At least, that is what her publicist said on Friday, but didn't provide details of exactly where and when.

Turns out the news was fake, and the controversial actor has come out and said she staged her death because she wanted to ignite a conversation around cervical cancer. In an Instagram video, Pandey shared a video and spoke about why the conversation was needed.

“Hi everyone it's Poonam. I am sorry to those whom I have hurt. My intention is to shock everyone into the conversation that we are not talking enough about cervical cancer. Yes, I faked my demise,” she announced. “Extreme I know. But suddenly we all are talking about cervical cancer. This disease silently takes your life and this disease needs the spotlight urgently. I am proud of what my death news has been able to achieve.”

The trouble with this stunt, as with many of Pandey's earlier stunts, is that attention will shift from cause to conduit. In other words, more people will be talking — and already are — about Pandey and her stunt, rather than cervical cancer, which is admittedly worth talking about.

Given her penchant for using controversies to stay in the limelight considering her wobbly acting career, the latest news on Pandey was probably not treated with the scepticism it deserved. Perhaps because it was about death, and about cervical cancer, which is the second most common in women in India and makes up for close to 18 per cent of new cancer cases, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

As one user commented on her Instagram post, "Requesting everyone to unfollow and report her account for spreading fake information about her death. She did everything for publicity and to gain more attention. This would set a bad example for those other innocent woman suffering from the same disease."

Are we too gullible for falling for Pandey hook, line, and sinker? And has she caused more harm than good with the gimmick? What Pandey truly intended to do with her stunt is in the realms of conjecture, but a website has sprung up overnight with the URL poonampandeyisalive.com, though clicking on the link leads one to a site full of information on cervical cancer among Indian women. Clickbait? Certainly.

On Friday, as messages poured in about her 'death', some shocked and others sceptical, #PoonamPandey trended on X and Instagram. Which, many are now saying, is what she had intended all along, given her need to stay in the spotlight in the absence of any 'real' body of work. pun intended.

News of Pandey's death came a day after Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s plans to focus on vaccination against cervical cancer for girls aged 9 to 14 as part of her interim Budget 2024.

"She passed away last night of cervical cancer at her hometown in UP. She was 32," her publicist Parul Chawla told PTI, adding that she had learned about the death once Pandey's sister called her. However, she was unsure of which town in Uttar Pradesh, or details of Pandey's family.

It all started in the morning with a post on Pandey's Instagram page. "This morning is a tough one for us. Deeply saddened to inform you that we have lost our beloved Poonam to cervical cancer. Every living form that ever came in contact with her was met with pure love and kindness. In this time of grief, we would request for privacy while we remember her fondly for all that we shared," the statement read.

All very convincing, but doubts began to surface soon after, with several Instagram followers saying the news could be fake because Pandey was seen only three days ago in Goa, and frequently before that as well.

She was active on social media right through January, with posts on the Ram temple, the Lakshadweep-Maldives controversy, and her identity as a "Bharat citizen". There were videos of her swimming, riding a bike, speaking about Bigg Boss winner and her former co-contestant from the reality show Lock Upp Munawwar Faruqui, and several appearances at events.

However, an email purportedly from Pandey's manager Nikita Sharma went to several media houses confirming that the actor had died of cervical cancer, though the phone number attached to the email turned out to be inaccurate. A security guard in Mumbai told PTI he was with Pandey until just two days ago. "We'll know everything by evening," he said.

Pandey was apparently married to one Sam Bombay, and there were some reports of domestic violence. No other details are available about her family.

While speculation continued through the day on Friday and Pandey dominated the news cycle, her Lock Upp co-contestant Faruqui and host Kangana Ranaut condoled her death. "This is so sad, losing a young woman to cancer is a catastrophe. Om Shanti," Ranaut wrote on Instagram. "Shocking! can't process the news. Poonam was great human being. Sad. RIP," Faruqui wrote on X, while TV star Karan Kundra also expressed shock. "Can't believe that we have lost Poonam! I was in shock and disbelief for the longest time.. gone too soon. Om Shanti. I hope her family and loved ones are going to be ok," he wrote on X.

Many others were less susceptible, however. "I’m praying this is fake news. I think this is fake news. Maybe someone hacked her phone or Instagram. It is difficult to believe. I met her just two-three months ago and you get to know if a person is sick. There are symptoms," TV actor Vinit Kakar, who was in Lock Upp with Pandey, told PTI.

"Cervical cancer patients don't die suddenly, out of nowhere. Just checked Poonam Pandey's Instagram. Until four days ago, she was fine, posting glamorous media. If she is indeed dead, it needs to be investigated. There were reports of a troubled relationship with her husband in the past that involved the police," said the handle 'The Skin Doctor'.

Another doctor 'Jaison Philip. M.S., MCh' said on X that cervical cancer is one of the top three cancers in Indian females. "HPV Vaccines prevent 97% of cervical cancers. Such a preventable loss of life. Condolences to the bereaved," he said.

Pandey, who made her Bollywood debut in 2013 with Nasha, also featured in little known films such as Love Poison, Malini & Co, and Aa Gaya Hero. She also participated in two popular reality shows, Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi 4 in 2011 and Lock Upp in 2022. Not exactly a roaring career.

Always controversial, Pandey did not strip as she had declared in 2011. The next year, however, she posted a nude photograph on her social media handles when Kolkata Knight Riders won the IPL. In November 2020, she and her husband were arrested for shooting an objectionable video and allegedly trespassing on government property in Goa. In May 2020, she was booked for violating Covid norms in Mumbai.

With inputs from agencies

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