ON THE EVENING of 19 February 2017, some of the biggest celebrities in Malayalam cinema gathered at the Durbar Hall grounds in Kochi. The property is commonly used to host cultural events, including film promotions and award nights, but on this day, the meeting was about something far grimmer. It had been called to protest an incident that had shocked the Kerala film fraternity, and revealed some of its deepest fault lines. Among those present were high-profile directors such as Kamal and Lal, and the actors Mammootty, Dileep and Manju Warrier.
“It is with a lot of sadness and even more anger that we have come together here,” Warrier began, when it was her turn to speak. Visibly shaken, she continued, “I don’t think it’s possible to express through words what I feel at the moment.” Two days earlier, her friend, a prominent woman actor, had been waylaid and abducted on the national highway from Thrissur to Kochi. Seven men sexually assaulted her for nearly two hours in a moving vehicle. The assault, which included oral rape, according to details reproduced later in a bail petition for one of the accused, was reportedly recorded on video. In it, the men can allegedly be heard asking the abducted woman to cooperate so that she is clearly identifiable in the video. Presumably, it was meant to later be used for blackmail and intimidation. However, after the horrifying ordeal was over, the assault victim lodged a case at the Nedumbassery police station in Ernakulam, got herself physically examined at a government medical college and appeared before a judicial magistrate and recorded her statement in private.
“There is a criminal conspiracy behind this,” Warrier continued. “Whoever is behind this criminal conspiracy should be brought to light, and we all need to show our support.” Her short speech made a significant impact—the media quickly picked up her assertion that this was not a spontaneous attack, but a carefully planned crime. Investigators, too, probed the crime as one of conspiracy.
In the following months, there was a widespread outcry from the public, demanding justice for the victim. The crime created numerous rifts within various coteries in the film fraternity and attracted sustained media attention that ensured that the conspiracy angle was not forgotten. The leading Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhoomi quoted the celebrated lyricist Kaithapram Damodaran Namboodiri as saying, “We have amongst us those who are linked to goonda gangs. Our cinema has people who, like crocodiles, are capable of hurting others. They have played a role in this too.”
Four months later, in a sensational development, the police in Kochi arrested one of the most powerful players in the industry, the self-styled “janapriya nayakan,” or popular hero, Dileep—Warrier’s ex-husband. Dileep remained in custody for 85 days, during which time he was denied bail four times; he was finally granted it on 3 October. The Kerala High court, on 24 July, explained the grounds for denying him bail: “The case is unique, considering its seriousness, meticulous planning, cruel nature of execution and being a crime executed to wreak vengeance on a woman by engaging criminals, to sexually abuse her. Courts have to be circumspect in granting bail in such cases.” The remand report—a document that provides reasons to keep the accused in custody—filed by the police on 11 July before the magistrate court in Angamaly, stated that Dileep had personal enmity with the complainant for stoking marital discord between him and Warrier. According to the report, Dileep plotted the crime as far back as in 2013, along with the prime accused, Sunil Kumar, better known as Pulsar Suni—a moniker earned because of his penchant for stealing Pulsar motorcycles and making high-end modifications to them. Dileep consistently denied any association with Pulsar Suni, despite photographic evidence of the two together. Dileep’s lawyers claimed that the whole case around the assault was being built without any evidence, and that their client had become a victim of a media trial. The bail petition argued that the allegations were “nothing but surmises and conjectures of the most debased kind.” The police, till date, have not found two crucial pieces of evidence—the mobile phone that was used to record the assault and a memory card—but claim to have 19 pieces of evidence against Dileep.
Warrier published a handwritten post on Facebook on 29 July 2014 trying to stem the harassment that she said a number of her friends in the industry were receiving for being “home-wreckers.” Referring to rumours that some of her friends “were the reason behind some of my personal decisions”—presumably referring to her decision to divorce Dileep—she said, “It is hurting them, and me. My decisions are mine and I am the reason for its after effects too. None of them have forced or motivated me to take those decisions.” The gossip that swirled around her friends, she added, was “adversely affecting their personal life and artistic work. I am hoping that with this note I can put an end to all such gossip. I ask them for forgiveness for all the pain that I have caused them due to this.”
