A scandal has erupted in India after it was revealed that Bollywood actor and model Poonam Pandey is still alive after a statement was shared on her Instagram account claiming she had died of cervical cancer.
On Friday, February 2, Pandey’s official account, which has more than 1.3 million followers, announced that she had died of cervical cancer at the age of 32.
“This morning is a tough task for us,” the statement said.
“Deeply saddened to inform you that we have lost our beloved Poonam to cervical cancer. Every living form that ever came into contact with her was met with pure love and kindness.”
The news was later ‘confirmed’ by Pandey’s team to a number of Indian national news media including NDTV and News18, while her manager Nikita Sharma praised her ‘unwavering spirit amid her health challenges’ in a statement to the press. The news was reported by dozens of media outlets, including The independent.
However, Pandey has now shared a series of posts and videos announcing that she is not, in fact, dead, and that the report was a publicity stunt supposedly aimed at raising awareness about cervical cancer screenings.
“I feel compelled to share something important with all of you, I am here, alive,” she wrote, alongside a video of herself addressing the stunt and awareness campaign. “Cervical cancer did not claim me, but tragically it has claimed the lives of thousands of women resulting from a lack of knowledge about how to tackle this disease.
“Unlike some other cancers, cervical cancer is completely preventable. The key lies in the HPV vaccine and early detection tests. We have the tools to ensure that no one loses their life to this disease. Let us empower each other with critical consciousness and ensure that every woman is informed about the steps they need to take.”
The independent has contacted Pandey’s representatives for comment.
In a separate post, Pandey, who is originally from Kanpur, Northern India, acknowledged the controversy surrounding the stunt, writing: “I understand that the recent news of my alleged death due to cervical cancer has taken a minute to digest and I appreciate the warmth and concern that the world has expanded over the past 24 hours.
“This unexpected turn of events, while startling, serves a greater purpose. While I understand that you may have taken this in bad taste, I also ask that you consider the larger cause. Before passing judgment on this act, I urge you to recognize the alarming concerns burdening women worldwide.
“The sheer lack of awareness around this topic was the sole reason that forced me to take this unconventional step.”
Pandey cited an Indian government promise in this week’s budget to improve uptake of cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccinations, but claimed she could “say with certainty that only a small fraction would have registered this”.
She then shared a link to a website, poonampandeyisalive.com, “where we can come together to fight cervical cancer and make a positive impact.”
Pandey claimed that the false report of her death was linked to “500 headlines”, and that “if that is the kind of impact we can have… I am willing to absorb the impact of this moment for the greater good”.
At the time of writing, the statement announcing Pandey’s death was still up on her Instagram page.
The stunt has sparked outrage among her followers and the medical community, many of whom have called out Pandey in the comments below her posts.
“You just destroyed your entire credibility,” wrote one critic, who received more than 16,000 “likes” within hours of posting.
“Worst publicity stunt ever!” wrote entertainment journalist Hesha Chimah.
Hundreds of other comments branded the stunt “distasteful” and “insensitive.”
Doctor and author Tanaya Narendra, who has 1.5 million followers, wrote under a shared post by PR firm Hauter Fly, taking issue with the quote in one of Pandey’s videos.
“Please do not associate me with your distasteful campaign,” she wrote. “I raised awareness about the HPV vaccine long before your ill-conceived plan was born. This act was insensitive and morally reprehensible, and I do not want to be associated with it.”
After growing up in Kanpur, Pandey moved to Mumbai where she made her Bollywood debut with the 2013 film Nasha (Intoxication).
In the erotic thriller, she played the lead role of Anita, a drama teacher who has a controversial romantic relationship with a student.
She appeared in the first season of the Indian reality show Lock Upphosted by actor Kangana Ranaut, in 2022. The show followed 19 ‘misunderstood’ or controversial celebrities who had to battle it out in a makeshift ‘prison’ as they completed various tasks to be released.
Following the announcement of her ‘death’, several celebrities – including Bollywood star Ranaut – paid tribute to her on social media.
Ranaut wrote on her Instagram Stories: “This is so sad. Losing a young woman to cancer is a catastrophe.”
Munawar Faruqui, a stand-up comedian and Pandey’s fellow inmate Lock Upp who ultimately won the series, tweeted: “Can’t process the news. Poonam was a wonderful person. Sad. REST IN PEACE.”
Actor-filmmaker Pooja Bhatt also wrote to X, formerly known as Twitter: “So tragic to hear about Poonam Pandey. I had never met her before, but when life claims someone so young it is always devastating.
“My prayers and deepest condolences to her family, friends and all whose lives she touched.”
Pandey married filmmaker Sam Bombay on September 10, 2020, but their relationship later became embroiled in a domestic violence case.
Two months after they tied the knot, Pandey accused Bombay of physical assault, leading to his arrest in Goa.
A week after she filed the domestic violence case, it was reported that the couple had reconciled and were back together.
“We’re trying to smooth things over and have more or less resolved it all,” she said The times of India. “We are together again. You know what? We both love each other too much. We are madly in love. And which shaadi [marriage] Doesn’t it have its ups and downs?”
Pandey sparked controversy when it was reported that she was arrested for violating Covid lockdown protocols during the early months of the pandemic.
She refuted the claims in a video posted on her Instagram account, in which Pandey explained that she was “having a movie marathon” at home and had not violated any lockdown rules.
The Press Trust of India initially reported that Pandey and Bombay were booked by Mumbai Police for violating the rules of the nationwide lockdown and taking a ride.
“Hey guys, I had a movie marathon last night. I watched three films back to back, it was fun,” Pandey said in an Instagram video. “I’ve been getting calls since last night that I was arrested and I also see that in the news.
“Guys, please don’t write that about me. I’m home and everything is going fine. I love you all.”
In 2022, the Supreme Court of India granted Pandey protection from arrest after she was accused in a major pornographic extortion case.