Crime

An Act of Horror: The Crime that Shook Kerala

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The darker side of the superstar-struck Malayalam film industry

Welcome to Central Jail is not a good film. Discredited Malayalam superstar Dileep’s Onam release from last year, it rides on bawdy jokes and a slender plot about Unnikuttan, a boy born in jail who cannot seem to stay away as an adult. The film was attacked, deservedly so, for its misogynistic tenor and utter lack of taste, but little did anyone imagine the actor, whose brand of blustering comedy has made him one of the most popular artistes of his time, to be capable of orchestrating a chilling sexual crime. With Dileep’s arrest on July 10th in connection with the assault in Kochi on a well-known woman actor five months ago, the world of Malayalam cinema has been upended by the biggest scandal ever to rock its foundations. Peddling groaners from the back shelf of the comic pantry suddenly ranks very low on the list of allegations against Dileep. As Twitterati had a field day with the irony of a jail term for the star of a prison comedy, it occurred to me that in the film, Unnikuttan is happy to take responsibility for others’ crimes so that he can return to his “ancestral home”, but never does he own up to anything nearly as serious as rape. For even our heroes cannot get away with that. Or can they?

Dileep, 48, is firmly entrenched in the Malayalam film pantheon alongside respected actors like Mohanlal and Mammootty. Producer, distributor, mimicry artist, star of hits like Meesa Madhavan (2002) and CID Moosa (2003), the narrative of his life has been usurped by a disturbing revenge drama that has, over the past few months, spilled over from gossip columns and into a long and precarious police investigation to finally land him in the dock. Dileep’s denial of the charges of conspiracy against him have been drowned out by the downpour of outrage in Kochi. For a brief while on Monday night, his Wikipedia page listed ‘molesting’ among his occupations. On Tuesday morning, his wheedling smiles at crowds gathered to witness him being escorted to Aluva subjail near Kochi were met with stares and slogans. Even deities of filmdom who were cosmically aligned with Dileep have altered course. The industry’s gossamer fidelities, to borrow an expression from Edgar Allen Poe, to the star are now stretched thin.

It is the stunning descent of a jolly lothario. For the victim, it is cold comfort yet as the investigation continues. On the night of February 17th, she was on her way from Thrissur to a friend’s apartment in Kochi when a group of thugs waylaid her on a stretch of NH544 connecting the town to Cochin International Airport. The car she was travelling in belonged to Lal Creations, the production house she was shooting for at the time, owned by the eponymous actor and filmmaker. The driver, Martin Antony, did not put up much of a fight as five men seized and overpowered her before a sixth, the prime accused Sunil Kumar aka ‘Pulsar’ Suni, got in and sexually assaulted her. He warned her not to raise an alarm or the consequences would be far worse. A flat crawling with horny men was mentioned. Suni also videotaped the incident and told her he was acting on the instructions of a third party. Released in Kakkanad after the two- and-a-half-hour-long episode, she sought refuge at Lal’s residence late in the night. Calls were made to senior police officers and to Thrikkakkara MLA PT Thomas, and close associates producer Anto Joseph and writer-filmmaker Renji Panicker were called in.

Women actors have less liberty and power than men. They can be 'banned' for criticising a male actor or for rejecting a script

“The actor was shaken but brave. She talked to police officers who had arrived at the house and had a long conversation with the IG over phone,” says Thomas, a Congress Party MLA who has been demanding a transparent investigation into the case. “Meanwhile, Martin, who sat there pretending to have been hurt in the incident, was acting suspiciously. He was taken into custody as it soon became clear he had helped Suni coordinate the attack.” A call made to Suni’s phone shortly after the attack, says Thomas, was traced to a telecom tower in Gandhi Nagar, Kochi, after which he went missing for several days.

