The chick that tweets

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Poonam Pandey positioned herself on top of the social media pyramid so everyone could get a better look. How do we see the girl who has nothing to hide, asks Sunaina Kumar

Poonam Pandey
Bare minimum: Poonam Pandey, Photo: Hitesh Kaneria

TWO DAYS before her 20th birthday, Poonam Pandey released a special Holi video called Dirty Play. Hard to distinguish from the soft porn that circulates freely on the Internet, this clip had a striking difference. It got over 3 lakh hits. It created enough of a furore that YouTube exercised a clause in their service policy to ban it. Which probably boosted Pandey’s vital Internet statistics, though she’s already the model who gets the most search requests in India. That her video went viral is unsurprising, given her current Twitter corps stands at 1,37,899 and grows every day.

On her birthday, Poonam Pandey went to a temple with her parents, younger sister and older brother, and later visited the family ashram. At night, she stayed home and her mother made her some of her favourite treats. For someone who makes it her business to stay in the news, she was hard to pin down for an interview. Her excuse: she was helping her sister prepare for her board exams. Set this image of the devoted family girl against the one you know.

As Pandey sits in her family home, her mother, a shy, middle-aged woman with homely features who stays in the kitchen and refuses to talk, keeps ferrying food to her. Tucking in guiltlessly into papad, rasgulla and milky coffee, Poonam busts, figuratively speaking, the notion of the fainting, anorexic model. At 50 kg, she is just on the other side of scrawny, and has some generously distributed heft. The doorbell rings and three children from the building troop in asking for autographs. Two girls, aged nine and 11, tell her they have seen her photographs in the newspaper and want to be famous like her. Her mother smiles fondly at this gesture of acceptance.

It has taken a year to earn it, since the 2011 World Cup when one Poonam Pandey, unheard of, unseen, strapped herself to a fickle catapult of fame and cut the cords. Her parents were as shocked as the rest of the world. Faced with jeering family and neighbours, her father, a small-time businessman and housewife mother stopped talking to her. “It was a difficult time,” she says. They relented after a few months and she claims they’re now proud of her fame. Even so, her family does not go on record to discuss her.

Pandey’s name is featured in the top 10 of the Google Zeitgeist 2011 list of fastest rising celebrities in India, alongside Katrina Kaif and Anna Hazare. Digital media company Pinstorm scores her online influence at 70.2, which rates just outside the 30 most influential Indians online, behind Priyanka Chopra but ahead of Lara Dutta and Genelia D’Souza. Comedian Tanmay Bhat, who, like Poonam, uses Twitter to push his career, says she’s the human version of Kolaveri Di. “In an age when most guys stalk women online, here’s a person who is willingly letting you stalk her, on a red carpet. Why would anybody mind?”

The wonder of it all is that the former Gladrags and Kingfisher model has accomplished this without signing a film, without dancing in an item number, without really doing the rounds of reality television, barring a nine-week showing on Khatron Ke Khiladi. So far she’s survived by working social media to create a business model, where she is the manufacturer and the product. She could have been a flash in the pan, like that model from Paraguay who was all over during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, what’s her name again? Instead, in the year since the World Cup, Pandey keeps resuscitating her 15 minutes of fame.

One of her lifelines is her “Tweethearts” whose loyalty she earns with provocative posts and pictures. The Indian cricket team is another ship on which her fortunes sail and most of the pictures she releases are synced to its performance. Virat Kohli’s century against Pakistan in the Asia Cup earned him a raunchy picture. As did Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th century.

Even the prime minister has been inducted into this privileged circle. His arrival on Twitter was met with a bikini picture and a cheeky tweet. The PM’s communication adviser tried to suppress that story but how could he when all 1,37,899 tweethearts already knew?

A team of 10 works on ‘Brand Poonam’. Four work on her website. She has three managers and three publicists

For followers not appeased by offerings of photos, Pandey slips in the occasional video. There have been four thus far, Bathroom Secrets, Bedroom Secrets, Mirror Act and now, Dirty Play. Clad in trademark white bra and undies, she writhes and touches herself on a bed or in the tub, as her breathy voice keeps repeating “hot, hotter”, “want me?” She’s suggestive, she’s inviting and she’s directly derived from the catalogue of image-making that exists in the soft porn industry. Mahesh Murthy, CEO of Pinstorm, says, “Her audience is the same Indian audience that watches MTV Roadies, the testosterone-challenged rural and suburban male and the confused female living near him who secretly envies her.” Her offer to strip elicited a predictable FIR as well as the usual protests by political parties like Shiv Sena and the BJP. Pandey dismisses her detractors, saying they’re trying to coattail on her fame.

Her predecessors, Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant, may have broken taboos, but they did it behind a self-imposed veil of modesty. Pandey doesn’t bother. “I am very bold, a new-generation girl. People have seen nothing of me yet,” she says, adding that she’s capable of going much further than she has. She’s toying with the idea of putting up a camera in her room 24×7, and is working on the technology so the server on her website does not crash with an onslaught of traffic. Her voice rings with certainty; she is sure people will be interested in watching The Truman Show of her life.

Comparisons with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are inevitable. Brand adviser Anand Halve says Poonam Pandey is a product of our times. “With increased connectivity, there is a non-stop need for bite-sized entertainment online. Combine that with the mainstream media’s insatiable desire to occupy space and mind of people, which is easier taken care of by celebrities than genuine content. Join the dots and you have Poonam Pandey.” While her self-absorption is boundless, it is also canny. She wants to be looked at and knows men want to look at her. She mines that tacitly acknowledged but never explicitly revealed bedrock of Bollywood, that women in the movies are first, sexual objects.

IN 1975, when Alyque Padamsee created the Liril ad, it was a breakthrough: a girl in a bikini, dancing, having a good time, without being judged. Juxtapose that with Poonam Pandey’s bathing video that caters to the male gaze. Padamsee spells out the same difference. The Liril girl was bindaas, “It was about her being free, unlike Poonam who is a sex object.”

Filmmaker Paromita Vohra, though, questions the moralistic feminist strain surrounding Pandey. “What’s interesting is that she is not being exploited by a male. She subverts our expectations by producing her own videos. Sadly though, she does not question our morality the way Madonna has in the past by provoking, she is only an entrepreneur.”

Her entrepreneurial drive is tremendous. She employs a team of 10 to work collectively on ‘Brand Poonam’, four for the development of her website, three who work as her managers and three publicists. Vipin Medhekar, who heads the team, says they have been able to monetise Pandey through advertisements on her website, which are supplemented by a steady income based on appearances at events and launches. The curiosity about her just keeps growing, which generates new business ideas.

Pandey is tickled pink that following her lead, many models have begun to release their version of her videos. But none do it quite like her. And because she is a master of the medium, Poonam Pandey writes her own epigraph: “Envy me; Hate me; Rate me. Face it. You’re never gonna be me.”

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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