It usually takes a big Friday clash for the superstar-agnostic to discover their true loyalties. If you're in Mumbai, this means listening closely to your heart to see if you want to watch SRK's film first or Salman's. In Chennai, this dilemma is in choosing between an Ajith or a Vijay film, like one had to when Veeram released with Jilla. But in Kerala, these clashes are so common that even die-hard fans keep it simple by sticking to the film that simply looks better of the two.
When one says "common", the assumption is that we're talking about clashes between Mohanlal and Mammootty's films. But if there was ever a release weekend that confused the instincts of a fanboy who grew up admiring both their movies, it has to be the one in the summer of 2007.
Within the gap of a week were three releases: Mohanlal's Chotta Mumbai, Mammootty's Big B and the much smaller Vinodayatra starring Dileep. The first one's a big action comedy by Anwar Rasheed, who had just made the biggest-ever hit in Rajamanikyam. Big B, by a cool new director, promised a sleek mass film with an ultra-stylish Mammootty and a kickass shotgun. The third was directed by Sathyan Anthikad, the maker of wholesome family movies; hardly a threat to the hype of the other two. As a broke schoolboy for whom this was Sophie's Choice, it was puzzling to analyse why I eventually used the little money to watch Dileep's Vinodayatra over the two megastars.
It was a realisation one had to come to terms with as a new superstar emerged—one who assured the kind of comfort the two veterans were failing to provide. His earlier film CID Moosa (2003), a live-action cartoon, was watched and re-watched so many times that the CD library just let it be with me. Much the same with Meesa Madhavan (2002) too, a neat-looking comedy about a charming thief that ran for over 200 days. Some branded all his films low-brow, slapstick or both with no redeeming qualities. Others were more forgiving, willing to give a little credit to his slightly classier comedies like Kalyanaraman, Vettam, Ishtam, Thilakkam and Gramophone. And when he started starring in big-action comedies with director Joshiy, like Runway and Lion, he began to also accumulate a hardcore fanbase.
This might come as a surprise to outsiders, but the alleged criminal was quite a big deal in the State, especially because he was also the producer of Twenty 20, a unique blockbuster that brought together every major star of the industry. In what's generally described as the worst decade for Malayalam cinema (the 2000s) was also the best for Dileep.
So when Vinodayatra released after a string of flops, it seemed more appealing than the other two, because a "good" Dileep comedy back then, became a recurring fixture that provided comfort like vintage Mohanlal used to. A "conversion" had subconsciously taken place and the kids who grew up with Punjabi House, CID Moosa, Thenkasi Pattanam, Mr.Butler, and Meesa Madhavan also grew up realising that this man meant something to them.
Though no classic, Vinodayatra did become this fixture and the only DVD that was always with me, always on standby to provide bucketloads of laughter, a few life lessons and that feeling of "home". It's important for me to recall this phase, perhaps for the last time, because it's a part of childhood that's begun to malfunction. Like a folder full of corrupted data, all the laughter and memories have now taken a shade of grey, with it no longer meaning anything.
For those to whom Dileep's films never mattered, this transition from an ordinary actor to an alleged criminal mastermind may not have been particularly complex. But for those who grew up with his films, the disgust was overbearing. The phase started off with disbelief and denial, before it devolved into hatred and painfully, a feeling of betrayal.
As for those who would usually file such crimes under the "out of sight, out of mind" excuse, they now could not afford the bliss of ignorance. Even those who did not stop watching Tarantino, although they knew who produced his films, or those who personally declared MJ too sacred a cow, knew that Dileep's wasn't as easy case to overlook. Ardent "aesthetes", who could usually separate the art from the artist (including me), refused to make that distinction. There are many reasons why one could not, but a primary reason also had to do with how because Dileep's films never let us create this separation.
The rest of this piece aims to focus on reasons why no recent film of Dileep's has resisted from using the medium to drum up his support. But before we do, let's examine these past four years and how the crimes retroactively changed our understanding of even his older films. Meesa Madhavan has already been called out for the scene in which the thief Madhavan (Dileep) lowers himself into the bedroom of the sleeping heroine and says "if I 'rape' you now, that's it for the next 10 months." At the time, you found apologists dismissing it simply as a joke that didn't land. But it perhaps wasn't called out loud enough because of the similar "jokes" that followed.