Police registered an FIR under various sections of the IPC for abduction, rape and criminal intimidation, and additionally under sections of the IT Act for violating the victim’s privacy. Over the next few days, they rounded up most of the assaulters, and a conspiracy angle began to emerge from their statements even as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan denied it. Adding to the drama, Suni and an accomplice, Vijeesh, tried to scale the walls of the court of the Additional Chief Magistrate in Kochi during lunch break on February 23rd, but police were quick to nab them. Suni did not give up the whereabouts of the phone used to record the video, but did tell police that he was promised a tidy sum—Rs 2 crore, according to the remand report filed by police in court against Dileep—by a benefactor. Indeed, it seemed implausible that these small-time history sheeters would have risked capture for a chance to blackmail the victim at a later date, or to make a quick buck selling the video to a smut-monger. The assault had been too organised and premeditated to be a stray sexual crime. There had to have been a larger agenda at play for the executors of the job—a ‘quotation’ as it is called in Kerala—to walk away with a king’s ransom.

THERE WAS NEVER a doubt that the act of violence, humiliation and degradation was a craven ritual to demonstrate the corporeal power of man over woman. What devious mind could have commissioned it and to what end? What dark pleasure did he hope to derive from this plot? What grudge did he bear? What message lay underneath? The whoddunit, set in the small, insular world of Malayalam cinema, seemed to point in the direction of a man with a compromising backstory: Dileep. The longstanding bitterness between him and the victim, who had co-starred with him in several films, was no secret. Married to her close friend, actor Manju Warrier, for 16 years, Dileep is believed to have accused her of cleaving them apart, leading to their separation in 2014. The actor, say friends close to her, warned Warrier of Dileep’s closeness to his frequent co-star Kavya Madhavan. The past three years have seen this web of relationships get even more tangled. After a long hiatus from films post marriage, Warrier, 37, made a fitting come back with How Old Are You? (2014), an empowering film about a woman who reclaims her life that won hearts and propelled her to instant stardom. Dileep married Madhavan, 32, last year, in a small ceremony, and claimed that Meenakshi, his teenaged daughter who lives with him, was overjoyed with the decision. As for Warrier’s telltale friend, she went public about Dileep’s alleged efforts to exclude her from several big Malayalam productions.

The act of violence was a craven ritual to demonstrate the power of man over woman. Dileep's onscreen misogyny was one thing; this was a sinister plot against a woman who had crossed him

Was the assault, then, retribution for interfering with his life and diminishing his aura? A senior police officer who is part of the investigation told me that other theories mooted by local media, such as the possibility of a land deal gone wrong, did not fly. “It was about punishment, plain and simple,” he said. “Does a man need a bigger motive than revenge?” Police arrested Dileep on the basis of his links with Pulsar Suni, he said. A selfie had surfaced on social media situating Suni at a shoot with Dileep even as the actor claimed he did not know him. A letter purportedly written by Suni—with help from two co-prisoners—to Dileep dated April 12th demanding money and support, and calls made to his manager Appunni and close friend actor Nadir Shah further distorted the optics of the case, giving Dileep a chance to claim that he was being blackmailed. More recently, however, police revealed they had evidence of several meetings between Dileep and Suni, held in a hotel in Kochi and at several filming locations across Kerala, over the past three years. Was Dileep so brazen as to think his clout would keep the police at bay? Or could he have been framed by a rival, as he has repeatedly claimed? To be sure, he had made his share of enemies. Earlier this year, in a coup of sorts, Dileep and other producers and theatre owners upstaged Liberty Basheer, president of the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation, when he demanded a higher revenue share of film collections for exhibitors. A new body of theatre owners was formed, the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala, with Dileep as the president.

If the conspirators’ agenda was to break the spirit of the victim, they certainly did not succeed, says actor-turned-filmmaker Geethu Mohandas. “She never dreamed of giving up the fight,” she says. “The fact that someone so powerful has been held accountable is a huge step forward in this male- dominated industry.” Soon after the attack, concerned male actors had chimed in with words of wisdom. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), the only actors’ organisation in the industry, had advised women members to travel with male companions at night. Mammootty had declared, in all earnestness, that a real man protects, not overpowers, a woman. And Dileep had snuck in a snark about the company the victim kept. The film fraternity did turn up at Kochi’s Durbar Hall grounds on February 19th for a solidarity meet, but it amounted to little more than lip service. “She did not need money but no one even offered other kinds of support, whether it meant going with her to the police station or assuring her the culprit would be caught,” says actor Sajitha Madathil. With Dileep’s name closely associated with the case, actors like KB Ganesh Kumar and Mukesh, both Left Democratic Front politicians, succumbed to siege mentality and sprang to his defence. Others went a step further, making facetious remarks about women actors and naming the victim on social media. As a reaction to the incident but also as a long-overdue forum to fight for their rights, about 20 women artistes including actors Warrier and Remya Nambisan who are close friends of the victim, Parvathy Menon and Rima Kallingal, filmmakers Anjali Menon and Geethu Mohandas, formed the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). “We’d talked about it for months on a WhatsApp group, but like with any revolution in history, it was an unbearable incident that got us going,” says Madathil.

