The Idea of Poonam Pandey

She combined Indian cricket and nudity to build an improbable brand
Ballyhoo
BURKHA EXCLUSIVE We ask, she agrees. Poonam Pandey sportingly sheds her bikini to pose for Open in a burkha at her Malad office (Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)
PLAY GIRL Pandey plays with her pup Olivia on the grounds of the Thane building complex, where her parents stay

THANE AND MUMBAI ~ On the afternoon of 16 March 2012, when Sachin Tendulkar hit his hundredth century in international cricket, nearly every radio station in Mumbai lined up the song Chak De! India and a Poonam Pandey joke in tribute. As radio wisecracks go, it wasn’t much of a cracker. “Don’t do a Poonam Pandey,” a chirpy male RJ advised his even-chipper female co-RJ live on air, “Please, kapde mat utaro (don’t undress).” Yet, it is enough to make Poonam Pandey throw back her luxuriant hair and laugh heartily, tiny shoulders shaking. “I love it when they say anything about me,” she says, “Even if it’s a gaali.”

In the 53 weeks since she backed out of her promise to strip in case India won the World Cup, Poonam Pandey has become something like that Chak De! song—the default background score for any cricketing moment. When Virat Kohli hits a big one, or the Indian team wins without warning, the match analysis of fans duly includes what Poonam Pandey said or did. Or, might have said or could have done.

As it happens, much of this is frequently more entertaining than the action on the field. Minutes after Sachin got to his hundredth hundred off 138 deliveries against Bangladesh, Pandey tweeted, ‘Thanks to Rahul Gandhi for Tendulkar’s 100th 100. Had his grandmother not created Bangladesh, Sachin would not have got his ton!’

Many of her quips are trawled off the internet, though some are so baffling that they have to be original. Yet, she is popular enough to have garnered 137,067 followers on Twitter (as of 20 March), including the R&B megastar Akon, and her three business managers, three public relations executives, three members of her web team, and a strategist. She has an office in Malad, Mumbai, to “manage” her work. Most of this means running her website, which has five domain names, all of which somehow never seem functional. “What to do, there is too much interest in Poonam, naa,” says Vipin Medhekar, her strategist who has been working with her since she began her career with the 2010 Gladrags mega model hunt. Medhekar has now invested in a new Rs 1.5 lakh server to ensure that her website doesn’t crash.

Too much interest, there does seem to be. When the Karnataka Assembly porn story broke, one of the rumours doing the rounds was that the three ministers caught on camera were watching a Pandey video. “Yes, I have heard this too,” she says, “but even I don’t know for sure. Now don’t ask me ki what politicians should do or not do.”

What Pandey can do as well if not better than politicians, though, is arouse controversy. On 19 March, she sparked a law-and-order problem in Kolkata when The Telegraph carried a picture uploaded by Pandey on Twitter. The photograph that she had posted on the occasion of Tendulkar’s 100th 100, was a morphed image of the cricketer in Pakistan’s national colours prostrating himself in front of an artfully nude Pandey as Goddess Kali holding up a portrait of Sachin. This morph-job by a fan of hers, she tweeted, was her ‘gift’ to the ‘God of Cricket’.

Not everyone found it funny, and Kolkata grew tense as groups of Muslims—presumably offended by the crescent-and-star’s use in such imagery—gheraoed a police station in Ekbalpore, took to the streets in protest, blocked roads, and attacked vehicles. This had both Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Opposition CPM saying—hard as it is to imagine—the same things, appealing for communal harmony.