That she was taking pains to shield her friends was unsurprising given Dileep’s reputation as a man willing to go to great lengths to exact vengeance. Among those who have described Dileep this way is the prominent director Vinayan, who, after a falling out with Dileep in 2008, found himself ostracised in the industry. Vinayan said in a newspaper interview, “I have always said that when it comes to vengeance, Dileep is at a different level. His resolve to get back at people who have antagonised him is incomparable. Show me one person in the industry who has survived after falling out with him. Wrecking careers is like having a cup of tea for him.” The late Thilakan, a critically acclaimed actor and winner of 11 state and national awards, would also find himself similarly shunned by the industry for acting in a film directed by Vinayan in 2009. He said on television in 2011, “Those sitting at the top are a mafia that is engaged in organised crime.”
Dileep had built up his position as a major power broker over the last two decades in an ecosystem that relied heavily on personal connections and influence. He became central in creating new networks of production, distribution and fan associations, carving out his place alongside the industry heavyweights Mammootty and Mohanlal, who were themselves part of many of these circles of influence. He joined many trade associations, including the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes, or AMMA, and other bodies such as the Kerala Film Producer’s Association and Kerala Film Exhibitors’ Federation.
Following his arrest, there were moves to expel him from these organisations, most notably from AMMA—ultimately the only body that followed through on these intentions. However, there was also a steady stream of comments from high-profile actors and others painting Dileep as the real “victim.” His supporters started a campaign called “avanodoppam,” meaning “with him,” on social media, to counter the campaign to ensure justice for the survivor, which was called “avalkkoppam,” or “with her.” The backlash against those who supported the victim, and the way it polarised the film community, was a reminder of how heavily the Malayalam film world was weighed against the interests of women.
After Dileep was released on bail, the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala, which had been set up under him, sought to reinstate him as its head, though he refused to take the position. The demand for bringing him back into AMMA also grew louder. His latest film, Ramaleela, was running to packed theatres. Its main competition was Warrier’s Udhaharanam Sujatha. Both films were released on the same day.
Supporters of the victim launched an online campaign demanding a boycott of Dileep’s movies. This prompted Warrier to issue a statement asking people to watch both the films. “A single person is not a movie, it is the effort of many,” she said. “It is also the hard work of spotboys, cooks, and those whose names do not even make it to the credits.”
THERE IS A DIRECT CORRELATION between the crests and troughs in Manju Warrier’s acting career and in her relationship with Dileep. Warrier burst onto the scene in 1995—young, vibrant and full of energy. She acted in 20 movies between then and 1999, in what is now popularly called her “first innings.” Her screen presence and acting prowess immediately distinguished her as an undeniable talent. In comparison, Dileep’s acting was widely considered mediocre, his craft more honed towards mimicry and popular entertainment than serious drama. Warrier married Dileep in 1998, at the peak of her career, having already won a Kerala State Film award and Filmfare awards. She then followed an unwritten rule in the Malayalam film world—once women actors get married, they must drop out of the public gaze. Soon after he and Warrier got married, Dileep famously told a magazine that he did not want his wife “hugging and acting” with others. Warrier gave up acting, much to the dismay of several directors who had signed her on for projects. She became a stay-at-home wife and mother, and avoided the limelight for the next 15 years.
Though Warrier repeatedly maintained that it was her own decision to quit movies, everyone I spoke with in the industry blamed Dileep for her 15-year exile. Most of them saw her as someone dethroned from her position in the industry as the only female superstar. The director Sibi Malayil, with whom Warrier was working on two projects, had been on a shoot in a foreign location when the marriage took place. When he returned, he was informed that Warrier would no longer be acting. “I had expected her to continue with acting since Dileep was also from the film industry,” Malayil said. “I didn’t see an issue with it.” The director Kamal, also the chairman of the Kerala State Film Academy, told me, “It was with a lot of disappointment and sadness that we received the news of her marriage. I even told Dileep that what you are doing is cruelty.” Kamal had given Dileep his first break in Malayalam cinema as an assistant director.
But would directors still have cast Warrier as a romantic lead if she had continued to act after marriage? The actor Rima Kallingal does not think so. According to her, Warrier would more likely have been cast in various roles that did not romantically link her to the hero. Describing her own struggle to find work after her marriage, to the director Aashiq Abu in 2013, she said she had to work hard to prove that she was “not going anywhere.” It took her a couple of years to make the fraternity see this. “So, I lost 2 years and I don’t think any male actor would have to do that,” she said.
