The Sunday Profile: Dileep, Hero in trouble

On February 19, 2017, at a meeting in Kochi’s Durbar Hall grounds, some of Kerala cinema’s biggest names gathered to protest the abduction and sexual assault of a woman actor. Among those present that day were superstars Mammootty and Dileep, high-profile directors Kamaal and Lal and many others.

With Dileep watching, his ex-wife Manju Warrier, often hailed as Kerala cinema’s “only woman superstar”, spoke, expressing her solidarity with the victim, her friend. “It’s very difficult to express through words what I feel. I met her after I heard about the incident. I am proud of her as she is fighting back,” Manju said, before going on to allege a conspiracy. “Whoever is behind this criminal conspiracy should be brought to light,” she said. The same day, the victim filed a complaint.

Five months later, Dileep was arrested in the case, accused of having got Pulsar Suni, a history sheeter known to be close to many in the film industry, to molest the actor in a moving car and record the act. While conspiracy theories abound in Kerala’s deeply partisan film industry, the motive, according to the prosecution, was revenge, with Dileep allegedly holding the victim responsible for wrecking his marriage with Manju. After 85 days in Aluva jail, Dileep walked out on bail.

Now, four years later, as the trial in the assault case enters its final stretch, Dileep, 54, has landed in fresh trouble.

On December 25, after Balachandrakumar, a film director and Dileep’s estranged friend, submitted audio clips, in which voices, including ostensibly of Dileep, are heard discussing a plan to cause physical harm to the investigating officers in the case, police filed a fresh FIR against him and raided the actor’s home in Aluva. The team also raided the home of Dileep’s brother Anoop and the office of their production company.

ADGP (Crime Branch) S Sreejith said the raids were held with permission of the court. “Details cannot be revealed as the matter is still in early stages of investigation,” he said.

In a film industry dominated by its ageless superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal, Dileep’s biggest achievement was that he more than held his own, churning out a series of hits — from the 2002 comedy Meesha Madhavan to Vellaripravinte Changathi, which won him a state award.

With neither Mammootty’s simmering looks nor Mohanlal’s screen presence, Dileep pushed the envelope with his guy-next-door acts, many of which, like Kunjikoonan, where he is a hunchback, or Chanthupottu, in which he plays a man with fluid masculinity, were runaway hits. He even went on to start his production house, Graand Production.

But Dileep didn’t start off as Dileep. Son of Padmanabhan Pillai and Sarojam from Aluva, he was Gopalakrishnan Padmanabhan, a mimicry artist at Kalabhavan, a centre for performing arts in Kochi that has served as the nursery for several Malayalam actors and filmmakers.

By the late 1980s, Gopalakrishnan and his team — including Nadirshah, his friend who also joined the film industry — were household names, having featured in Asianet’s comedy series Comicola and later, Cinemala. But it was his act mimicking Suresh Gopi — actor and now a BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala — that made him a household sensation.

In 1991, with the backing of actor Jayaram, another impressionist-turned-top actor, Gopalakrishan joined the sets of the Mohanlal starrer Vishnulokam as assistant to director Kamal, where his assignment was to use the clapperboard for Mohanlal.

After a string of nondescript roles even while he was assistant director, Gopalakrishnan finally made his debut with the 1994 comedy Manathe Kottaram, in which he played a character called Dileep. The name stayed. However, it was Sallapam (1996) that was to be a turning point.

The movie went on to become a hit and Dileep ended up marrying his co-star Manju Warrier, who took a break from her successful career post their marriage. Dileep, meanwhile, went on to become a successful producer, exhibitor and businessman. Besides D-Cinemaas, a multiplex chain, Dileep owns Dhe Puttu, a restaurant chain with branches in Kerala and the Middle East.

In a film industry that’s heavily unionised — with associations representing everyone from crane operators to scriptwriters and directors — and where being with the right association can often make or break careers, Dileep had a knack of playing it right.

In November 2008, Dileep is said to have walked out of a movie, asking for its director Tulasidas, whose earlier movie had flopped, to be replaced. As the Malayalam Cine Technicians Associations (MACTA), a body representing directors, threatened to boycott Dileep, he allegedly engineered a split of the MACTA to help form the rival Film Employers’ Federation of Kerala. Several top directors then sided with Dileep and accused then MACTA general secretary Vinayan, a top director, of being autocratic.

After Dileep’s arrest in 2017, Vinayan, bitter from that experience, told television channels, “He is a person capable of manipulating actors and cutting down rivals. He is a master manipulator. My films contributed to his career graph, but he reciprocated with cruelty.’’

The Sunday Express reached out to director and long-time Dileep associate Nadirshah, director Arun Gopi, and actors Siddique, Harisree Ashokan and Edavela Babu for this story, but they refused to comment citing the ongoing trial.

Industry watchers point to a similar incident from January 2017. Then, as the Kerala Film Exhibitors’ Federation went on a prolonged strike over a dispute with distributors, Dileep, whose cinema halls too bore the brunt, ended the stir by splitting the exhibitors’ body and forming a parallel body. “Hereafter, theatres will never be shut down, whatever the reason,” declared Dileep, after being elected president of FEUOK, a position that meant he now controlled the way movies were made and distributed in the state.

His clout also meant that he had the backing of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), a powerful film body of which he was treasurer and which has often been accused of being controlled by powerful cliques within the industry.

Those in film circles also talk about a public spat between the late Thilakan, a senior National Award-winning actor, and AMMA, at the end of which Thilakan accused Dileep of being manipulative and “cunning”.

In 2014, 16 years after their marriage, Dileep and Manju split. Their divorce and Dileep’s alleged relationship with Kavya Madhavan, his co-star in several of his hit movies, whom he married two years later, were the subject of breathless speculation.

The 2017 sexual assault case again brought the estranged Dileep-Manju relationship in the public eye with Dileep allegedly suspecting the victim of divulging details of his alleged relationship with Kavya to Manju.

The Women’s Collective in Cinema (WCC), a forum that is led by a vocal group of actors including Parvathy Thiruvothu, Revathy, Rima Kallingal and Padmapriya Janakiraman, who have taken up the cause of the victim in the sexual assault case, has often accused Dileep of using his clout to influence the case and get some of the biggest names in Malayalam cinema to back him.

The WCC also took on AMMA, forcing the outfit that now has Mohanlal as president to expel Dileep. Mohanlal later said that AMMA had informally moved to reinstate Dileep, but that the actor himself said he would stay out till his ‘innocence’ was proved.

Now, amid fresh allegations, claims and counterclaims, this is a Dileep story that isn’t ending anytime soon.

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