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All that noise in just a little over a year. Few other ‘celebrities’ could have generated it in such a short period. It was on 21 March 2011 that Pandey shot to fame with an interview in the glamour supplement of The Times of India, offering to strip at Wankhede Stadium as an incentive for the Indian cricket team to win the World Cup. At the time, she was just another wannabe model with six months’ experience. Her biggest achievement until then was a matter of her own interpretation—that she was placed among the “top six or seven” in the Gladrags hunt. “In our format, seven girls make it to the final contest from a pool of 16,” says Candy Brar, marketing head of Gladrags Media Ltd, “She was eliminated last, so you could say she was eighth, but it’s misleading to use the word ‘top’.” Pandey uses similar word jugglery when she says she was among the “top 12” of the Kingfisher Calendar Hunt of 2011. There were only 15 girls selected for the contest, broadcast on NDTV Good Times, so 12th place was closer to the tail-end. Pandey, incidentally, was eliminated in the fourth round.

Not content with her reasonable success as a small-time model, she jumped into the cricket arena for her own little round of hoopla. As luck would have it, India made it to the final, and Pandey, to the front page of almost every newspaper in India. Within hours of this burst of publicity, she had annotated her offer: she claimed she’d written a letter to the BCCI seeking permission to ‘perform in the privacy of the Indian cricket team’s dressing room’ or ‘any other place’ of her choice.

India emerged victorious, but Pandey went missing. She was nowhere to be found at the hour of reckoning, her phone switched off, her bravado gone. The streak that did not happen made news across the country. “The attention was too much,” she now says, “even the international media was calling. And I had left home after the Bombay Times interview. My dad was very angry that I said such a thing. I didn’t know what to do. I went into hiding. I was all alone.”

She even got threatening calls from some outfits, she says, but cannot remember exactly from whom. No matter. Her stunt was a mega-success, this clever splicing of cricket with the shimmer of a hot bod. It was just a spur-of-the-moment announcement, she claims, an idea she got a day after her 11 March birthday, when she turned emotional at seeing India lose a match to South Africa.

But at least one member of her publicity team remembers it differently. “I came up with the whole thing the very night I met her,” says Satish Reddy, founder of public relations agency Scribes Inc and one of three people who handle her public relations. “I met her one evening last March. She was with her strategist Vipin and she said she wanted to become successful. That night, when I went home and switched my TV on, I saw India had lost, and this thing just came to my mind. I called her the next morning, but she wasn’t sure. I [assured] her she wouldn’t actually have to do it,” says Reddy. “When she was ready, I took her to the press.”

“I gave her space on the pages because no one makes such promises in India. She is bold,” says Sarita Tanwar, editor of Bombay Times, “I also thought it would be a good story to follow, to see whether she kept her word. I thought she sounded quite vague about it.”

Pandey is still vague on the subject. Where in the stadium did she plan to shed her clothes? “I thought kahin bhi kar loongi,” she says, “I just needed to get into the stadium. Later, I learnt of the legal issues involved. There were so many cases against me; even an arrest warrant was taken out. That’s why my phone was switched off.”

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Pandey’s parents were not amused, but they forgave her. “After all, parents hain, maan jaate hain (they are parents, they understand),” she winks. Her father runs an industrial furnaces business, while her mother is a housewife. She grew up in a small apartment in Thane, where her parents and siblings still live, and attended Little Flower High School in the locality, where she did well at athletics. “I used to win a lot of medals… At school, our uniform was a skirt and blouse. Other girls would stop to pull their skirts down while running. I didn’t care if my legs showed, I just ran. Maybe that’s why I won,” she says, “Athletics is the reason for my toned body. I don’t gym much, I am into yoga and meditation. And I eat everything.” She joined a commerce programme at Thane’s SJ Thakur College, but did not graduate. “I was a big dumbo at studies,” she says.

What is remarkable about her is that her 15 minutes of fame refuse to end. For this, she has her Twitter antics to thank. On 24 January this year, when the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) started its official Twitter account, Pandey was the first to greet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, thoughtfully attaching a photograph of herself in a white bikini. She got no response. “The PMO has no comment on this,” says Pankaj Pachauri, communications advisor to the PM, suitably stern.

