Dileep: The Mad Titan of Malayalam Cinema

I must’ve been 6-7 years old when I was laughing out loud to the “jaba-jaba”s from Punjabi House. I was too young to get most of the verbal jokes, but I had become a fan of the lead actor. I’d seen him earlier in Sallapam (1996). In that too, he was the actor I liked the most from the lot – as the white and white-clad ‘Junior Yesudas’, he made us laugh like there’s no tomorrow.

Add to his performance his tragic family history, and it was easy to sympathise with him. With all the nuances a 7-year-old could grasp, Dileep the actor seemed like someone nice, someone you immediately connected to. After the 80s bout of cinemas, with Mohanlal portraying the everyman on screen, we finally had a new mirror to look into.

I think that was the greatest strength of Dileep the actor. No matter what movie he was in, or regardless of what character he played on screen, you could connect with him. You want him to persist, to succeed. Even in a movie where he plays roles with negative shades, I wanted a happy ending that favoured him. Like in Darling Darling (2000) for example. His portrayal of the uber-rich, charming playboy was so entertaining that it did not register when during the course of the movie he hit a lady with his car and drove away, actively tried to screw his friend’s love life while trying to woo the girl he was in love with. I feel diabolical just thinking about it now!

From Gopalakrishnan to Dileep – The beginnings of an underdog

To understand somebody like Dileep better, it is essential that we know where he comes from. The actor’s beginnings were humble: Gopalakrishnan Padmanabhan Pillai (Dileep’s birth name) was born into a regular household. His father ran a modest rice mill in Aluva desom, and did not make enough money to run the household with the three children – Dileep being the oldest. 

In the late 80s and early 90s, the Mimics Parade wave hit Kerala and the mimicry artistes were gaining celebrity status. They were cheaper and more accessible to regular people and hence, held a special place in their heart. Soon mimicry became so popular that some of the artistes entered the more respectable world of movies. Artistes like Jayaram, NF Varghese ventured into acting. Siddique and Lal became the writer-director duo that delivered back to back hits. Cochin Haneefa became actor/writer/director.

Dileep indulged in mimicry from his college days, and soon he joined the mimicry troupe Harisree and began performing. His Lalu Alex and Innocent impressions were spot-on, and he managed to win the crowd. Soon, Dileep became a relatively well-known name in the Mimics troupe circle. 

But Dileep was in it for the long game. His ultimate motive was always to be a star on screen. While foraying into TV with Asianet’s Comedy Skit show Comicola, he worked hard at building contacts in the movie industry, from set boys to directors. Dileep would visit all locations where movie scenes featuring actor Jaya­ram were being shot. He soon endeared himself to Jaya­ram; even managed entry into his room as an admirer. It’s no surprise that Jayaram is the one he looked up to as Jayaram himself is a mimicry artiste tur­ned actor. Jayaram soon introduced him to director Kamal, who took him on as assistant director in Vishnu Lokam (1991). In many interviews, Kamal fondly remembers the shy but ambitious Gopalakrishnan pestering other AD’s to suggest his name for smaller roles. He did end up playing minor roles in movies like Ennodishtam Koodamo (1992) and Sainyam (1993). At age 27, he finally acted in a film as one of the leads.

The Rise of Dileep

Dileep was the name of the first lead character he portrayed in the movie Manathe Kottaram (1994) and he embraced it as his screen name. Through the next 4 years, we saw him in multiple projects mainly with directors like Nizar, Viji Thampi, Rajasenan, and Vinayan.

Even after playing the lead role in multiple movies like Kalyana Sougandhikam (1996) and Three Men Army (1995), he appeared as second fiddle to Jayaram in movies like Swapna Lokathe Balabhaskaran (1996) where he played his driver, and Thooval Kottaram (1996) as his younger brother. He also appeared in minor roles in films like Varnapakittu (1997) starring Mohanlal, and Kaliyoonjal (1997) starring Mammootty.

But what really led to his meteoric rise was his pairing with Manju Warrier. They were a hit among the masses, and rumours of their affair began to circulate all over. I vividly remember reading it in Nana and Vellinakshathram while waiting for my haircut. Soon enough, in 1998, he married Manju – a talented actr­ess at the peak of her career. Dileep was a superstitious person and he believed she brought him luck. The same cannot be said for Manju. She had to quit acting a year later to be the “Uththama Kudumbini” as that was the norm back then. But she did end it on a high with a scintillating performance in Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999).