In Sringaravelan, Dileep's character and Lal's describes a criminal as being harmless because "he committed a 'small' crime in which he molested a 'small' 10 year-old girl." Later in Mr. Marumakan (a box office flop), Dileep character's idea of retributive justice involves sexually assaulting a man's sister to avenge the crimes of her brother. Dileep's character even laughs to celebrate the successful completion of the act. And when one listens to the recent audio clips of Dileep and Co. allegedly threatening the investigating officers, you're reminded of a scene in Lion where Kalasala Babu's character is "finished off" in the exact manner that's being described in the threat.
As a viewer who didn't react strongly enough to this dangerous pattern, you find yourself looking back and cringeing, feeling a sense of guilt. As is the case in most "art versus artist" examples, unfortunately in this case too "it was always IN the art" before it surfaced in reality.
As for Dileep's films which released during the last four years, they've never shied away from breaking the fourth wall, making this separation impossible. In the strange Ramaleela, he plays a politician named Ramanunni (trust the suffix "Unni" to make anyone appear innocent) who gets trapped in a crime that involves him murdering his political rival. With several scenes mirroring reality, the film became a blockbuster revealing a shocking side to the Malayali audience. And what's the film's big twist? That Ramanunni did actually commit the crime he'd absolved himself from. In a weird twist of fate, I remember a loud cheer during the climax reveal, as though the audience wanted him to escape scot-free, even though his character was clearly guilty.
This continued into his next Kammara Sambhavam, in which he again played the anti-hero. In a scene towards the end, Dileep's wily character, the new Chief Minister, explains a tactic to remove the restrictions in place for the sale of alcohol, set by the previous government. Eclipsing a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi he says, "either manufacture a problem to create communal unrest or find a woman to claim she was molested by someone from the opposition…the media and the people will get distracted and you can relax the rules again." This too hints at Dileep's case being used as a ploy in the larger scheme of things.
In Kodathi Samaksham Balan Vakeel, he plays a lawyer with a stammering issue who gets embroiled in a complicated conspiracy which has the entire police force and media against him. There are multiple scenes which appear to mirror what we've seen in news channels: media persons chasing him, a high profile arrest, being coerced in the confession room and loads of time in courtrooms. Even the dialogues are unsettling. A line to a woman roughly translates to "isn't it your job to claim money after filing harassment charges against important people?"
The two colossal duds that followed were My Santa (the "children's movie" in which Dileep played Santa Claus!) and Jack And Daniel where he gets into a cat-and-mouse game with Me-Too-accused Arjun Sarja. Given that both films were rejected, it brought a return to normalcy as though the audience had started to fight back.
But that wasn't the case with the recent Keshu Ee Veedinte Nadhan. Releasing on the 31st of December on Disney-Hotsar, the film coincided with fresh allegations from ex-friend and filmmaker who brought fresh evidence to prove Dileep's direct involvement in the sensational case. With shocking audio notes and pictures, the connections were too strong to overlook. Being assigned to review Keshu Ee Veedinte Nadhan at such a time also meant loads of personal conflicts. Personally, I genuinely hoped for a terrible film because I would not know what to think of myself if I were to like it, even though professionally I understand the moral grey area.
It didn't matter because the film doesn't even try to help you suspend disbelief. It begins with Dileep playing himself in a tacky sequence where a police officer pulls him over for speeding. Later, Urvashi playing Dileep's wife, jokes that she never wanted to be an actress because it disgusts her to be called a 'cinema nadi'—a jibe at a controversial meeting between A.M.M.A (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) and WCC (Women In Cinema Collective). Add to this the film's climactic speech where Keshu, the older brother and good son, explains how he took care of everyone so selflessly, and the irony of this 'family man' isn't lost on anyone. This being his sixth release since the start of the case, even when the survivor has not had a single Malayalam film since 2017.
Maybe Dileep thinks his fans are still with him through what he wants to prove is a 'false' case. Or maybe he thinks it's important for him to use his movies to explain his stand, because he cannot do it elsewhere. But truth is, his films are nothing close to comforting and watching his films legally, brings with it the guilt of financially supporting an alleged criminal. Imagine what the survivor must have felt seeing the whole of Kerala being plastered with posters of Ramaleela celebrating it's Rs.50 crore collection. Imagine feeling like you've contributed to that sum and what that sum is being used for today. Imagine having liked a film like Keshu and your honest opinion amplifying it to reach a wider audience, resulting in even more money for him in the future.
These are the images that flash before me when I come across clips of his films, both new or old. All this is too much to ask of that silly kid who laughed so hard during the cow scene in Thenkasi Pattanam, that he broke his glasses. None of those films are going to be same, just as Dileep can never make me laugh again. Dileep should have known that his acts had the power to kill a million fans too.