I put the same question to the director and national-award winning cinematographer Venu, who directed Warrier in the 1998 film Daya, where she played a slave girl masquerading as a man to protect herself from thieves. He said there is a “very male mentality that once a woman is married she is off limits. Otherwise they are public property. Once you are married you are private property.”
Divorce between public figures is usually a nasty affair, with the brunt often borne by women. When Urvashi, a prominent leading actor who starred in nearly 500 films through the 1980s and 1990s, divorced the actor Manoj K Jayan, in 2008, what followed was blatant character assassination. For the five years that they fought over the custody of their daughter, news reports constantly reiterated that Urvashi was not fit to be a mother because she was an alcoholic.
While Warrier faced her share of slander after her decision to separate from Dileep, she went on to find new life in Malayalam cinema—a rare occurrence for an actor in her mid thirties. It was widely rumoured that when Warrier was struggling to make her comeback, Dileep tried everything to ensure that no one would sign her on. He had by this time secured his position as a Malayali superstar, with memberships in different associations for actors, directors, producers and film distributors. He understood the inner workings of the industry well and since he had influence and, according to multiple accounts, went to great lengths to get his vengeance, few inside the industry could afford to cross him.
“Everyone knows who tried to resist it,” Malayil said about Warrier’s comeback. “But how far can you stop her?”
THE KERALA FILM INDUSTRY is one of the most prolific in India. Though Malayalam speakers constitute about 3 percent of the population, the Malayalam film industry produces close to 10 percent of the total number of movies made in the country. Out of the 64 national awards in the category of Best Film till date, 11 have been claimed by Malayalam films. The National Film award for Best Actor has been won 13 times by Malayali actors. Many talented actors from other film industries in India—including Smita Patil, Om Puri, Rajit Kapur, Nandita Das and Kamal Haasan—have performed in Malayalam cinema. Traditionally, the industry has placed a greater premium on good acting and strong scripts when compared to Bollywood, which has relied more on the glamour and star power of its actors. Scriptwriters and directors, and often actors, in Malayali society are not just counted as celebrities, but also as artists and public intellectuals in their own right.
Many Malayalam films from the 1950s up to the 1970s were based on renowned literary works in the language, giving them strong philosophical roots that continue to influence Malayalam cinema today. The new wave films of the 1970s, led by auteur directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan and TV Chandran, defined themselves in contrast to commercial cinema, choosing to focus on serious themes rather than only providing entertainment. Eventually this gave way to “madhyavarthi,” or middle cinema, which combined elements from both art and commercial films. Throughout this history, compelling women characters were written, and performed on screen—but too often as extensions of the male psyche.
Kerala, with a history of strong movements for social reform and socialist ideals, occupies a unique position within India in terms of human development indicators. High female literacy rates, low maternal mortality and a high sex ratio have given rise to the idea that the Malayali woman is more empowered than her counterparts in other states. However this has neither been reflected in the female workforce within the industry, nor in the representations of women in cinema. The industry continues to be deeply patriarchal, with its directors, scriptwriters and technicians being overwhelmingly male. The movies themselves largely showcase shifting patriarchal codes over the decades through representations of self-sacrificing and ultimately dutiful women. Further, women are scrutinised and policed for the way they carry themselves in public and private, and more quickly condemned for not toeing the line of so-called “respectability.”
However, stories and scripts which display complexity in their engagement with themes such as motherhood, chastity and women’s sexuality have regularly emerged from this industry. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the actors Sharada and Sheela performed powerful, award-winning roles. Sharada won the National Award for best actress two times, for her roles in A Vincent’s Thulabharam and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram. In Thulabharam, she played Vijaya, who is married to a trade-union leader. As the conditions of their lives get more desperate, Vijaya kills her starving children. The story was an unconventional treatment of motherhood and a marked deviation from the silent, hapless heroines of most commercial cinema.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a turn towards popular entertainment, with the market beginning to dictate the overall value and worth of a star. In an August 2017 article called the “Many misogynies of Malayalam Cinema,” the scholar Meena T Pillai wrote, “Post 1990s, the rise of the ‘megastar,’ ‘superstar,’ and ‘people’s star’ consolidated the significance of glamour and spectacle in cinema.” In this period, actors such as Urvashi, Shobana, Revathi and Parvathi became some of the most commercially viable performers.
