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Kerala actor Dileep case just got bigger — leaked tapes to bank transfer and courtroom drama

Dileep, Kerala film industry's Akshay Kumar, looks 'too tough to defend'. Not only has the case become complicated for investigators, it has made life difficult for journalists too.

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Malayali superstar Dileep wasn’t feeling so confident that day. On top of the ‘rape’ case, he had just been accused of also conspiring to murder. He was fidgeting nervously and rocking back and forth during an 11-hour police interrogation in January 2022 in Kochi, Kerala. At one point, he apparently leaned forward and put his head in his hands, someone present at the session said.

Before he became the media’s favourite villain, Dileep was the common man’s hero. He was even crowned “Janapriya Nayakan,” the people’s beloved hero. In Bollywood terms, he’s the Akshay Kumar of the Malayalam film industry — one rung below the Big Three Khans, but guaranteed to rake in money with blockbusters.

But now, Dileep is linked to a scandal that has kept Kerala spellbound for five years: on the night of 17 February 2017, an actress was allegedly sexually assaulted for two hours in a moving car, and Dileep was arrested in connection with the case. In 2021, he was also accused of conspiring to kill the police officers investigating the assault case.

Like the plot of a thriller film, the case has rocked the Malayalam film industry, growing into a complex web of allegations and counter-allegations and exposing a deadly nexus of fame, privilege, money, and sexism. The case has moved from secretive interrogation rooms, leaked audio clips and mysterious bank transfers to sensational courtroom drama. All this has also put the Kerala media in a spot.

“The patriarchal bastions of Malayalam cinema have been unsettled,” said Dr Meena T. Pillai, an academic and Dean of Faculty of Arts, University of Kerala. “The industry was pretending to be asleep all this while. This is a significant moment because there’s no going back to sleep now.”

Also read: Father, son and the Kerala court — Bishop Franco is free, nuns now in a silent ‘fortress’

Plot, acting, and a ‘gag’ order   

After multiple hearings, Dileep was granted anticipatory bail on 7 February in the murder conspiracy case. In court, Dileep’s lawyers argue that he is being framed by a director-scriptwriter whom the police have fed a plot. The prosecution implies that Dileep is doing what he does best — acting. Outside the Kerala High Court, local reporters have set up base, ready to broadcast any update. A gag order by the Ernakulam Additional Special Sessions Court has ensured they can’t report on the assault case.

The case is unique for many reasons: it’s the first time in the history of the Indian Penal Code where a hit job was (allegedly or is alleged to have been)ordered to commit a sexual crime. Two prosecutors quit the investigation, and 20 out of 22 witnesses turned hostile. And then things took another turn. A film director accused Dileep of hatching a plan to exact revenge on the police officers investigating his case. In the middle of it all, local media is trapped sifting through hundreds of rumours to separate fact from fiction.

“We’re committed to continue investigating until the truth comes out,” S. Sreejith, Additional Director General of Police and head of the Crime Branch, said.

As the sexual assault case slowly makes its way through the legal system, the conspiracy case calls into question the extent to which the alleged perpetrators are willing to go to cover up the crime and get their revenge.

Dileep, actor or criminal?

Dileep is known for playing a variety of roles on screen — perhaps why people are divided on which role he’s playing now. To some, he’s an industry don, finally getting his comeuppance. To his supporters, he’s the unfortunate focus of a witch-hunt.

“Dileep was the biggest new star who emerged in the 2000s,” said Vishal Menon, a journalist and film critic at Film Companion. “From 1985 to the 2000s, the industry was dominated by the same actors. The only person who came close to being almost as big as Mammooty or Mohanlal was Dileep,” he said.

His name was linked to the sexual assault almost immediately, because Pulsar Suni, whom the actress named as the main perpetrator, was known to be a close friend of Dileep. Suni was arrested a week after the assault when he dramatically turned himself in.

Over the next few months, one astonishing ‘fact’ after another came out, each more outlandish than the last. Dileep had allegedly offered Suni Rs 1.5 crore to abduct the actress — double if Suni got caught. The motivation for the crime was revenge: the survivor reportedly told Manju Warrier, a Malayali actress and Dileep’s ex-wife, about his alleged affair with another actress Kavya Madhavan. Dileep and Kavya had married in 2016 after divorcing Manju.

