To Catch a Falling Star

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The brotherhood of the Malayalam film industry turns an accused actor into a tragic victim. Welcome to Malewood

IN THE BEGINNING of July, when the Malayalam superstar Dileep was first implicated and arrested for allegedly abducting and sexually assaulting an actress, it was as if in an instant, the entire state had turned against him. The film industry, in which he was a powerful figure, removed him from its associations. Actors who were close to him did not vouch for his character. Angry mobs with ‘Hang him’ placards took to the streets. But a few months later, there is a noticeable shift in support from the victim to the accused. Dileep’s fan clubs have become active on social media, generating sympathy. Many of his loyalists are talking about his acts of charity. The Malayalam film industry is also reaching out to him again. For Onam, prominent actors like Jayaram and Vijayaraghavan, directors such as Ranjith, Joshiy and Lal Jose, visited him in jail. They announced that they will stand by him until he is proven guilty. In the meantime, several stars boycotted Onam programmes on television channels to protest against the extensive coverage of the arrest and investigation. Former actor and MLA Ganesh Kumar, who is part of the ruling Left Democratic Front, said the police were framing “innocent Dileep”.

Dr J Devika, feminist scholar and teacher at Centre for Development Studies, anticipated all this. “It did not happen right then, because [the victim’s] guts took everyone by surprise. The wave of support it generated for her probably intimidated them. It also reflects power struggles within the industry,” she says. A section of the online media is replete with stories on his travails: how Dileep has been sleeping on the floor, bitten by mosquitoes, eating jail food and spending time with petty criminals. “We have every reason to believe that there is a deliberate effort to create public sympathy for him. How can so many portals come up with stories similar in content and style? All of a sudden, hundreds of fake IDs are created in Facebook disseminating such stories,” says Sajitha Madathil, actor and member of Women in Cinema Collective, an association that works against gender discrimination in the Malayalam film industry.

Poet and political commentator Dr K Satchidanandan also finds the surge of pro-Dileep opinions orchestrated. “It is patently ironic that it is not the victim but the accused who is getting all the sympathy. Even those who are unsure about the accused must be in no doubt about the victim, I presume? These responses, I am certain, do nothing to boost the image of either actors or Kerala’s menfolk in general,” he says.

What caught many by surprise was filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan and writer and social commentator Paul Zacharia coming out in defence of Dileep. Gopalakrishnan asked the media to show restraint, saying, “As far as I know, Dileep is not a don or a person who is capable of doing a heinous act.” Zacharia lashed out at the media for excessive coverage that depicted Dileep guilty despite the fact that investigations were still on, leaving no space for him to mount a defence. PC George, the lone independent MLA and a controversial figure in Kerala politics, even questioned the integrity of the woman actor who had been assaulted. He said she didn’t look like someone who had been raped and that if the case was being compared to the Nirbhaya one, how did she go to work the next day? His victim shaming sparked huge anger. The actor herself wrote to the Chief Minister to initiate action against George. Her letter said: ‘After the incident, I have been going through a terrible time. The insult and injury of every moment is beyond words. Yet, I am trying my level best to regain my confidence; to come back to life. If I am defeated in this battle, I know that it would be the defeat of thousands of women like me. What does PC George want me to do? To commit suicide? Or to be put in a mental asylum? Or to run away and vanish? I can’t. I have to live my life here. I can’t live the rest of my life in shame. Instead I hold my head high.’ She added that it was not she who lost honour, but those who committed the crime, and appealed to the state government to take action to ensure women a conducive atmosphere to fearlessly report sexual crimes.

What caught many by surprise was filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan coming out in defence of Dileep. He asked the media to show restraint, saying, “As far as I know, Dileep is not a don or a person who is capable of doing a heinous act”

Sebastian Paul, a guru to many journalists in Kerala and a champion of human rights, also shocked everyone with an editorial in his news portal, South Live, in which he said that Dileep was being denied justice. His only argument to supplement his claim was that the actor had been in jail for 60 days. He drew a parallel with undertrial prisoners who had been similarly denied bail and said the prosecution should not oppose Dileep’s bail plea the next time. He argued that there was no conspiracy and that another accused, a man called Pulsar Suni, could well have acted on his own accord. Sebastian, who is the chief editor of South Live, got the first set of rejoinders from his own subordinates. The portal’s executive editor NK Bhupesh and two other journalists put up Facebook posts saying they do not subscribe to such pro- Dileep views and that it shouldn’t be viewed as the editorial position of the portal. ‘Many in South Live including me had asked him not to publish this article which is a complete U-turn from our earlier position. The decision was forced by Dr Sebastian Paul,’ reads Bhupesh’s post.

Deedi Damodaran, scriptwriter and member of Women in Cinema Collective, says that there is no merit in Sebastian’s words. “As per the rules, the police still have time to submit a chargesheet. Dileep has the best available lawyers to defend him; his bail plea was heard by the High Court more than once. The court granted him parole for a day to perform religious rites on the death anniversary of his father. In my understanding, Dileep gets every right entitled to an accused [person] in remand. Dr Sebastian Paul has to explain why he is not satisfied,” says Damodaran.

Activist and journalist BRP Bhaskar doesn’t find the ongoing pro-Dileep campaign too compelling. He is also not convinced of the argument that Dileep’s rights have been compromised. “From the human rights perspective, the rights of the victim of a sex crime are the first concern. But human rights are universal. The suspect and the accused [both] have rights. At the moment, these boil down to the right to a fair investigation and a fair trial,” says Bhaskar. He adds that the police would not dare arrest a celebrity of such stature without ample evidence. “The attack on the woman actor took place on February 17th. Dileep’s name started doing the rounds within hours of the crime. Sunil Kumar, allegedly a hired assailant, was arrested within a week. It was almost five months later, on July 10th, that the police arrested Dileep. Two leading film personalities, on learning of the crime, had informed the DGP and the Chief Minister, not the nearest police station. Considering that the men at the top learnt of the crime even before a formal complaint was lodged with the police and that the media took much interest in view of the involvement of movie celebrities, it is unlikely that the investigating officials would embark upon arrests lightly.” He adds that if Dileep’s rights have indeed been violated, the superstar has all the resources needed to deal with it. “In the 55 days he has been in custody, he moved the courts thrice for bail and was rebuffed. In these circumstances, there is no material in the public realm to conclude that Dileep’s rights are being trampled upon,” he says.

While men in the industry are speaking in favour of Dileep, women are trying to keep the focus in support for the victim. At the recent State Film Awards, members of Women in Cinema Collective invited guests to place their signatures on a huge white canvas as part of a campaign titled ‘With Her’. Actor Rima Kallingal, who has been spearheading the campaign, surprised everyone by raising a ‘With Her’ placard at the function. She got a standing ovation.

In the meantime, the victim has returned to her life and career. Her latest film has just been released and she has been making television appearances to promote it.

A rape survivor returning to her former life while searching for justice is unfamiliar in Kerala society. Devika calls the Malayalee male mindset an example of ‘homo-cine circles’. This, she defines as “male friendships and loyalties bordering on the erotic but actually reinforcing the most horrid conservatism, including homophobia”.