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 to her Instagram account claiming she had died from cervical cancer.
On Friday 2 February, a post from Pandey’s official account, which has more than 1.3 million followers, said she had died from cervical cancer at the age of 32.
“This morning is a tough one 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 in 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 outlets including NDTV and News18, while her manager Nikita Sharma hailed her “unwavering spirit amidst her health struggles” in a statement to the press. The news was reported on by dozens of media outlets, including The Independent.
However, Pandey has now shared a series of posts and videos announcing that she is, in fact, not dead, and that the report was a publicity stunt supposedly intended to raise awareness of cervical cancer screenings.
“I feel compelled to share something significant with you all, I am here, alive,” she wrote, alongside a video of her addressing the stunt and the awareness campaign. “Cervical cancer didn’t claim me but tragically, it has claimed the lives of thousands of women who stemmed from a lack of knowledge on how to tackle this disease.
“Unlike some other cancers, cervical cancer is entirely preventable. The key lies in the HPV vaccine and early detection tests. We have the means to ensure no one loses their life to this disease. Let’s empower one another with critical awareness and ensure every woman is informed about the steps 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 supposed demise due to cervical cancer has taken a minute to digest and I appreciate the warmth and concern that the world has extended in the last 24 hours.
“This unexpected turn of events, albeit startling, serves a greater purpose. While I do understand how you would have perceived this in bad taste, I also implore you to consider the greater cause. Before passing judgement on the act, I urge you to recognise the alarming concern burdening women worldwide.
“The sheer lack of awareness surrounding this issue was the mere reason that compelled me to take this unconventional step.”
Pandey cited an Indian government pledge in this week’s Budget to improve uptake for cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccinations, but claimed she could “say with certainty that only a small fraction would’ve registered it”.
She then shared a link to a website, poonampandeyisalive.com, “where we can come together to combat cervical cancer and make a positive impact”.
Pandey claimed that the false report of her death was attached to “500 headlines”, and that “if that’s the kind of impact we can bring ... 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 posted to her Instagram page.
The stunt has provoked outrage among her followers and the medical community, many of whom have called Pandey out in the comments under her posts.
“You just destroyed your entire credibility,” one critic wrote, receiving more than 16,000 “likes” within a few hours of posting.
“Worst publicity stunt ever!” entertainment journalist Hesha Chimah wrote.
Hundreds of other comments branded the stunt “distasteful” and “insensitive”.
Writing under a shared post by PR company Hauter Fly, doctor and author Tanaya Narendra, who has 1.5 million followers, objected to being cited in one of Pandey’s videos.
“Please don’t associate me with your distasteful campaign,” she wrote. “I’ve been creating HPV vaccine awareness long before your ill-thought through plan was born. This act was insensitive and morally reprehensible, and I will not stand to be associated with this.”
After growing up in Kanpur, Pandey relocated 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 engages in a controversial romantic relationship with a student.
She appeared in the first season of Indian reality show Lock Upp, hosted by actor Kangana Ranaut, in 2022. The show followed 19 “misunderstood” or controversial celebrities who must rough it out in a makeshift “prison” while completing various tasks to be set free.
Following the announcement of her “death”, several celebrities – including Bollywood star Ranaut – paid tribute to her on social media.
Writing on her Instagram Stories, Ranaut wrote: “This is so sad. Losing a young woman to cancer is a catastrophe.”
Munawar Faruqui, a stand-up comedian and Pandey’s fellow “inmate” on Lock Upp who eventually won the series, tweeted: “Can’t process the news. Poonam was a great human being. Sad. RIP.”
Actor-filmmaker Pooja Bhatt also took to X, formerly known as Twitter, writing, “So tragic to hear about Poonam Pandey. I had never met her, but when life claims someone so young it is always devastating.
“My prayers and deepest condolences to her family, friends and everyone whose life she impacted.”
Pandey married filmmaker Sam Bombay on 10 September 2020 but their relationship later became embroiled in a domestic abuse 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 abuse case, it was reported the pair had reconciled and were back together.
“We are trying to iron out things and have more or less sorted it all out,” she told The Times of India. “We are back together. You know what? We both love each other too much. We are madly in love. And, which shaadi [marriage] does not have its ups and downs?”
Pandey sparked controversy when it was reported she had been 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, with Pandey explaining she was “having a movie marathon” at home and had not broken any lockdown rules.
The Press Trust of India initially reported Pandey and Bombay had been booked by the Mumbai police for breaking the rules of the nationwide lockdown and going out for a drive.
“Hey guys, I had a movie marathon last night. I watched three movies back-to-back, it was fun,” Pandey said in an Instagram video. “I have been getting calls since last night that I am arrested and I am seeing that in the news as well.
“Guys, please don’t write that about me. I am home and I am perfectly fine. Love you all.”
In 2022, the Supreme Court of India granted Pandey protection from arrest after she was accused in a major porn film racketing case.