India’s daughters: Manish's 'Siya', a story of rape survivor

All this while the main accused, a former legislator, was in jail for over a year. The incident, Manish says, “jolted me from inside.”

Published: 21st September 2022 10:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st September 2022 10:43 AM   |  A+A-



Express News Service

In 2019, Manish Mundra producer of excellent, path-breaking films like Masaan, Newton and Ankhon Dekhi—was deeply shaken by a development in the Unnao gang rape case in Uttar Pradesh.

The victim, while travelling in a car near Rae Bareli, was hit by an overspeeding truck with a greased number plate. She was critically injured, and so was her lawyer; meanwhile, her two aunts, who were also in the car, lost their lives. All this while the main accused, a former legislator, was in jail for over a year. The incident, Manish says, “jolted me from inside.”

Within weeks, he announced what would become Siya, Manish’s directorial debut now playing in theatres. The film follows a 17-year-old rape survivor, Sita Singh (debutant Pooja Pandey), and the institutionalized persecution she faces. While setting the film in UP, Manish and his co-writers referenced a wide range of cases across the rural north.

“We looked at Unnao, Hathras, Kota, Jodhpur, Giridih.” They realized the pathology of sexual violence went beyond caste or gender lines. “It’s ultimately about empowerment and education,” Manish says. “If you’re rich and powerful in this country, you’re safe.”

Siya was shot in Pratapgarh near Allahabad. Pooja, who’s the sister of actor Shalini Pandey, was familiar with the area, given that part of her paternal family hails from there. She says she tried interacting with the village womenfolk during the shoot.

“They were rather quiet, diffident. Some spoke about the harassment and catcalls they face when venturing out of their homes. But they weren’t sharing much.”

Grim and stilted in parts, Siya gets a lot right about the defunct state of our justice system. Early on in the film, the cops refuse to file a First Information Report. The station in-charge warns Sita’s family of ‘badnami(disgrace)’—all-too-common psychology that results in hundreds of rape and sexual abuse 
cases going unreported.  

He’s strong-armed by—or appears in cahoots with—with a local politician, who’d earlier raped Sita on the pretext of offering a job. “It’s absurd that a lawyer is unable to get an FIR filed,” says Vineet Kumar, who plays Mahinder, Sita’s family friend who joins her in her quest for justice. Mahinder, belonging to a backward caste, is humiliated throughout the film—the affront being that he’s messing with the powerful ‘Thakurs’ on the opposite side.

“Caste remains a major differentiator in the north,” Vineet, who hails from Varanasi, concedes, “especially around elections.” In a scene many will recognize from news broadcasts, Mahinder helplessly shoots a video while the cops forcibly cremate a body in the fields.

“I spoke to IPS officers from UP, Odisha, Rajasthan,” Manish shares. “The one in UP was quite candid. He told me the thana in-charges in these areas have a tough life. They have hundreds of cases and no resources. They have pressure from local MPs, MLAs, ex-MLAs, the ruling party, an opposition party. No one wants to willfully file a false report but sometimes they have no option.”

Manish asserts he did not want his film to have a set ‘agenda’. Hence, perhaps, the decision to not name names or espouse ideologies. This, though, is in sharp contrast with the mood of the country, with the rapists’ identities determining public opinion around a case.

“I think we as people have become hypocrites,” Manish says. “We support what suits our ideology and ignore the rest. Rape is rape, irrespective of the caste or religion of the perpetrators. There is nothing like remission (for such crimes). They have to be punished.”


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