This was the legacy that Warrier inherited when she entered the industry in 1995. In the first five years that she acted, Warrier played a diverse array of roles. The characters she played were often powerful and unconventional, but their narratives did not usually escape the patriarchal system that created them—the women inevitably were tamed or domesticated in the end.
In the 1998 romantic comedy Summer in Bethlehem, Aami, played by Warrier, is introduced as a troublemaker—a sullen, selfish, wine-drinking, jeans-wearing woman. In the late 1990s, when the country had only recently liberalised its economy, a lot of these attributes were associated with a “modern” value system that brought with it the dangers of too much autonomy and individuality, which was made to seem particularly threatening in women. In most characterisations in films of this period, audiences were meant to judge women of this type harshly. But not so with Aami. The two men in her life—Niranjan, her Naxalite lover waiting for his execution, and Dennis, a hanger-on who is in love with Aami—appear to take her for who she is. The script, however, still felt the need to justify Aami’s excesses. In the second half of the movie, the audience learns that she was putting on an act—simply pretending to be cruel and selfish—so that it would be easier on her family once she committed suicide, which she intended to do as an expression of solidarity with Niranjan. But Niranjan saves her from this tragic fate by making her acknowledge her feelings for Dennis.
In Kanmadam, for which she delivered one of her most dynamic performances, Warrier played the hard-boiled and no-nonsense Bhanu, a single adult who runs a household that consists mostly of women. She looks after her two sisters and grandparents, warning them against the unwanted advances of men and singlehandedly warding off loan sharks. She appears to have no time for keeping up appearances or acting feminine. But here, too, the film’s strong first half, with its feminist undertones, is overtaken by the patriarchal logic of the narrative. Vishwanathan, played by Mohanlal, enters the household in order to absolve himself of the guilt of accidentally killing Bhanu’s brother. In a key scene, he locks her in an embrace and kisses her against her will, because of which her icy heart melts. From this point the film shifts its focus to the friendship of Vishwanathan and his friend Johnny, played by Lal. It ends with them declaring their eternal brotherhood, and they become the paternal saviours of Bhanu and her family.
Warrier’s most powerful performance was in Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, for which she received a special jury prize at the 1999 National Film Awards. In the film, her character takes revenge on her landlord for killing her family, by seducing him as well as his son. In other movies such as Sallapam, Ee Puzhayum Kadannu and Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu, even as Warrier played various versions of an anguished lover, self-sacrificing sister and dutiful daughter, she managed to imbue the characters with a powerful agency that transcended the patriarchal logic of the narratives themselves. As the scholar VC Harris wrote in an essay for the 2010 anthology Women in Malayalam Cinema, “She succeeded in creating the impression that these were somehow women-centric films.”
MANJU WARRIER WAS BORN in September 1979 in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, to TV Madhavan and Girija Warrier. Her father was employed at a chit company—a private banking practice—and was the only breadwinner of the family of four. Warrier took to dance at a very young age, and her parents worked hard to encourage and provide for her training. Warrier recalled to me, when I met her on 30 March this year, that her mother always wanted to learn dancing herself as a child, but that her father had been against it. “She lived those desires through me when she got me started on dance tuitions at the age of four,” she said.
Her first stage performance was a Bharatanatyam recital as a four-year-old in a small temple in Manalikkara, under the tutelage of her first teacher, Celine Kumari. Later, when she was in school, to pay for her training and participation in the yuvajanotsavam, a youth festival, her parents sold the gold they had, took out a loan and subordinated many of their own needs so that they could reserve money for her dance tutorials.“They made a lot of sacrifices for me,” Warrier said. “I didn’t know the value of that back then. It took me a lot of years to realise their love.”
