It’s Manju Warrier’s Birthday! In Her Honor, a Brief Summary of the Strangest Darkest Film Industry Scandal in History

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.

Physical map of Kerala | Download Scientific Diagram
See? Wetlands and natural harbor, slowly building to hills that cut it off from the continent around it.

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.

Dileep | Manju Warrier | Manju Warrier Divorce| Dileep Divorce| Dileep  Manju Warrier Divorce | Manju Warrier Facebook | Dileep Latest News -  Filmibeat
Manju and Dileep, he is 11 years older than her

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.

TEDx Thiruvananthapuram — It was interestingly beautiful. | by Krishna  Moorthy D | Parallel space | Medium
Rima is a very good actress also, watch 22 Female Kottayam

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.

Prithviraj Sukumaran (@PrithviOfficial) | Twitter
For the Prithviraj lovers here, I should say he was really REALLY stand up about the whole thing. Officially issued an immediate statement of support, and said from now on he would only be in movies in which attacks on women were clearly a bad thing. He would do it only if he was playing the complete villain, the hero would not behave that way. And rumor has it that in a closed door session he is the one who put pressure on the AMMA to ban Dileep.

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.

Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu

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.

Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999) – MUBI

How Old Are You?

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.

How Old Are You? (film) - Wikipedia

C/O Saira Banu

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.

C/O Saira Banu (2017)

10 thoughts on “It’s Manju Warrier’s Birthday! In Her Honor, a Brief Summary of the Strangest Darkest Film Industry Scandal in History

  1. Just a small note,Kerala’s literacy rate rose to 96.2 from 93.91.It has not been updated on Wikipedia as of now on all the pages,but most pages have reflected the change(the survey data came out only a couple of days ago).

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  2. The victim name was not mentioned due to a supreme court ruling in India. May be as someone outside from India would find it strange that even though it’s not the victims fault the society seems to consider victim as also guilty. It’s considered a taboo for someone to marry such victim. No family would allow that. There are many social prejudices as a foreigner you would found strange. Even though there are many changes and progress, these things still exist in the society. So fearing these social isolation many wouldn’t come forward with these cases. So supreme court made it a law that no sexual assault victim’s name or detail should be revealed by medias or on social medias. That’s the reason why nobody is naming her in news or on any posts.
    This is what supreme court said
    Name and identity of victims of rape and sexual assault, including those who have died, cannot be disclosed “even in a remote manner”, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday while terming as unfortunate that instead of empathising with the victims, society treats them as “untouchable”.

    The court also said that nobody can have any objection to the victim disclosing her name as long as she is a major and has taken a decision regarding this voluntarily.

    The apex court said that media should be cautious not to “sensationalise” such cases and though they have an obligation to report such matters, they are also “duty bound” not to disclose the identity of such victims, including minors.
    For further reading
    https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/name-identity-of-victims-of-rape-sexual-assault-can-t-be-disclosed-sc-118121101102_1.html

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    • Thank you, that is extremely helpful! I’m not sure if I completely agree with it, in that it does not give the survivor the right to share her name if she chooses to. In this case, that is maybe what is happening? The survivor does not seem to have any hesitation in stating what happened and who she is, and we all know who she is, but the supreme court has taken away her right to make her experience public even if she wanted to.

      On Thu, Sep 10, 2020 at 3:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. So clueless outside perspective. If I’m told that Malayalam films treat women better than other industries, and that this major abuse happened within the Malayalam film world, then my first thought is it probably happens in the other film worlds too, but is more accepted and thus it is harder for the women to speak up about it… But I recognize I’m a clueless outsider, so I make no judgments, but I can’t really erase the suspicion.

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    • I suspect this kind of abuse happens in India in general more than either of us as “clueless outsiders” would have anticipated. The movie Pink (very dark although satisfying ending, don’t watch unless you are really in the mood for it) makes this sort of thing into a plot point. A young woman is pulled into a van, molested, photos taken, and then dropped home with a warning that the photos will be made public unless she does what they want her to do.

      What I am curious about with the Malayalam industry in particular is if there is a correlation between the power the women have in society and films and the way they are abused. A sort of extra nastiness somehow in response to a feeling of threat? There are some shockingly misogynistic films out of the Malayalam industry, worse than anything I have seen from Hindi, just as their are some shockingly feminist films. Oh, and I will also say that there are a very large number of young actresses who start in Malayalam films and then leave for other industries (including Hindi) very very quickly. Versus actors who stay. Since the industry has so many female lead roles available, that seems strange to me, that the actresses move on so fast, and indicates there is something not right in the culture. Versus Hindi, where the actresses stay and work for years. Or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali or the other industries.

      On Thu, Sep 10, 2020 at 9:34 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Wow, this is seriously depressing. I hope that Prithviraj and other stars can continue to push to stop the abuse.

    After my visit to Kerala I can attest it’s very different from the rest of India. There is communist graffiti everywhere. Kochi has female police officers in pink cars that patrol so women can feel safe going to the police if needed. Christian iconography is everywhere, as are Muslim temples and Hindu shrines. Interestingly, young men were eager to talk to me everywhere I went. In the US a 20-something man would never waste time getting into long conversations with a 50+ woman but it happened to me every day in different parts of Kerala.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/3bQartrUtM3fyJnC7

    I think you’re onto something with the idea that women are more empowered so the patriarchy has to respond in a more extreme and violent way to try and assert control.

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    • Yeah, part of the “Kerala is unlike all other parts of India” is that, I hope, this kind of extreme misogyny is not done in other parts. Largely because it doesn’t have to be done like this, you can scare a woman off with just a word, or at the worst a gossip story carefully planted.

      On Sat, Oct 17, 2020 at 7:52 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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