Now, remember, I am NOT an expert on Malayalam film industry. I’m just a beginner. So this is going to be a summary of “this is what I have heard, but I don’t know if it is true”. However, I do want everyone to read it anyway. Those who know what I am about to say so you can correct me and provide gobs more background. Those who don’t so you can get a baseline for how very messed up a film industry can get.
Kerala! Land of Communists and Unions! It’s routine in Kerala for there to be a mass strike, of the kind that shuts down the whole state. So routine that it’s used in films as a minor plot contrivance, not a main plot point. Some union goes on strike, all the other unions go on strike in sympathy, and everyone gets a free day off work, woo-hoo!
Because of this, the real power in the Kerala film industry is the unions, not the studios or even the stars. The Association of Malayalam Movie Actors was founded in 1994 and largely controls the industry. If you are shunned by them, you cannot get work.
Now, a brief inaccurate history of Kerala and Malayalam cinema. Kerala, the Malayalam speaking state, is unlike every other state in India. Not in a general “all regions are unique” kind of way, but like really REALLY different. It is a natural seaport, surrounded by mountains. It has trade and cultural connections to Africa and the middle east that are unique to this region and go back a thousand years. Supposedly Christianity came to Kerala with Apostle Thomas shortly after the death of Christ. I don’t know if it really was Thomas who brought it, but it was certainly shortly after the death of Christ. Put it this way, there were Christians in Kerala before there were Christians in England. Similarly, Islam came to Kerala through their African/Middle eastern trade routes, not down from Afganistan as it did in other areas of India. And then there’s Communism. Kerala is the heartland of Communism in India. During all those years when one party ruled all of India, Kerala was the exception. Maybe (or probably) because of that, Kerala is the exception in a lot of ways. Their literacy rate is 94% while the rest of the country is at 75%. Their divorce rate is the highest in the country as well. And there is one particular community within Kerala, the Nairs, who are traditionally matriarchal with women choosing their husbands and inheriting the land.
With this background, of course their film industry will be different as well. They have always been highly original and groundbreaking in their topics, pushing the bounds of what is socially acceptable, but they did not gain national and international attention, as well as a healthy vibrant independent industry, until the 70s and 80s. The 70s and 80s saw the rise of complicated detailed screenplays and a culture in which the scriptwriter was the star even above the director. It also saw the rise of the two biggest Heroes of Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal and Mammootty. Their films were deep, they seriously dealt with rape, abuse, caste violence, all kinds of things. They also, and this is why I like Mohanlal and Mammootty the best, were perfectly happy to stand aside and let the heroines take the lead. Malayalam cinema is both the starting place for great strong heroines, and the place where heroines of other industries got some of their best roles.
And then there is Dileep. He is a film generation behind Mohanlal and Mammootty, came in at the start of the 90s. While Mohanlal and Mammootty had a string of classic social dramas behind them, Dileep came in with comedies. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t do social drama, or that Mohanlal and Mammootty didn’t do comedy, it’s just not what they were known for. Dileep’s films of the 90s were blockbuster hits, crazy clever comedies with a lead who was both funny, and charming, and a little bit attractive.
But this is Manju Warrier’s day, where does she come in? Manju was a massive female star. She debuted at 17 in 1995 and was immediately popular. A year later, she co-starred with Dileep for the first time. She worked with him multiple times after that, along with the other top names of the time. She was big enough that she could be a solo lead as well, the biggest name in the film. And then at 21, she married Dileep and retired, her most acclaimed role releasing post-retirement.
All of this is public knowledge. Now I am going to get into the scuzzy rumors part of things. Supposedly, once Dileep became big in the mid-90s, he took it upon himself to organize the industry. He made sure films released without conflicting with each other, he made sure the government didn’t interfere to much, he did all the boring messy work. And he also, supposedly, started the culture of “shunning”. If an actor said something wrong or did something he thought was out of line, he would have the AMMA declare them banned from working. Or, the Kerala Film Chamber, the producer’s wing. This is unique to Kerala, other film industries might have unofficial bans, but in Malayalam cinema, it is real and publicized.
For instance, Rima Kallingal, the outspoken actress, was “banned” by the Kerala Film Chamber after appearing as a VJ on a TV show, which I guess is against union rules for actresses? This was real and accepted and publicized by everyone and Rima’s career suddenly went from on the rise to almost dead. But of course, it is easy to find examples of actors who were less outspoken, less “uppity”, and less female who were NOT banned for the exact same kind of behavior. Rumor has it that Dileep and his gundas did far more than just these “bans” to keep people in line. And that this was an accepted part of the Malayalam film industry, you could get wonderful groundbreaking films made, you could have amazing challenges as an actor, you could do all these things, but you also had to follow the rules and respect your elders.