I met her parents at her hotel room in Thalassery on 8 April. They were there to attend her dance performance in the nearby village of Pinarayi, the birthplace of Kerala’s current chief minister. While Warrier and her dance teacher sat stretched out on the double bed in matching kalamkari kurtis, I pulled a chair close to the couch where her parents sat and leaned in to catch their hushed voices. After observing the family together, it was not difficult to believe Warrier when she told me that her stardom had not changed the way she or her parents lived back home in Pullu, in the city of Thrissur. They were clearly comfortable together, laughing, bickering and correcting each other as the interview went on. “Her mother had got a tutor to teach dance at home for Manju’s brother, but it was Manju, who had not yet started school, who started picking up the steps,” Warrier’s father said. Every weekend, Girija Warrier attended the dance classes with her daughter and tried to memorise the steps herself too, so that she could take over her daughter’s training during the weekdays. “Amma would pester me to keep practising,” Warrier told me. “She would have to drag me for my dance classes. I don’t think at that time I enjoyed it much. But now I dance for myself, for me.” Her father added, “It is completely to her mother’s credit, this perfection that we see in Manju’s dance moves today.”
Warrier started doing films at the age of 16. Her route into the industry was through the celebrated annual talent event called the State Youth Festival—through which many prominent actors of Malayalam films, such as Vineeth, Divya Unni, Navya Nair and Dileep’s current wife, Kavya Madhavan, got their first breaks. “Dance got me everything,” Warrier said. She had won the title of Kalathilakam, the best overall performer, in the dance category in 1992 and 1995, also collecting prizes in Bharatnatyam, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and folk dance. “It allowed me everything, especially my entry into movies,” she continued, referring to how these titles helped her land her first movie, Sakshyam.
But it was her second movie, Sallapam, directed by Sundar Das and starring Dileep and Manoj K Jayan, which put Warrier on the map. Its writer, Lohithadas, was a household name in Malayalam cinema, known for churning out scripts that turned into blockbuster hits. One evening, while taking a break on a shooting location for another project, Lohithadas and Das noticed the magazine Katha, which had on its cover a girl with a radiant smile. “Lohi joked that she would fit the role of the heroine in one of his films,” Das told me. Later, Lohithadas encouraged Das to direct the next movie for which he was writing a script, and asked him to cast the girl on the magazine cover—Manju Warrier.
The climax scene of Sallapam (1996) is often used as a point to describe the early promise that Warrier displayed. Radha, the heroine, is seen running towards a moving train in an attempt to commit suicide after being spurned by her lover, only to be pulled back in time by Divakaran, played by Jayan. Divakaran holds on to her as the train passes, even as she tries to pull free. After taking the shot, the film’s crew noticed that Warrier was weeping on the tracks and Jayan was shivering besides her. “Brother, this would have gone out of my hands,” Jayan told Das. Warrier had been pulling so hard that it had unnerved Jayan, who had to work hard to hold her back from the train.
“In hindsight, her very natural involvement in the scene was quite scary,” Das said. “Lohi had then said that she will leave an imprint in Malayalam cinema.” Das takes pride in having been the first to “discover” Warrier, and being the first to cast her and Dileep together, creating a hit pair. (The inequality in the pay for men and women was apparent from the start: for Sallapam, Warrier earned Rs 25,000, against Dileep’s Rs 100,000.)
Warrier’s rapidly achieved popularity may have had something to do with the timing of her entry into the film industry. Everyone I talked to, including Warrier, told me that she was extremely lucky because the industry at the time had a diverse range of powerful and talented actors, from maestros such as Thilakan, Murali and Jagathy Sreekumar, to young stars such as Manoj K Jayan and Biju Menon. Scriptwriters such as MT Vasudevan Nair, Sreenivasan and AK Lohithadas were delivering consistent hits, and many directors, such as Fazil, Priyadarshan, Sibi Malayil, Sathyan Anthicad and Kamal, were in their prime. Warrier firmly established her place in this firmament.
According to Das, Warrier is not “breathtakingly beautiful or the kind of woman who can make heads turn,” but her terrific screen presence and control, while performing scenes with high emotional drama, made that irrelevant. Kallingal recalled how Warrier grew to become the “poster woman for a strong, fiery character.” She said, “Today, if you ask me, I have issues with a lot of her characterisations in most of the movies. But she was so natural in front of the camera that we all connected to her as a person rather than an actress. Everybody just loved Manju Warrier.”
As the director Kamal, who is working on a biopic of writer and poet Kamala Surayya, with Warrier playing the protagonist, put it, “Manju was everyone’s addiction.”