Dileep was arrested in July 2017 and spent 85 days in jail. Soon after his release, he approached the courts with an unusual request: he wanted to watch the video of the assault to prove that he was being framed. The Supreme Court rejected the plea.

After three years, the trial finally began in January 2020. Over 50 members of the film industry were named as witnesses. By September that year, several of them — including the survivor’s friend — had turned hostile. The survivor said that Judge Honey Varghese, who was hearing the case, was biased. The prosecutor quit.

“People with money are always influential,” director P. Balachandra Kumar said. “He’s highly influential. Plus, he has his celebrity status and the ability to canvas.”

This is also why Balachandra is “scared” of Dileep.

Also read: Art, life and Bollywood’s role in violence against women

A devious second crime

A former friend of the actor, Balachandra Kumar made two sensational claims on Christmas 2021: that Dileep already had a copy of the video of the assault and had watched it at the magistrate’s court, and that he planned on trying to kill officer Baiju Paulose and others investigating the assault.

“I came out with this because I was scared Dileep would hurt me and my family,” Balachandra said. “I complained because I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.”

Days after the news came out, V.N. Anilkumar, the special public prosecutor who was representing the actress, became the second prosecutor to quit the case following an argument with the judge. On 9 January 2022, the Kerala Police filed a new FIR against Dileep for conspiring to kill the investigating officers. The next day, Dileep filed for anticipatory bail.

After the hearing wrapped up — and right before Dileep was granted bail — a rape case was filed against Balachandra.

“I expected this, I knew this would happen,” Balachandra said when asked about the rape case against him. “I’m sure other such things might also crop up suddenly. These were things of which I was scared,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know the complainant. But at least it’s all happening publicly, under the media’s attention.

Still on people’s TV screens 

And the media has been paying attention — a bit too much, according to Dileep’s defence team and the investigating officers.

At his studio, journalist Nikesh Kumar was going through the latest court documents from the anticipatory bail hearing, carefully underlining all relevant details. He has just had five FIRs filed against him for violating the gag order on the case.

Nikesh Kumar is a Ramnath Goenka award winner and editor-in-chief of Malayalam news channel Reporter TV. The channel has been following the assault case closely, and was instrumental in the registering of the conspiracy case. It was Reporter TV that released Balachandra Kumar’s audio clips after vetting them — the director was turned away by other popular Malayalam channels Asianet and Mathrubhumi.

Nikesh Kumar said that it hasn’t been easy covering a scandal that seems to be getting worse and worse. “We have to obey the court’s orders, and are ready to do what the court says,” he said. “But we will continue our reporting.”

Ironically, Dileep had turned to local media in an attempt to clear his name before he was arrested. It was in an interview to Reporter TV in June 2017 that Dileep had suggested that the survivor had an existing relationship with Pulsar Suni.

The sheer number of unverified rumours and the threat of legal action have made things difficult for journalists covering the case.

But the obsessive media coverage has also complicated the case for investigators.

Raman Pillai, Dileep’s lawyer, has a bone to pick with the local media, which he says “has been killing” Dileep in their coverage. “This is the biggest victory against a media trial that this state has seen,” said lawyer Mahesh Bhanu, a member of Pillai’s team.

Also read: One year after India’s big #MeToo wave, a reality check

A courtroom drama

At his office, behind a mountain of case files, Raman Pillai strikes a less imposing figure than in the courtroom. The senior advocate has his work cut out for him.

After Dileep was granted anticipatory bail in the conspiracy case, Pillai said that he could finally relax, at least for a day. “This is a totally false case,” he said. “It was the whole police force versus Dileep.”

On a balmy afternoon, the anticipatory bail hearing at the Kerala High Court was broadcast on Zoom — the meeting hit maximum participants at 300 well before it started. Everyone had tuned in to see the latest twist unfold in the courtroom drama.

The anticipatory bail trial took place over seven hearings, and unsurprisingly saw several plot twists along the way. The prosecution submitted new audio clips, including one of Dileep allegedly saying that it would be easier to kill someone “in a group.” In a separate clipping, Dileep apparently says he has set aside two plots for the two officers investigating the assault case.