Again, this is all rumor. It is true that the Film Chamber and the AMMA routinely banned actors and actresses in a way that no other film industry really does. But Dileep controlling things is just rumored, and that he used the bans as a personal weapon is also just rumor.
And now, more rumor! Supposedly, Manju Warrier was traveling doing personal appearances with some other actors and actresses after her retirement. Supposedly, a young new actress who was on tour with her told her that her husband was well known to be having an affair with his new co-star, Kavya Madhavan. Dileep tends to run through actresses, he worked with Manju a lot, and after she retired he moved on to Kavya Madhavan. This is fact. Also fact, after Manju divorced him, he quickly married Kavya Madhavan. Whether there was an affair or not, obviously rumor. And whether the young actress broke the news to Manju and caused her seemingly sudden decision to divorce Dileep in 2015, also rumor.
And now dragging this back to not-rumor. In February of 2017, the young actress who was widely said to be the one who told Manju about the affair was kidnapped and raped. Or molested, it’s not clear. But bad BAD things. A group of men pulled her into a car and drove to a remote area, did whatever they did, and then dropped her back. Why did she get into the car? Because she knew the men, because they were part of the Malayalam film industry, because they were producers and hangers on who worked for Dileep. They didn’t bother hiding their identity, because they recorded what they did to her and thought fear of this recording being seen would keep her quiet. But she didn’t keep quiet.
The funny thing is, I keep saying “the actress”, but we all know who it was. When the story first broke, her name was not kept private. In fact Prithviraj, a co-star of hers, issued a statement of support. But somehow the police or media or someone decided we should all pretend we don’t know her name any more, so I will go along with that. In the aftermath, immediately Dileep was fingered. The men were known to have worked for/with him, and everyone knew about the story of this actress breaking up his marriage. More than that, there started to be a bubbling underground sense that this sort of “punishment” was not all that unheard of. The actress got out of line, she was hurt and blackmail acquired, now she won’t get out of line again. I really want to say her name, because not saying it makes me feel like I am going along with the blackmail, like somehow I think there is something to be ashamed of for her in what happened. She is a brave person who turned the whole world upside down, she had no fear of anything, and now I am insulting that by saying she could be hurt by having her name said online. But I will go along with it, until she specifically comes out and says otherwise.
This case is still not resolved. It is clear that the men she said attacked her did attack her, the video was found with them. But did they do it on Dileep’s orders? Or did they do it on his behalf, without his knowledge? Or did they do it just for “fun”?
That last possibility seems the most unlikely to me, just from a common sense stand point. Why pick a famous woman who knows your faces as a random target? I suppose she could have said something that offended them and so they wanted revenge for themselves, that is the only way it makes sense to me. On the other hand, this woman was well-known to be the one who supposedly broke up Dileep’s marriage. Since that was the strongest rumor about her, it just seems logical that this was also part of the motivation for the attack. Especially since these men were friends and associates of Dileep.
No matter how or why it happened, the mere sequence of events was eye opening to me. A woman kidnapped by people she knew who videoed the event and then let her go. This is A Thing? This is behavior that can happen? This is something that is not original or surprising? Shocking, yes. Unusual, certainly. But something that everyone immediately grasped as a punishment for a woman, a way of keeping her under control, both the trauma of the attack and the continued threat of the video. It was not a new concept to folks, that is what stunned me.
Manju Warrier went back to work and, so far as I know, has not commented on this whole thing. She is now a major star again with films built around her. The actress-whose-name-we-pretend-not-to-know married her long time boyfriend and is still working. And after the AMMA banned Dileep AND THEN REINSTATED HIM, 4 of the top actresses of Malayalam cinema, along with female writers and directors and other workers, resigned from the AMMA and formed their own Women’s Cinema Collective.
I feel bad, for Manju Warrier’s birthday I am bringing up a whole series of events that, possibly, she put in motion by divorcing her cheating husband, but is certainly not to blame for. So to end I want to list out some Manju Warrier films to watch. Which will also show how the Malayalam film industry is a strange combination of amazing strong female lead films, and a dark angry misogynistic desire to control strong women.
Manju’s last film before marriage, she plays a teenage girl returning to the village to take vengeance on the powerful old man who killed her father. She wraps men around her fingers, keeps her eye on the ball and is not distracted by romance, and even gets a totally happy ending.
Manju’s return. She plays a housewife and mother who has forgotten who she is, lost the sense of ambition and energy she had as a young woman, and is turned down for jobs because of her age. But then she finds a spark and a new interest and, slowly, comes back to life.
She plays a unique young single mother, undereducated and overlooked, who is spurred to action when her son is wrongly accused of murder. It’s probably my favorite of the movies listed here.