Women actors in Kerala have less liberty, wealth and power than men. They can be ‘banned’ for criticising a male actor or even for rejecting a script. With stalking, propositioning and inappropriate jokes and contact being par for the course, acting can begin to feel like an ignoble profession. Before Dileep’s arrest, I met some WCC members over warm bruschetta and coffee in Kochi’s hip cafes. I found them hopeful of change. “A collective of a few women that is not even registered and has no real power in this industry is being taken seriously by the media, by society, even by the Chief Minister. This is amazing and unexpected,” said Madathil. “But it was when we started getting calls from junior artistes who had been sexually targeted that we realised a forum like this had been entirely missing.”

As the net tightens around Dileep, Remya Nambeesan, a 31-year- old actor and playback singer, says a lot of the insecurity in the air has cleared up. The fraternity has been quick to expel Dileep from AMMA, the Film Employees Federation of Kerala, the Film Distributors Association and the Kerala Film Producers Association. “We can feel a little safer knowing money and power cannot protect a criminal,” she says. She participated in the AMMA emergency executive meeting held at Mammootty’s house in Panampilly Nagar on July 11th, where the mood was refreshingly positive. “As a WCC member, I raised the issue of women’s participation in AMMA,” she says. “Senior members welcomed the idea and said they were ready to re-elect the executive committee.”

Dileep’s arrest may be a highly symbolic one for the industry, but the crime is not fully solved yet. If he was indeed the lynchpin, who were his accomplices? What role did Nadir Shah, who was interrogated for 13 hours on June 29th along with Dileep, play? Police say they cannot rule out the involvement of Kavya Madhavan and her mother Shyamala. In a raid on the premises of their online store Laksyah earlier this month, they reportedly recovered a memory card containing visuals of the assault, though a police officer who is part of the Special Investigation Team refused to confirm this. He said the video was recovered from Suni’s phone, which his lawyer had surrendered before a court in Aluva. Earlier, Suni had sent the police—and a Naval team—on a wild goose chase by claiming to have flung the phone into the backwaters from one of the bridges connecting the mainland to the islands that lay westward.

KOCHI IN THE monsoon is a water kingdom fretted with green. Hulking high-rises and traffic snarls do not seem to mar its beauty. The city, with a new Metro and a global lifestyle, is as much a theatre of change as the film industry that calls it home. For both Kochi and for the industry, the assault case is a flare in the dark for under-represented sections who have had to contend with a culture of begrudgery. “Have you watched Trumbo? Just as 1950s Hollywood blacklisted communist sympathisers like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a clique of powerful producers and distributors controls the Malayalam film industry. If you do not adhere to their rules, you are blacklisted or penalised,” says filmmaker Amal Neerad, who paid a fine for working with Nithya Menon, an actor who had reportedly been banned for not ‘respecting’ a senior producer. The Malayalam film industry is modest in comparison to Bollywood and makes about 120 small-budget films a year, which are distributed across less than 400 major theatres in Kerala. In the past few years, there has emerged a new class of progressive and realistic films that have been critically acclaimed and commercially successful. But it is difficult to make these films from within the old ‘Mollywood’ framework, says Neerad. “There is a major transition waiting to happen in the industry, and some of the old guard are not comfortable with it. But as the audience’s tastes change, and younger actors take centrestage, Malayalam cinema—and the filmmaking ecosystem—will continue to improve.”

The story of how Kerala Police unravelled a sinister plot against an outspoken woman actor may one day be made into a film. Perhaps it will capture the tensions beneath the sparkle and glamour of tinseltown and reveal its venal streak.

Also Read: A Portrait of the Popular Hero as a Dirty Male

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