Pandey, though, is mighty tickled when that story is brought up. “The PM had just opened an account on Twitter then, and I saw no one had wished him. Toh maine unhe welcome kar diya (So I welcomed him).”

“This is why I love taking Poonam on the pages,” says Tanwar with a chuckle. “Out of five headlines on a page, hers is the one you remember. I call her the new Rakhi Sawant. She knows the art of grabbing headlines. It doesn’t matter if the idea comes from her or her strategist. It is effective.”

Pandey has also, it appears, figured out a way to make money and pay for her publicity team. After the World Cup, Pandey participated in Khatron Ke Khiladi 4, a reality show hosted by Akshay Kumar. According to her PR manager Reddy, she and her team “dictated terms” when it came to money. Pandey, however, says the channel Colors called her up and asked her to make up her mind in five seconds; she agreed well within the stipulated time.

She has not done any TV or cinema work since, though she was offered the reality show Bigg Boss, say her business manager Rajiv Kumar and strategist Medhekar. Instead, she makes public appearances at corporate events for such firms as Airtel, Gitanjali Jewels and Kingfisher. “She is paid in the range of Rs 7–10 lakh per appearance,” claims Dinesh Maghudia of Sync Entertainment, an event management firm that has handled assignments for her. Airtel, however, denies any association with Pandey. Also, market sources place her real fee at around Rs 3 lakh per appearance.

According to Medhekar, her website earns Rs 6–7 lakh a month in ad revenues: “We get ads from Google AdSense and Yahoo.” Open has been unable to confirm this.

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But then again, Pandey is apparently onto bigger things now, her sights set on Bollywood. For this, she has signed up with Rajiv Kumar, whose talent company The Establishment handles personalities like TV heartthrob Ram Kapoor and footballer Baichung Bhutia.

As a possible prelude to a big screen debut, Pandey has been loading the internet with teasers that also serve as ads for her website. Since October last, Pandey and team have put together a clutch of video clips for online distribution with such suggestive titles as ‘My Bathroom Secrets’ and ‘Bedroom Secrets’. These offer a comfortingly familiar narrative, with Pandey clad reliably in a bra and panty, and crouching, to begin with, in an uncomfortable looking posture before she starts dancing without notice. The background score for these videos is impressively eclectic, ranging from soothing guitar to dance music, and accompanied often by a husky voiceover saying “hot” and “www.poonampandey.co.in” while Pandey bops away happily.

The videos are conceptualised by Pandey, strategist Medhekar and fashion photographer Noor Baig, and executed with the help of a hired director of photography, make-up artist and stylist. “The budget ranges from Rs 40,000–70,000, depending on the location we hire,” says Medhekar. “We intentionally use a webcam to give that raw feel,” adds photographer Baig.

Clearly, much effort has gone into the making of Poonam Pandey. When you meet her, though, it is difficult to tell whether she really has a sensational talent for marketing herself, or is merely enjoying a fortunate run with a series of gimmicks. Asked what she does with her free time, “I just love looking at the mirror,” she responds.

Pandey laughs a lot, and easily, without affectation. She chats amiably with a neighbour who drops by, quite the sociable 20-year-old she says she is.

Only, in her quest to conquer glamdom, she has used a little more than her petite figure and bounteous breasts, which she usually displays with philanthropic concern.

Film offers are not hard to come by for Pandey, says Rajiv Kumar of The Establishment, who claims to get her an average of four offers a month.

“What is hard is downplaying the sleaze that is associated with her image,” Kumar says, “The offers she gets are not the A-list films she seeks. I am trying to package her in the ‘bad girl’ mould. In Hollywood, ‘sleazy’ and ‘bad girl’ are different image brackets. But in India, even the ‘bad girl’ image is tough to market, [especially] to prominent film production outfits.”

Pandey listens to Kumar’s analysis without comment, but, after a slight pause, says she disagrees. “Yeh main hoon (this is who I am),” she says with an air of supreme confidence, “This is what people love.”