Bengaluru: A sexual assault on a female actor in Kerala has created fissures in the film community, spawned a new group of women actors and exposed the influence exerted by top stars.

It was in February that the actor was abducted and sexually assaulted in a moving car. The main culprits were arrested soon, but there has been suspicion from the beginning that bigger players were involved.

Nearly five months after the incident, the Kerala police on Monday arrested Dileep, a top actor, who, police say, plotted the crime because of a personal vendetta against the victim. He is now in police custody.

After Mammootty and Mohanlal—both multiple national award winners who have dominated Kerala’s film industry for at least three decades—Dileep is the top earner in Kerala’s film industry. He also wields considerable influence in industry bodies of producers, distributors and exhibitors.

Regional media reports say the police have uncovered 19 pieces of evidence to connect Dileep with the crime, but according to T.P. Senkumar, who retired two weeks ago as chief of Kerala police, there is no evidence. The actor has denied wrongdoing and claims he was trapped by the prime accused Pulsar Suni and an aggressive media.

But the entire episode is no longer just about what happened to one woman, as writer N.S. Madhavan noted on Twitter.

The state movie actors’ association—where Dileep was an executive committee member until his ignominious firing on Tuesday—has not come out to support the victim, prompting protests and its women members to break away and form a group called the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). The group has vowed to end misogyny in movies as well as at the workplace. Its strong criticism of two actors who named the victim on Facebook prompted both to apologize.

After the arrest, Dileep was also removed from the association of actors and technicians.

The silence of actors Mammootty and Mohanlal did not go unnoticed either. There were protests on Tuesday outside Mammootty’s house where the actors’ association had met. After the meeting, Mammootty announced the suspension of Dileep and said the association stands by the woman actor.

Yet, the silence of the top guns at an association press conference a fortnight ago where leading male actors like Innocent and Mukesh pitched for equal protection to the accused and the victim continues to rankle with the public. Comments by Innocent, the association’s president, denying exploitation of women in the film industry also created a furore.

It is not often that top actors in the Malayalam movie industry find themselves so powerless and at the receiving end of public anger, having to apologize for something or the other on a daily basis, said a Malayalam movie director, who did not wish to be named. Frustration has been growing, he added, especially among a younger generation of artistes about how veterans use kid gloves when it comes to sexism and crime. The anger tipped over with the abduction.

Politically, Dileep’s arrest has lifted the spirits for the government which was on the back foot after several recent cases of atrocities against women. While last year’s rape and murder of Dalit woman Jisha showed the vulnerability of the poor, the attack on the actor showed the rich and successful women weren’t safe either.

“Dileep is the kind of person who has all the right connections," said K.J. Jacob, political analyst and executive editor of newspaper Deccan Chronicle in Kerala. “He is not only one of the biggest names in Kerala, but also hugely influential. That the police dared to arrest him, and the government allowed them to function in that way, sends out a signal for the common man, who had almost lost faith in the system," said Jacob.

“One thing we can say with certainty right now is that the case has become a game changer in many ways," he said.

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