“Balachandra Kumar is a cinema director,” Pillai told the court. “He can manipulate any audio clips. He’s a scriptwriter, and the plot was given to him by Baiju Paulose [the investigating officer].”

According to Dileep and his defence, filing the FIR was “nothing but a vindictive and retaliatory act” by the police and Paulose. Dileep had filed criminal contempt of court proceedings against Paulose for obstructing the administration of justice in the assault case.

Pillai’s concern is that the conspiracy case would be used as a smokescreen to unearth more evidence for the assault case. The police and prosecution, on the other hand, believe the case is worth looking into, and accuse Dileep of not co-operating with them.

The prosecution also alleged that Dileep has a history of tampering with evidence. Right before the anticipatory bail hearing went to court, a police raid found that Dileep and others had started using new phones on 9 January 2022 after Balachandra Kumar’s explosive allegations. Dileep and his counsel insisted that they had sent the old phones to Mumbai for a forensic evaluation.

“It appears that the petitioners have purposefully removed their mobile phones and attempted to conceal and thereby destroy the evidence under the pretext of sending it to examination,” the Crime Branch said in court. The Kerala High Court directed the phones be handed over to the police for an official examination.

The Kerala Crime Branch will be interrogating Dileep and his co-accused again regarding the phones. After the anticipatory bail was granted, the actor approached the High Court asking for the conspiracy investigation to be squashed. The survivor, in return, asked the court if she could be made part of this investigation.

Other accusations relate to delay tactics and witness intimidation. “I’m not going into the manner in which these witnesses were influenced,” said the Director General of Prosecution, T.N. Shaji, in court, referring to the 20 witnesses who had turned hostile in the assault case. “I cannot disclose that to the public.”

A police source claimed to ThePrint that money had exchanged hands, and that they were looking into bank statements. Some time later, one of the witnesses who had turned hostile — an actress — was hospitalised after an attempted suicide.

Also read: Kerala’s sexual fantasies see a lot of couple ‘swapping’. But one case shows what it really is

A new beginning in the film industry

Dileep’s case has bitterly divided the Malayalam film industry, whose members were witnesses in the trial. The court proceedings saw actors turning on the survivor, who used to be their friend. Dileep has filed notices against actors such as Parvathy, Rima Kallingal, and Revathi for criticising him.

The Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) had condemned the assault on the survivor. During a meeting in June — the first after her abduction — Dileep apologised to AMMA for his comments suggesting that a relationship existed between the survivor and Pulsar Suni.

AMMA knew that the survivor had conflicts with Dileep: one of the witnesses who turned hostile was the organisation’s former general secretary. He had told the police that the survivor had complained to AMMA about being denied acting jobs because of her friendship with actor Manju Warrier, Dileep’s ex-wife.

The next time AMMA met was on 11 July 2017, the morning after Dileep’s arrest. An emergency meeting was held at actor Mammootty’s residence and a decision was taken to expel Dileep, who had been the treasurer, from the association. However, the police complained in September that several celebrities had been visiting Dileep in prison, and that it could affect their probe. One year later, in June 2018, Dileep was invited to join AMMA again. He declined, but is still involved in bodies such as the Film Employees Federation of Kerala.

“Dileep was a superstar in his own right, but he’s also a producer and a distributor, and he owns theatres. He’s involved in every part of the film industry,” said film critic Menon, who has also written about being disappointed in Dileep as a former fan.

Dileep’s celebrity status didn’t really waver as the sexual assault case unfolded. But now, after the conspiracy case, his public image has taken a beating. On 10 January, a day after the new FIR was filed, the survivor broke her five-year silence. Members of the film industry formally distanced themselves from Dileep: several prominent actors, from Mohanlal to Mammootty, shared the survivor’s social media post.

Balachandra Kumar says this is because Dileep looks too tough to defend. Prominent members of the industry would hurt their own image by supporting him. Most of them had never publicly supported the survivor before January 2022.

And those who stood by her from the beginning have already been paying a price.

From casting couch to crimes

The survivor’s assault highlighted several issues for women in the Malayalam film industry: how could such a brazen assault happen, and who could they turn to now that it had?

