For viewers of Malayalam cinema in the 90s, Dileep was a minor actor who briefly appeared on screen to give the audience a few laughs while the hero stole the show. Come the 2000s and the funnyman morphed into roles that projected him as the everyman's hero -- middle class values clothed in a humorous garb. The actor might perhaps be wishing right now that life could have frozen in that moment for him forever. As he is caught behind bars, Fullpicture reflects on Dileep's career in cinema.
From bit roles to inconsequential heroes
In the Joshi-directed Sainyam (1993) starring Mammootty, amidst the cacophony of a dozen male actors who played air force cadets, all eyes were fixed on a lanky, undernourished lad who was nicknamed Cadet Kokku Thomas. He was the proverbial joker of the pack and the most entertaining. It was a minor pointer to the kind of “affectionate appeal” Dileep was capable of in Malayalam cinema.
Between then and 1997, Dileep’s filmography slowly and inconsequentially moved on. He was taking up any role that came his way—the length and breadth notwithstanding. From playing the general dogsbody, friend, brother, to brother-in law, Dileep was struggling to carve an identity of his own. One of the earliest instances which showcased his willingness to step out of the comfort zone was in Ezharakootam (1995) where he played a physically challenged man. A sort of diluted version of Kunjikoonan, a character he did with much perfection years later.
He debuted as a solo hero in Sundar Das’s Sallapam (1996), as Sashikumar, a carpenter and part-time singer, along with Manju Warrier (who was also co-incidentally making her debut as a heroine). Written by Lohitadas, eventually, it was Manoj K. Jayan (who played the supporting actor) and Manju Warrier who walked away with the film.
The actor’s first real break came in 1997 in Ee Puzhayum Kadannu, directed by Kamal, co-starring Manju Warrier, where he played Gopi, the boy-next-door who takes his lover’s family under his wings. An effortless act, where he blended his now-famous comedy skills effectively.
That was followed by a succession of experimental films that failed to make a mark—where he played the lower-middle class struggler and survivor. Despite two impressive outings in Nee Varuvolam (as the brother of a rape survivor), Vismayam (1998) and Meenathil Thalikettu (1998), Dileep had no hits to his credit. Even Punjabi House (1998) rode on the might of his co-stars.
The actor was getting pigeonholed in the same impoverished, one-dimensional roles—either he was in debt, or he was a victim, or he indulged in small-time con acts. Joker (2000) in a way broke that mould. Written and directed by Lohithadas, Dileep played the clown of a rundown circus company. It was raw, emotional, and struck a chord with the audience. And then he struck gold with Thenkashipattanam (2000)— “To stand your own in a frame that wobbled with a lot of fine actors in a film where you were required to mouth the goofiest lines till the end, and literally walk away with the film is one of the best instances of David taking over Goliath in Malayalam cinema,” says film critic Sreehari.
This is also when it seemed like he had turned choosy—and stuck to experienced directors. Istham (2001) can be called one of his career-best roles, where he played a son who matchmakes his widowed father to his old girlfriend. It had the Dileep patented charm—effortless comic timing and some superb chemistry with Nedumudi Venu. Ee Parakkum Thalika (2001) is another film that went right in his wheelhouse, along with Soothradharan (2001), Kuberan (2002).
Meesha Madhavan (2002) really catapulted him into the top league—as the darling thief of a village. It was the kind of film which ticked all his strengths—boy next door, slapstick, doyen of goodness and very ordinary. Ditto for Kalyanaraman that released a few months later.
He liked the idea of slipping into roles that required drastic physical transformations—in Kunjikoonan (2002) he played a bucktoothed hunchback, Chandupottu (2005) had him as an effeminate character, Thilakkam (2003) was about a man who regresses to childhood after a traumatic incident, and in Pachakuthira (2006) he was a mentally challenged lad.
Stepping into heroic roles
In between Dileep tried to gravitate towards heroic roles. Runway’s (2004) Valayar Paramashivamwas a clear and feeble attempt to impersonate Mohanlal’s alpha-male heroism. While Kochi Rajavu (2005) turned out to be the watered-down version of Rajnikant's Basha.
Every time Dileep stepped away from the ordinary garb and tried to be larger-than-life, results were always less satisfactory (The Don, 2006, Avatharam, 2014). His persona wasn’t viable enough to embrace the flamboyance of a Mammootty, Mohanlal, or even Suresh Gopi.
He also explored parallel cinema but didn't find much success—prominent among them is T.V. Chandran’s Kathavasheshan (2004), where he commits suicide out of his inability to react against the atrocities in the society. Or in Shyama Prasad’s Arike (2014), a touching love story where he played Shantanu, a linguistic scholar who is madly in love with a woman who eventually betrays him and he finds love again. Madhu Kaithapram’s Orma Mathram (2011) chronicles a father’s search for his missing son.
The sexism tides over
Dileep’s popularity can really be attributed to his carefully construed “family man” image. When Jayaram’s popularity seemed to be waning, the actor took over—most of his box office hits rode on this image. From CID Moosa, Vindodayathra, Mayamohini, My Boss, Ring Master, Marykundoru Kunjadu to Sound Thoma, they were all about ordinary heroes full of goodness and goofy wit.
