February 17 marks a painful day in the history of the Malayalam film industry. But it will also go down as a powerful testimony to what can happen when a survivor fights back, against all odds.
One year after a Malayalam woman actor was abducted and brutally assaulted in a moving vehicle in the state, much water has flown under the bridge. The case has been closely followed by the media and public alike, with every startling twist and turn leading to conspiracy theories and endless panel discussions on prime-time television.
The Malayalam film industry, which is relatively small in comparison to other industries, has always portrayed itself as a close-knit family. One year since the incident, the fissures - and indeed chasms - within it are at display for all to see.
The industry's initial response
When the news about the assault first broke, the industry put up a show of solidarity. Apart from stars like Prithviraj, Dulquer Salmaan, and Nivin Pauly writing on their social media pages that they stood with the survivor, the industry organised a meeting in Kochi to condemn the attack and express their support for their colleague.
At this time, the police was in search of a man named Pulsar Suni, who'd previously worked as a driver for celebrities. Suni surrendered on February 23 at the Magistrate's court and was arrested by the police.
On May 18 that year, a group of prominent women from the Malayalam film industry met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and submitted a petition requesting an inquiry into the gender issues in their workspace. This group, which called itself the Women in Cinema Collective, would go on to stand by the survivor even as the rest of the industry hemmed and hawed with the changing narratives in the police investigation.
Though the prime accused was Pulsar Suni, there were whispers doing the rounds that there was more to the crime. The survivor's testimony about the assault led the police to suspect that there was a bigger conspiracy around it. Actor Manju Warrier, the survivor's friend, had, in fact, mentioned this at the February 19 meeting in Kochi which was attended by several members from the film industry.
The name that was tossed around belonged to one of the industry's most powerful men, someone who had a reason to hold a grudge against the survivor and had already displayed his vengeful ways to other colleagues.
Born Gopalakrishnan, Dileep made his way into the Malayalam film industry as a mimicry artist and assistant director. While his slapstick comedy films won him numerous fans, he was not considered to be in the same league as Mammootty and Mohanlal, the superstars of the industry.
Nevertheless, his "ordinary man" image and his penchant for doing entertainers earned him the title 'Janapriya Nayakan' or the 'People's beloved hero'. In 2008, he became the industry's blue-eyed boy after he produced Twenty: 20 to raise funds for the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA). His clout in the industry went up as he tightened his grip over the business side of cinema.
When actor Manju Warrier, who'd married Dileep when she was at the peak of her career, sought a divorce from him, Dileep accused her of being a "bad" mother and laid the blame for the failure of the marriage squarely at her door. Manju's return to cinema was marred by a targeted abuse campaign that many say was engineered by Dileep. Indeed, actor Kunchacko Boban, who starred with Manju in her comeback film How Old Are You, has told the police that Dileep tried to get him to back off from the film.
There were others, too, who were sidelined from films because they were in his bad books. Simultaneously, however, there were also stories of Dileep's "generosity" and "goodness of heart". Veteran actor KPAC Lalitha, for instance, has spoken several times about how Dileep helped her out financially.
Dileep was elected as the President of Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK) in January 2017. This was the newly formed union of theatre owners, producers and distributors that Dileep was instrumental in creating. It was done to break the stand-off between the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation and the Kerala Film Producers' Association over revenue sharing.
When the needle of suspicion fell on him, therefore, the Malayalam film industry changed its tune.
The arrest and aftermath
Dileep knew they were coming for him. Even before he was arrested on July 10, the actor and his cronies were on television shows, maligning the survivor and insinuating that she was somehow at fault. Actors like Salim Kumar and Aju Varghese wrote on their social media pages in support of him.
When the police arrested Dileep on July 10, therefore, nobody was surprised but the industry was still shaken. On June 29, Dileep had been present at an AMMA meeting where the organisation had thrown its weight behind him and asserted his innocence - with the reigning superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal sitting by him onstage.
A day after the arrest, Dileep was expelled from AMMA and removed from his post as President at the FEUOK. Clearly, an eyewash.
Public anger was palpable against the Janapriya Nayakan and cries of "Welcome to Central Jail" (one of his earlier titles) greeted him when he was taken into custody. His restaurant Dhe Puttu was attacked when news broke out about his arrest. His multiplex D Cinemas in Chalakuddy came under the scanner and was closed after allegations of land grabbing surfaced.
However, even as the police pieced together the evidence against the actor, the narrative began to change. The conspiracy, several members of the film industry and the public, claimed was against him and not hatched by him. Poonjar MLA PC George time and again indulged in character assassination of the survivor till she wrote to the CM and expressed her deep distress at the turn of events.
Meanwhile, the WCC, which had come up with the hashtag 'Avalkoppam' (With her) found itself pitted against those who appropriated it and turned it into 'Avanodoppam' to express their solidarity with Dileep. The support for Dileep grew, with several members of the industry and even the media, writing and speaking in his favour. Many made a beeline to the Aluva sub jail to convey their Onam wishes to him, with actor Jayaram giving him an 'Onakkodi'.
Onam is usually a time when celebrities appear on Malayalam TV channels for interviews and film promos. However, that year, the famous faces were conspicuous by their absence. Many say the industry had decided to boycott the media for incessantly covering the case and "maligning" Dileep.
Dileep finally got bail on October 3, 85 days and four failed attempts later. He was given a hero's welcome by many in the film industry, with frantic efforts to restore him to his past glory in AMMA as well as FEUOK.
His film Ramaleela had released on September 28 when he was still in jail and had gone on to become a big hit. Ironically, Dileep played a man who plans an elaborate conspiracy for vengeance in the film.
In real life, he stands accused of planning a conspiracy against his woman colleague because she had told his ex-wife Manju Warrier about his extramarital affair with actor Kavya Madhavan (whom he went on to marry in November 2016).
The WCC has found itself increasingly isolated by the film industry. Several have dubbed them as a 'Women's Selective' who've done 'nothing'. Nevertheless, it is the WCC which has spoken up for the survivor and is daring to raise its voice about the sexism and misogyny that the film industry sells on the big screen.
When actor Parvathy spoke about the misogyny in a Mammootty film Kasaba, she was viciously attacked on social media, with rape and death threats issued freely. The WCC also faced a 'down-rating' campaign on their Facebook page after they shared an article that defended Parvathy and called out Mammootty on the sexism in his films and his silence on the abuse done in his name.
The Malayalam industry now has another women's union. The Film Employees Federation of Kerala, an association for technicians in the industry, established a women's wing on February 3 this year. The chairperson of the association is dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi who was displeased with her exclusion from the WCC when it was formed.
Dileep is making more films and has regained lost ground very quickly. His name has been tarnished but he has brazened it out. The police case hangs around his neck like the sword of Damocles but only time will tell if anything will come out of it.
The survivor, meanwhile, has refused to let the incident define who she is. She is back to work and has also moved on in her personal life. But she remains committed to the fight that she took up on behalf of the several thousands of faceless, voiceless women who are silenced by the world around them. In this sordid tale of famous names, she's undoubtedly the hero.