Siya (Pooja Pandey), a 17-year-old girl in a north Indian village, Devganj, wants to work. Her mother disapproves of it, wanting to get her married. Her father, a peripheral figure in the household, doesn’t stand for her. A family friend Mahender (Vineet Singh), a sympathetic lawyer in Delhi, doesn’t understand her either.
And then, one morning, Siya disappears. In most movies centred on horrific sexual violence, the crime functions as an inciting incident. But in Manish Mundra’s Siya, tension starts to simmer, even though not readily apparent, with something so basic that many wouldn’t even think about it: Siya wanting to work. Because a young girl’s desire – her audacity to dream – is unacceptable in Devganj.
Without spilling the spoilers, I should say that Siya’s plot features two crimes and two sets of perpetrators. We know one of them early on, a group of boys who abduct and sexually assault her for days. When she doesn’t return home, Mahender and her father, Shankar (Ambarish Saxena), approach a cop to file a First Information Report (FIR). But in Devganj, let alone filing an FIR, people like Mahender and Shankar, belonging to a marginalised caste, have also to enter the police station barefoot.
Sexual violence, callous cops, botched investigation: these facets have marked Indian society and Indian cinema for long. Just their mere mention elicits narrative fatigue. Siya, however, quickly dispels a common misgiving about this sub-genre: the exploitative gaze. Cinematographer Subhransu shoots the film with admirable thought and care. This is not the kind of drama that amps up the shocks, say, via tight close-ups. Marked by a consistent cinematographic language, Siya comprises many long shots – even during disturbing scenes – distinguishing itself from its lesser peers.
Aided by a relaxed editing style, it looks like a drama more driven to examine as opposed to declare.
Even the caste angle is largely implied, not directly stated. Such a choice works because it befits a place like Devganj, where casteism is so ubiquitous that it ceases to be remarkable. And even though Siya casts a relatively popular actor, Singh, playing a lawyer, the movie doesn’t make him a saviour. Mahender neither dominates the narrative nor overtakes Siya’s decisions.
This is very much her story. These choices indicate an aware and considerate film, mindful of sloppiness so common to a subject like this.
Yet these merits alone can’t make Siya compelling or notable. Because the main problem here is something else: a lack of arresting specificities.
Take, for instance, Siya. We know so little about her as a person. Her harrowing life situation drowns almost everything else about her. When not seeing her as a victim, the film gives her flat and generic scenes: bonding with her brother and cousin, sitting near a lake, riding a bicycle. The film’s overall sensitivity and impressive composition does make us empathise with her, but empathy can’t substitute affinity. We need to know Siya in much more detail to be with her.
This problem recurs across characters. Whether it’s Mahender or cops or perpetrators, we’re never inside their heads enough – at most times, at all. It also limits the potential of two main actors, Pandey and Singh. This long shot screenwriting approach hurts Siya even more because it’s inspired by real-life events — sharing a few crucial commonalities with the 2017 Unnao rape case – which means that the plot isn’t particularly novel.
So, a film like this can’t afford to synopsise real-life without adding anything substantial: a feudal politician, corrupt cops, helpless victims, and so on. Otherwise, after a point, the film starts to indeed resemble a synopsis, sagging under the weight of ‘then-this-happened-then-that-happened’.
An impressive film scoops out meanings from the real-life story itself. Movies that simply highlight social evils don’t have the same potency anymore, as we’re anyway surrounded by awful events almost on a daily basis.
That’s where Siya falters, because it’s so stuck to a macro approach – a bird’s-eye view of a feudal hinterland – that it barely interrogates the micro. Enough films have shown the nexus between corrupt cops and powerful politicians – we want to know what is unique about that relationship in a place like Devganj. Or a rape victim and her family getting further victimised. Or a callous investigation rivalling the transgression itself.
Siya tells us all these – and more – but it fails to make us feel.
This article was first published on The Wire.