Siya review: Sorry Sita, Ram and his mortals merely watched you suffer

Writer, director Manish Mundra’s hard hitting drama on the rape and abduction of a minor girl underlines the grave issue of women safety in the country. First-time actor Pooja Pandey leaves you numb with her emotionally-gripping show.

Rating: 4 / 5

Pooja Pandey and Vineet Kumar Singh in Siya [2022]

By Mayur Lookhar

Once she’s done telling the famous lion and the lamb fable, the elder sister enlightens her little brother on the moral of the story – one can defeat a powerful foe with the use of grit and intelligence. Unfortunately, such bedtime stories are mere myths for the many Siyas that are lost to the lust of beastly men.

Writer-director Manish Mundra’s Siya [2022] is not the first, and regrettably, it won’t be the last such story. We say regrettably as there is no end in sight to the countless sexual crimes against women, children in this country. It’s reached a sickening point where helpless citizens simply blink on seeing mere headlines.

In the rural belt, these crimes often reek of caste domination. Kindly note, not for a moment are we suggesting that these crimes are largely the doing of the upper castes. That is part of the problem in a polarized India where we have reduced our victims to caste, religious identity.  There ought to be a clear demarcation made in cases of hate crimes. However, today not just the victim, but the identity of the accused, too, has become a subject of divide. Society needs to rise above petty social, religious identities to tackle the menace of rape.

Mundra and his co-writers Haider Rizvi and Samah base their film in a Hindi heartland. Mentioning the region tends to invite the wrath of influential figures, fringe groups. The tone and certain events in the story subtly point towards the barbaric rape and abduction of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh in 2020. But then, this isn’t about Hathras, or Kathua, or Delhi only. It’s a menace that has plagued the length and breadth of the country. The crime statistics might reflect North and Central India in poor light, but we’re not interested in numbers, we desire an end to this malaise.

Siya [2022] tells the story of Sita Singh [Pooja Pandey], a 17-year-old [presumably] lower caste girl who is abducted and raped by a bunch of powerful upper caste men. (The title is apt but one that could rile the hardliners.That explains the low-key promotions). The poor girl was keen to leave the village and flee to Delhi. She sought help from the humble lawyer Mahender [Vineet Kumar Singh], who advised the minor against taking any such drastic step.  It’s a decision that he is left to rue as the poor girl falls prey to the beasts that very day.

Although the events in the film mirror the travesty of justice in many such cases, and covered in many films before, it’s the mind-numbing screenplay and the emotionally gripping acts that leave you with a lump in your throat. Mundra and his writers show great sensitivity in handling the tragic subject. There’s no undue footage given to the sadistic beasts but Mundra exposes their barbaric nature. The writer-director wants the viewers to get a semblance of the emotional state of the victim. Such trauma leaves a victim numb and the few words in a choked tone reflect the agony within. 

Her elder sister Shalini impressed us in Jayeshbhai Jordaar [2022]. Now young Pooja Pandey comes as a breath of fresh air. The wounds reveal the physical torture, but Pooja’s emotionally gipping show gives a sense of the turmoil within. As often with such victims, it is a case of ‘out of frying pan and into the fire’. The ugly caste divide has its internal discrimination too. Denied further education, deemed fit only for marriage, the many Siyas can’t even share their pain with their parents. The lack of open communication compounds the misery for the victim.

 The girl seeks justice, but the economic hardship, social stigma often forces such families to swallow the bitter pill. Marrying off to their rapist is a dastardly idea worse than the crime itself.  Pooja refuses it, and puts up a brave fight but seeing the odds stacked against her, she questions Mahender, “What good is this fight, if we aren’t alive to see justice being served? It’s this moment that breaks not only her, but also the audience

He maybe a lawyer, but Mahender knows how tough it is to battle the mighty in the rural belt. He’s the lone ray of hope for Siya but you sense fear in Vineet Kumar Singh’s eyes and tone.  Imagine a lawyer who can’t even get the local cop to register a FIR. He’s simply dismissed by the corrupt cop as ‘no lawyer, but a lowly notary’. Later, the prime accused questions Mahender as to why is he helping Sita Singh when he doesn’t even belong to their caste? It’s a chilling reminder of the depravity of the rapist and also the caste complexities in the region. Vineet’s measured, unassuming show complements the intense effort by Pooja Pandey.  

The antagonists and the supporting cast all play their roles to the T. Ravi Srivastava’s production design, Rafey Mahmood and Subhransu Kumar Das’ cinematography capture the grim atmosphere around the film nicely. An early scene of Sita urinating in an open field not only highlights the lack of toilets, but also her fear of prying lusty eyes. The fable reference, and the odd philosophical music define the mood of the film.

The escapist audience has a tendency to shut their souls to such tragic stories. You may not be able to help such victims, but your ignorance adds to their pain. We pride in calling Bharat a nation of Ram and his Ramrajya [inclusive governance]. We address the great god, king as Siyapati [Siya’s husband] Ram. Yet, we see death and destruction of many Siyas.

Today, the nation is shocked with a Gujarat court commuting the jail sentences of Bilkis Bano’s rapists, murderers of her little child and family. To add insult to injury, some shameless right wing members garlanded the convicts. The honorable Prime Minister and his ruling party have long driven the cause of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao movement. Sadly, the shocking release of the near dozen barbarians is a major blow to the cause. Act, prevent, reform society or there’ll come a time when there’ll be no Siyas left to mourn.

Siya [2022] is set to be released in theatres on 16 September.

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