ON 24 OCTOBER 2012, Warrier started her second coming with her arangettam—the debut dance of a student of Indian classical dance—in Kuchipudi at the Guruvayoor Sreekrishna temple, whose dance auditorium is visited by many Malayalis every year for their inaugural performance. She had started learning Kuchipudi under Geetha Padmakumar, a disciple of the acclaimed dancer Vempati Chinna Satyam, a year earlier. When I asked her whether she danced at home in the years she stayed away from films, Warrier answered, “I never did even once. And I don’t know why I have started doing this again.”
Warrier called Padmakumar in 2011, not for her own training, but to ask her to give lessons to her teenage daughter. However, from the very first dance class, Padmakumar could sense that Warrier would soon return to dancing herself. Through Warrier’s “body language, the dancer in her was evident,” Padmakumar told me. “The way she excitedly clarified the postures and steps, I could sense her interest.” Soon, Warrier asked Padmakumar for separate classes. Warrier’s parents were thrilled when she started dancing again. “My parents don’t particularly want to visit film sets,” Warrier said, “but they love to watch me dance. So, I always make it a point to take them along for my dance programmes, whichever corner on earth it may be.”
Less than two years later, after her arangettam, the well-marketed and widely advertised movie How Old Are You?—which acquired cult status among women in Kerala—re-established Warrier’s place within the film fraternity. The movie—with the tagline “Why should there be an expiry date to women’s dreams?”—told the story of a woman who worked a government job and was belittled and undermined by her husband and daughter. (It was compared to the 2012 Bollywood film English Vinglish, which saw another major star, Sridevi, return to the screen.) When they leave her behind and move to Ireland, she is prodded towards a journey of discovery by a friend who reminds her of the go-getter that she was before marriage. Warrier’s character then goes on to become immensely successful, heralding social change through organic terrace farming—an enterprise that has seen growing participation among many women in Kerala over the past decade. The parallels between Warrier’s real and reel life were evident. Like the character—who is “just 36,” as she says in the movie—Warrier made a smashing comeback to life and success.
According to Antony Sony—who assisted Rosshan Andrews, the director of How Old Are You—the parallels were not deliberate, although he agreed there were “emotional sequences” that allowed the audience to “relate to her personal life.” The National Award-winning director Geetu Mohandas was not thrilled by the movie and the similarities it drew with Warrier’s life, which to her seemed to be an attempt to justify her off-screen decisions. In a “world that is so quick to judge a woman,” Warrier should not have to “be apologetic about the way she lived her life,” she said. “It’s her life.” Kallingal was defensive about criticisms that Warrier was seeking to market her personal story as part of the movie. “That is the only thing that we have, our tragedies,” she said. “So what is wrong if we market that?”
Sony recalled the first day of the shoot with Warrier, when he and other assistant directors tried hard to control the massive crowd, “the size of Thrissur Pooram,” that turned up to witness her return to the industry. He had only ever seen crowds of that size gathered for male superstars. “We were shooting at Konkini street,” he said. “In the cinema, the frame shows a vacant street. But all around it and behind the camera the whole village had gathered.” Sony went on to direct Warrier in his debut movie, C/O Saira Banu, the story of a single Muslim woman’s fight to save her adoptive son from a legal mess. For this movie, Warrier took home over Rs 60 lakh, a massive increase compared to her earnings for films in the first innings. She is now among the highest-paid actors in the fraternity, at par with Malayalam male actors, and the only woman in the industry’s top bracket.
Mohandas recounted the day How Old Are You opened in the theatres. “Teachers and bank officers and so many people didn’t go to work that day because that morning they had to watch the movie first day first show and make Manju a success,” she said. “That thought, that strength behind a large crowd, is the phenomenon. And that’s why the film worked. Any comeback film of Manju Warrier would have worked.”