Shortly after, women in the industry formed the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) to advocate for better working conditions, and to safeguard workers when sexual crimes such as this took place. The collective includes women from all parts of the industry — from make-up artists to technicians to actors.

“Somebody had to break the silence. But it’s also about consistently breaking the silence,” said a spokesperson for the WCC over the phone. “This movement isn’t about individuals, it’s for a greater cause. We’re talking about inclusion and equal access for all women.”

The WCC said that while things are changing now, the industry needed a solid grievance redressal system. The group has been advocating for non-discriminatory, safe and hygienic workplaces. One project that the collective worked on is called “Shift Focus: Women Shaping the Narrative in Entertainment & Media.” In 2018, they surveyed the working conditions of women and trans people in the industry, and put forward several recommendations to promote women’s entrepreneurship, set up unions and associations, and implement the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act.

The Kerala government is also looking into sexism in the industry, though not very closely. The Hema Committee was set up in July 2017, headed by retired Justice K. Hema and with former bureaucrat K.B. Valsala Kumari and actress Sharada as members. It’s the first time a committee was set up to look into any Indian film industry.

The Hema Committee confirmed an open secret: that casting couch exists, and that there is gender discrimination within the industry. The report contains anonymous statements about harassment and thorough groundwork on wage gaps and working conditions. Retired Judge K. Hema told reporters in 2019 that almost every woman in the Malayalam film industry has faced “the compromise question.” In January 2022, the Kerala government formed a three-member committee to study the report and implement its recommendations.

The Hema Committee submitted its report on 31 December 2019. It still hasn’t been published — if it does, sources say heads will roll.

Also read: Inconsistent statements, church rivalry — why Kerala court acquitted ex-Bishop Franco Mulakkal

His influence is bigger than his ‘crime’

The new conspiracy case has forced the assault case to be reexamined with fresh interest, at least for the public. With Dileep tied up proving his innocence, the industry is left to pick up the pieces — as Dileep’s influence lingers.

Outspoken members of the collective face some amount of discrimination on film sets: they are made fun of, and sometimes not taken seriously. Several actors who supported the survivor in 2017 have struggled to be part of films. Some of them have started working with younger directors and new production houses, while others have slowly stepped away from the industry.

“People might say that it’s hard to work with us because we are opinionated,” the WCC said in a statement to ThePrint. “As a society, we are so conditioned to expect a certain tolerance from women. When you step up and say what your boundaries are, that’s not some kind of rebellion. It’s asking for basic respect.”

The WCC thinks the conversation should move beyond talking about Dileep and the survivor. “We should focus on the industry and talk about the solution,” their statement added.

In 2017, while Dileep was in jail, there were calls to boycott his film Ramaleela, in which he played a character who was framed for murdering a political rival. The release was delayed multiple times, with producers saying they were waiting for Dileep to get bail. Writer and literary critic Saradakutty refused to put a single rupee in Dileep’s pocket, adding that she was also taking a stand against male domination in the Malayalam film industry. G.P. Ramachandran, a film critic, said theatres screening this “obscene film” should be “destroyed.”

But Dileep’s fans had other ideas. The chairman of the All Kerala Dileep Fans and Welfare Association declared that they “are 100% sure that Dileep ettan has done no wrong.” The film was eventually released to much fanfare: fans bathed cardboard cutouts of Dileep in milk, and danced in theatre courtyards.

On opening day, theatres were packed. Film critic Anna M.M. Vetticad wrote that Dileep “does not set a foot wrong for even a moment.” Multiplexes reported housefull screenings. One audience broke into applause, with fans whistling and cheering when Dileep delivers a dialogue: “It’s as if it was decided that I should be the culprit!”

Chillingly, as his fans root for him, it turns out that Dileep’s character in Ramaleela is actually guilty of murder. The film made over Rs 50 crore, certifying it as a hit.

Since being linked to the case, Dileep has attended several public functions, continues to be on the cover of magazines — most recently of Vanitha in January 2022 — and acted in ten Malayalam films.

The survivor, on the other hand, hasn’t been in a single film.

(Edited by Prashant)

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