Soon Dileep’s films were doing well at the box office, as he kept experimenting with themes and roles. And with the turn of the millennium, Kerala saw the rise of a Star. In the year 2000, he made appeared in varied roles in movies like Mister Butler (2000), Darling Darling (2000) and Joker (2000). Even at this juncture of his career, he appeared as a supporting character in Thenkasipattanam (2000). And with the success of 2002’s almost cartoonish Ee Parakkum Thalika, Dileep-Harisree Asokan-Cochin Haneefa combo became a force to be reckoned with. 

But the real turning point, where Dileep the actor became a star, was with the release of the uber-successful Meesa Madhavan (2002). Up to this point, we’d only seen stars like Mammootty and Mohanlal getting applauses for twirling their moustaches. Meesa Madhavan was the answer to the question, “Athentha, Dileep meesa pirichaal piriyille?”

At halfway through the 2000s, Dileep was the only bankable star as movies from superstars like Mammootty, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi and the OG Janapriyan, Jayaram kept tanking. Dileep-Harisree Asokan- Cochin Haneefa teamed up again for Kuberan (2002), Runway (2004), and many more. 

The addition of Salim Kumar to this mix only brought in more laughter and they eventually went on to create massive success with the C.I.D. Moosa (2003), which was deemed unfilmable by many in the industry. Dileep launched his own production company to produce C.I.D. Moosa, just to prove a point. This was the point when the “Janapriya Nayakan” tag transferred from Jayaram to Dileep. Movies like Kunjikkoonan (2002), Chanthupottu (2005) and Mulla (2008) saw Dileep completely disappearing into the roles, whilst being denied a much-deserved state award. 

But, towards the end of the 2000s and through-out 2010s, I personally felt there was a definite dip in quality in the kind of movies he did, and even the humour never felt the same. It’s probably because nothing about him screamed of that ‘everyman charm’ that he once used to imbibe. But with the general audience, that seemed to have no effect. How else would you explain the massive success of a truly terrible movie like Mayamohini (2012)?

Dileep: The Mad Titan

What’s more interesting than the rise of Dileep the actor, is the rise of Dileep the businessman – the industry Mogul and his personal life.

Dileep interviews at his peak was a delight to watch. He could barely contain his laughter while narrating a story to lighten the mood for the audience and the interviewer. We would smile and laugh and watch in glee as he described funny incidents that occurred on the sets of his movies. All the while reiterating the kind of fun they have on a Dileep movie set. But it was during this peak that we started hearing not-so-good things about him. Rumours of Dileep’s fans association booing down a rival actor’s films till they flopped was widespread in my school. So was the gossip about his affair with Kavya Madhavan. Of course, back then all of these were dismissed as just that – rumours.

Now, there’s a reason why I called him The Mad Titan up there in the title. Because I’m going to get a little technical here and it would help if I put all of it in the context of pop culture.

Some facets control the everyday working of Malayalam Cinema (Infinity Stones). Take one of these out, and the Malayalam Cinema would implode. Control all these, and you control the Malayalam Industry on a scale hitherto undreamt of. Even the factors that have nothing to do with Malayalam Cinema, like his restaurant franchise and real estate dealings, have others from the industry involved with him as partners or benames. Dileep owes his power to his keen understanding of how the Malayalam film industry operates.

Unlike other film industries in India, Malayalam cinema is heavily unionised. There are guilds that represent every cog in the film machine – from key grips and crane crew to screenwriters and stars.

Infinity Stone #1

Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA), is one of those essential cogs that Dileep allegedly split.

Apparently, Dileep had accepted ₹ 40 lakh in advance to act in a film directed by Thulasidas. Later, the actor reportedly threatened the film’s producers that he would withdraw from the project if they did not drop Thulasidas (who once directed movies like Dosth, Kasargode Kaderbhai and Malappuram Haji Mahanaaya Joji). Dileep reasoned that recent movies from Thulasidas were flops (Avan Chandiyude Makan and Rakshakan, if you were wondering).

MACTA, which was headed by Vinayan at the time, took up the issue, gave Dileep an ultimatum to resolve the matter within three months, failing which he would be boycotted by its members. Within three days of that warning, MACTA was split. MACTA was at that time pushing for a contract­ual agreement with all actors that would hold in court so that such situations would not arise. Dileep, well-established actor at the time, coaxed half the members of MACTA to leave that body, promising them dates with other superstars.

In November 2009, Dileep formed the union, FEFKA as an alternative to MACTA.