In the 15 years that Warrier was away, the industry had gone through some tectonic shifts in terms of marketing, social-media outreach and a boom in mobile technology, which changed the nature of shooting and distribution. None of her movies from the first phase needed promotions. But now she had to go live on Facebook with promotions and launches, do live chats and travel internationally to promote her projects. The kind of storytelling that filmmakers were interested in had also changed. In the late 1990s, the acting profession did not have the respectability it does now. Often, female actors were brought in from other regional film industries. The big hits of the decade in which Warrier was missing were Narasimham, Ravanaprabhu, Twenty-twenty, Meesamadhavan and Rajamanikyam, all unabashed celebrations of machismo, with no memorable women characters. Dileep’s movies were popular at the box office, but also critiqued for their misogynist storylines and a preponderance of “rape jokes” that had everyone laughing and hooting in the theatres. More promisingly, however, at the start of this decade, a new crop of films has made a strong foothold in the industry. Educated women were participating in and changing the face of Malayalam cinema. These films prioritised craft over showcasing a star actor; the characters were well-rounded, there were strong roles for women, and the subject matter spoke to the ethos of a new generation.
Two months after the release of How Old Are You, Warrier and Dileep filed a joint petition for divorce in the Kochi family court, which was granted in January 2015. Warrier did not ask for the custody of her daughter, who preferred to live with her father. News reports emerged portraying Warrier in a negative light—several online magazines blamed her for doing dance shows and attending publicity events while leaving her teenage daughter in the care of her husband and his family. Warrier managed the controversies around her divorce with a quiet grace, speaking up occasionally but firmly, particularly when protecting friends who were pulled into public battles. “The way she brushed all these things aside was not easy,” Venu said. “She was not embarrassed by her actions ever, which is a great virtue. How many people can say that?” The appeal Warrier has and the respect she commands in Kerala and beyond is not easily explained. Malayali women have embraced and loved her as one of their own, despite the fact that she married a partner against her parents’ wishes, got divorced and accepted her daughter’s decision to live with her father—the kinds of choices that are still disapproved of by the middle class in India.
WHEN I MET WARRIER in March this year, I asked her about the success of her comeback. “I have to thank Malayalis, especially women, for this,” she said. “There were some who took leave from their offices to watch the movie. Old grandmothers who hadn’t made it to theatre in ages insisting watching the movie at a theatre. Mothers who never go for any movies made it to theatre to see me.” She added that she had “a lot to be thankful for. This life became much stranger than a movie.” She grew emotional when she described her return. “None of this was planned,” she said. “Things are happening in quick succession in my life. I never thought that I would get an opportunity to experience all this ever. You know the excitement of a kid who goes to the sea and runs about grasping it?”
I met her in a nondescript powder-blue caravan, which was parked in front of a row of hotels in Fort Kochi. She was shooting for an ad, and I followed her around, observing, and chatting with her occasionally. I watched her through the day as she waited patiently for her shots. The shoot was directed by VA Sreekumar Menon, the acclaimed advertising man credited with being the public-relations brain behind Warrier’s new avatar. In fact, before her return to the movies, audiences saw her in an advertising campaign for a jewellery brand, directed by Menon, which brought her together with Amitabh Bachchan. This was seen as a canny marketing move that built up a buzz around her before her formal return to the industry. In Dileep’s bail application, Menon is mentioned as someone who was “responsible for spreading false and scandalous rumours about” Dileep. The document goes on to state that, “for the past few years this person”—Menon—had fostered “grave enmity against the petitioner,” during “divorce proceedings initiated by him”—Dileep—“against Manju Warrier.”
Warrier rarely met any of her old directors or scriptwriters during her hiatus, for the most part keeping to her family. She did not attend industry gatherings or socialise within the fraternity. I asked her how she felt about her years away from the limelight. “It was very easy for me to do nothing,” she said. “I know equally well how to do that.” But she is just as much at ease today with her chock-a-block schedule, drawing publicity and audiences for her films, touring the world with Kuchipudi performances, working on her first music album, experimenting with theatre and signing up for her her first non-Malayalam and multilingual movies.
Warrier is happy about the diversity of the roles that have come her way in her second innings, which include those of a senior police officer, a volleyball coach, an animator, a lawyer and a single mother. I suggested to her that her new films did not have the magic and aura of her earlier ones. She reminded me that she was no longer working with writers who were so prominent in that period. “Now the whole taste of cinema has changed,” she said. “The environment of cinema has changed. The audience has changed.”
