Cast: Pooja Pandey, Vineeth Kumar Singh
Director: Manish Mundra
Rating: 2.5 stars (Out of 5)
What's not to applaud in Siya, film producer Manish Mundra's directorial debut? On the face of it, it hits all the right buttons and makes a fair fist of shining a light on the terribly treacherous path that rape survivors in this country have to tread in pursuit of justice.
It is noteworthy that Siya steers well clear of sensationalism and opts for a studied, near-observational mode of storytelling. However, on the flip side, the film's passive tone appears at times to be at variance with its intensely emotive theme. It certainly cannot be faulted for intent but let alone calling a spade a spade, Siya seems to reduce it to a trowel.
The incident of shocking sexual violence around which the film revolves occurs off-camera. The brutalization of a 17-year-old girl is revealed via fragmentary flashbacks (these flow out of the statement she makes in court). Graphic details of the gang rape are assiduously avoided.
The film focusses squarely on the psychological and physical distress that the girl suffers, aggravated by the many hurdles that prevent prompt punishment for the perpetrators.
Siya tells a story that is as much about the girl at the receiving end of a system bent upon denying her justice as about the vicious men who hold the reins of power and brazenly misuse it, the venal policeman who are all too willing to be manipulated by their political bosses and a compromised criminal justice system riddled with difficult-to-plug loopholes.
Given the pressing concerns that it is out to articulate, Siya should not have gone wrong. It does because of what it decides to keep outside the purview of the account of a girl's resolve to fight those who wronged her.
Mundra, producer of such critically acclaimed independent Hindi films as Masaan and Newton, adopts exceedingly restrained, even cautious and somewhat sanitised, means to depict the raw reality of a lawless village where might is right. Siya does underline in bold relief that the political strongmen are not only in cahoots with those that flout the law at will, but that they are also often one and the same.
Siya has its heart in the right place. It is the mind that seems a tad off. By refraining from mentioning names and revealing the affiliations of the politician involved in the appalling acts of omission and commission that push the gang rape survivor to the wall, the film hollows out the story of the essential specifics that would have lent it infinitely greater potency.
The Siya script opts for safe generality, which is conscionable perhaps only to the extent that it is an undeniable fact that no single political formation could be held responsible for the lack of women's safety in India's largest state. It is a collective failure of governance and policing.
Siya situates the plot in a small UP village. It appears (at least tangentially) to be inspired by true events that took place in Unnao in 2017 and involved a ruling party politician and a girl of the exact same age as that of the protagonist. It is, therefore, disappointing that the film does not allude to the toxic culture of impunity that has taken roots in this country of late what with troll armies hurling abuse and threats at women day in and day out on social media and getting away with it.
That apart, Siya shies away from touching upon the caste factor in the relationship between the offender and the oppressed in parts of India where the former are a law unto themselves, especially if their supporters shout the 'right' slogans - which, sadly, are way too many for us to be complacent.
Siya does not point to the long-entrenched social divide that disempowers those who are on the wrong side of it nor does it seek to direct our attention to Uttar Pradesh's worsening record in the matter of crimes committed against women and to the utter disregard that the state's rulers have for the rights of segments of the population that do not have the power to hit back.
In Siya, the eponymous character (Pooja Pandey), hounded by two politically connected boys, wants to flee her small town. On her way to the bus stop one day, she is waylaid by the stalkers. Kept in captivity for several days, she emerges from the ordeal bruised scarred and emotionally scarred.
A small-time lawyer Mahendra (Vineet Kumar Singh), visiting his hometown from Delhi, decides to take up cudgels on behalf of Siya as the girl resolves not to allow the rapists to go scot-free.
One of the criminals also happens to be part of the coterie of the all-powerful local legislator who has his sights set on becoming a parliamentarian. The man cannot let a scandal scuttle his political plans. He unleashes his goons led by his younger brother to browbeat Siya and Mahendra into withdrawing the case.
A cover-up is attempted, so the girl throws caution to the wind and wages a gutsy battle. But since Siya isn't a conventional Hindi film hinging on revenge, the outcome of the fight never strays from the plausible. That is where the writer-director scores.
Mundra also does well with the casting and with the way in which he makes use of his actors. Working with a cast that has a solitary known face - Vineet Kumar Singh in a supporting but significant role - Mundra extracts a slew of effective performances.
Vineet Kumar Singh isn't exactly stretched by the role he plays but he is always is keenly aware of what is expected of him. The impact of the story relies heavily on Pooja Pandey. She does well to stays focused on the clearly defined range of her portrayal - from the traumatized to the resolute.
If only Siya had dared to play it less safe, it would have been a veritable hammer blow of a film. It takes what is only half a swing at its target. Its area of impact is hence decidedly limited. Siya makes a mark all right but it leaves no dent.