Infinity Stone #2

AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), the first of its kind in India, is another cog in the industry. A year before the MACTA split, when AMMA was struggling to raise funds, it was Dileep’s Graand Productions that bankrolled Twenty:20 (2008) with a big star cast. Dileep did the unthinkable. He produced a one-of-a-kind blockbuster that featured nearly all Mollywood actors. The movie brought in funds for the organisation, making Dileep quite powe­rful in the industry. 

When Vinayan, the then president of MACTA persisted Dileeps’ intimidation, AMMA passed a decree stating that its memb­ers would not act in Vinayan’s films. Those who resisted, like actor Thilakan, got banned themselves.

Within a couple of years, Dileep broke apart two prominent industry unions and replaced them with organisations that he could control.

Oh meanwhile in his personal life, amidst rumours and gossips of an affair, Dileep divorced Manju in 2014. After that, as she retur­ned to films while he reportedly tried his best to thwart her projects.

Infinity Stone #3

Dileep was also heavily investing in real estate. Police investigations found he had for the past 11 years been involved in 35 land dealings in Kochi alone. He was also buying up properties in Aluva and neighbouring Nedumbassery, Chalakudy near Thrissur, and in the Idukki district. 

As he became more powerful across the industry, Dileep slowly placed himself in every association. Whether it was of actors, directors, exhibitors or producers. Thus, being able to control all facets of the industry. 

Infinity Stone #4 

In 2016, the Kerala Film Exhibitors’ Federation was negotiating for the same percentage in profits as theatres in malls. No new movies were getting released, and theatres kept playing the same movies (probably the only reason why a movie like Aanandham managed a 100-day run). Dileep split the KFEF and formed FEUOK (Film Exh­ibitors’ United Orga­nisation) in January 2017. Like. A. Boss. And all was well with the Malayalam movie industry again. 

Also, in November 2016, He married Kavya Madhavan after years of constantly rejecting rumours of their alleged relationship. Like many instances in his life, it was a surprise move, and they got married in a small ceremony at a private hotel in Kochi.

Infinity Stone #5 and #6

Dileep also started a popular restaurant chain called Dhe Puttu along with Nadirshah beside a multiplex theatre D Cinemaas in Chalakudy. Plans were afoot to build a state-of-the-art five-theatre complex. 

Now, I know that no story about the life of Dileep is going to be complete without ‘The Incident’. The vindictive­ness eventually saw him fall from the heights of popularity, apparently. But did it really? None of his movies since then seems to take a hit. His die-hard fans remain his die-hard fans. He’s all geared up for the release of his next movie, Jack Daniel. 

The flipside to the argument that he is guilty is that Dileep wasn’t afraid to show his grey shades in public.  Even when he was acting goofy with the media, they all knew how much power the guy held. Maybe he never went to the extent to kill others’ movies and all. And maybe he’s not the pure evil incarnate as the media made him out to be. Since he was not a superstar like Mammootty or Mohanlal, but a hugely bankable star with a long winning streak, he used that platform to grow his business. When the cinema strike happened, he destroyed the distribution association to release his movie. Maybe that made a lot of enemies. And maybe, he wasn’t really prepared for the consequences.

Regardless of his involvement in the crime, what’s deplorable was the way the media and the movie industry dealt with this scandal. While the formation of WCC as a direct response to the incident can be applauded, does it really mean that any of the other unions that he’s a part of are taking a stand? What is abhorrent, as many people have pointed out, the industry seemed to be tipping in favour of Dileep rather than the victim. Not to mention, days after the assault came to light, AMMA passed a resolution forbidding women members from travelling alone. If this is not an example of implicitly putting the blame for the crime squarely on the shoulders of the victim, I don’t know what is. Perhaps, a measure of Dileep’s influence is that most unions have been rooting for him ever since he became a suspect in the case. “Nobody will speak out against Dileep as everyone, including our superstars, has deals with him. He has got all of them involved in one business or the other. Now it has become their responsibility to protect him”, said Liberty Basheer.

Now, of course, he’s going to be in more movies, provided that he’s not found guilty. And what if he is found guilty? He serves time, comes back and keeps doing films, right? I mean, Sanjay Dutt is still doing films.

Because the collective mass forgets the news. Nobody remembers the night of February 17, 2017. We all went on to new headlines and new incidents to make trolls. Maybe years down the line we may get a movie like ‘Sanju’ that completely white-washes Dileep and for generations to come, that will end up being the collective truth. 

As the actor celebrates his 52nd birthday, the only prayer that I have is, for the truth to be out.

Shahbaz M
I see movies, I talk about it.

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