WARRIER REMAINS GUARDED about her personal life. She refused to comment, or take any questions about what she felt about Dileep’s alleged involvement in the crime. But as a response to the incident, she—along with Rima Kallingal, Vidhu Vincent, Sajitha Madathil, Bina Paul and many other prominent names in the industry—formed the Women in Cinema Collective, or WCC, to demand a safer working environment for women. In an article for the Indian Express, Bina Paul, a national- and state-award-winning editor, tried to explain the rationale behind such a body:
Why are there so few women in the Malayalam film industry? Why are the Vishakha Guidelines, and subsequent Justice Verma committee report, not applicable in our workspaces? If I’m a film professional, do I have no maternity, health care or insurance benefits? Why does my contract not ensure that I have certain basic facilities avail- able while I’m working? If I have a security issue while working on a film, and not just on location, who do I go to? Where are wage structures which look objectively at contribution and commerce? What about the (in)famous casting couch? Why are there no informal spaces of interaction where women can participate with dignity? Are there stories that women need to tell?
The WCC works as a policy and advocacy group that aims to answer these questions, and includes a legal cell and counselling centre. Mohandas, who is also a member of the collective, told me that soon after the assault case, they felt that “the voices were not loud enough,” and that they were appalled to hear arguments blaming the victim, implying, for instance, that she should not have been travelling alone. “Most importantly, we have learnt that we need to take steps to protect ourselves,” Warrier said.
Standing up to the rampant and institutionalised misogyny of the industry will not be easy, according to Venu, who is married to Paul. The first thing people will ask, he said, is “Why make a scene? But that is wrong. That is a very weak person’s question.” Sly comments and sexist attitudes towards women are common, according to him. “Women actors who showed any kind of intelligence or knowledge were laughed at by a lot of big timers in the industry, though maybe not in front of them,” he told me. “I know someone who said, ‘Avarkkoru thaadiyude koodi kuraveullu, bayangara budhijeeviya’”—all she lacks is a beard, otherwise she is a great intellectual. “That’s how they dismiss a woman.”
That a certain gender bias is inherent in the industry is evident from the example of the industry’s largest studio space. In the 1980s, the Kerala State Film Corporation built a film studio in the state capital of Thiruvanthapuram. Named “Chitranjali,” it claims to be “the second largest floor in Asia.” However, it omitted one detail in its floor plan—the 75 acre studio did not have a single women’s toilet in it. Venu told me that Paul was often the lone voice demanding one. It was only two years ago, that a women’s toilet was built, he pointed out. “Now everyone calls it Bina’s toilet,” he said. “I mean, it was not in the design, it was not in the plan. When the studio was designed on a piece of paper before it was built, this question was not in anybody’s head. Lady’s toilet? Toilet? Of course, there is toilet. Ladies? Who are ladies?”
Kallingal explained to me how difficult it is to market women-centric movies. She and Warrier starred together in a travel movie, playing the title roles of Rani and Padmini, two headstrong women chasing freedom. “Every single step, whether selling the distribution rights or the satellite rights” was tough, Kallingal recalled, and they had to battle people’s mental blocks, which led them to believe that such movies could not work. “I don’t think there is such a problem here, the audience is ready for such entertainment irrespective of who is in the lead,” she said. “But the industry thinks otherwise. The mind-block is huge.”
In an industry where 60-year-old male superstars play romantic leads opposite women in their teens, and where talented women are relegated to supporting roles of mothers and sisters, Warrier’s comeback has broken barriers for female performers, and also defied regressive stereotypes about women and motherhood. Her decision to honour the wishes of her daughter to live with her father was met with a tide of vitriol. However, with characteristic grace, in a Facebook post in 2014, she wrote that her daughter would “always be happy and protected under his care. And that’s why I don’t want to pain her over the rights and custody of her. This mother is always a call away from her.” Dileep would go on to use his custody over their daughter in his bail petition to try and prove his good character. In interviews he put himself across as a helpless beleaguered father left alone to take care of his child.
Warrier, in the rare instances that she has spoken about her personal life, has not looked for sympathy or pity for her troubles. “I am starting everything from zero,” she wrote in the 2014 Facebook post. “My life and my earnings. In a way this is a rebirth.” She went on to express her gratitude for being given the chance to do so, adding that even she could not have anticipated the extent to which she would receive “criticisms, praises, wishes and love in this second coming.”