But one of the most alarming phases in his career really began right from this family favourite rhetoric. It’s how his films became a mouthpiece for obnoxious and blunt droplets of offensive, misogynist digs. It was nicely hidden under the smokescreen of his innocuous boy-next-door image.
It became more evident when he started investing in films. Crass adult jokes were a staple as well.
Ironically, his audience consisted of mostly women and children and their claps were the loudest. “Dileep mirrors the male peer group humour and the deep-rooted sexism in Kerala. Or to be more precise, the inherent patriarchy in our state,” says filmmaker Prahlad Gopakumar.
He keeps getting away with these impressive titles: boy next door, man next door, the middle-class hero, janapriyan. “Between 2002 and now, he has been on an overdrive to skew whatever little gains gender politics may have made in Malayalam cinema - in favour of a vile patriarchy”, says Asha K., film academician. Ring Master, Mayamohini, Inspector Garud, Mr Marumakan to his latest release—Welcome to Central Jail, they openly ridiculed women and endorsed misogyny.
Women in his films always fell under two categories—the good and the bad. The subservient homemaker/girlfriend v/s ambitious career woman. “It was easier to believe that he contributed to the script as they invariably fell back to the same old patriarchy. Sexism seemed a way of life in his films,” says Sreehari, film critic.
So, it was perfectly fine to tame a rude, ambitious collector by forcing her into matrimony (Inspector Garud), denigrate an ambitious woman by giving her name to the dog (Ring Master), indulge in body shaming, foil the villain's plan of molesting the hero’s sister by switching the villain's sister in her place, slap a rich spoilt heroine into submission (both from Mr Marumakan), and casually talk about “raping a woman” as a kind of joking rejoinder (Meesha Madhavan).
If we look at his few latest releases—it’s clear he is stuck in a rut, rehashing the same old formulaic themes. The new wave doesn’t seem to have reached him—instead he seems to be hung up on Telugu remakes and slapstick.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum was a critical and commercial failure. Out of the dozen films he did in the recent past, director Sreebala K. Menon’s Love 24/7 (2015) had an interesting characterisation—a television journalist who refuses to cow down under pressure and most importantly the heroine had a mind of her own (a rarity in his films). He was equally convincing a few years ago in Swale as a vernacular news reporter.
The actor with a keen eye on the business of cinema
As Dileep 'the actor' grew, so did his business empire. “He has one of the most astute business brains in Malayalam cinema. And he invests carefully, even if it is a car, it is acquired after a lot of thought. He isn’t the impulsive kind,” says his auditor.
Dileep, maintains a journalist who has interacted with him closely, was always a businessman. He is currently said to be charging between Rs. 1 and 2 crores for a film. In his mimicry days, he along with Nadirshah and Abi, started an audio company called NAD. They made a lot of money selling De Maveli Kombatthu cassettes.
The year he acquired the image of a superstar in 2002 with Meesha Madhavan, Dileep kick-started his first production venture, Grand Productions (CIDMoosa). “Except Mohanlal, nobody had done something like this. But then, unlike Lal, he brought a systematic transaction into film production—from interacting with theatre owners to finding distributors. “CID Moosa was a huge risk he took as it was what one would call an irreverent comedy, and was also an expensive film back then.”
The success rate of the films he produced was almost cent percent. Save for a Metro, he seemed to have cherry-picked only money-spinners.
Dileep was careful to invest only in commercial ventures. And he was partial towards real estate and food. He chose Chalakudy to start D Cinema as he believed, Aluva and Kochi had enough of such entertainment venues. “There was no partnership with Kalabhavam Mani. He will never start a business partnership with someone like Mani, who had no consistency in action," says a source on the condition of anonymity.
Dhe Puttu was attached to the nostalgia during his mimicry days when they mostly relied on thattukadas. Dhe Puttu (borrowed from De Mavelli Kombattu) has 5 partners apart from Dileep and Nadirshah. When his brother-in-law started Mango, a boutique hotel in Fort Kochi, Dileep invested some money in it as well. But later shut shop.
“Land was always his obsession. He also has flats in Mumbai and Delhi.”
Dileep has reportedly invested in as many as 35 plots in the heart of Kochi alone. There are rumours of his involvement with real estate dealers in Delhi and Mumbai.
He is currently in police custody for his alleged involvement in the abduction and molestation of an actress. “I always used to tell him that he was getting side-tracked from his acting. That has been his biggest undoing,” says the Journalist.
His upcoming releases
Ramleela: Plugged as a sort of comeback vehicle for Dileep, it was initially scheduled for July 21 release. Made on a budget of 14 crores, it has been pushed to Onam.
Kammara Sambhavam: A historical drama, written by Murali Gopy, the actor comes in various get-ups, notably as a 90-year-old. The arrest has stalled its shooting for now.
Professor Dinkan: This biographical on magician Gopinath Muthukad, shot in 3D has a budget of over 20 crores.
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Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...