Vigilante movies, TV shows shaped Suresh Gopi's win in Neta role

Suresh Gopi . Photo: Manorama Archives

When the late actor Murali contested a Lok Sabha election in Kerala in 1999, a series of newspaper articles claimed the film stars wouldn’t survive in the state’s bitterly fought two-front politics led by the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Kerala's high literacy rate, the ‘intellectual enlightenment’, and the deeply entrenched political loyalties would make it difficult for the stars to cash in on their popularity unlike the neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the arguments went on.

Murali lost in that election, but the arguments proved wrong as parties chose actors from time to time in the elections in later years. Among them, Innocent, Mukesh and KB Ganesh Kumar won.

But Suresh Gopi’s win in Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency surpasses all those feats. He contested as a candidate of a party long held as a fringe player in Kerala politics. And he joined that party some nine years ago. Still, he won.

While the increasing BJP vote share in Kerala can be one reason, Thrissur has never been a party fortress. Constituencies in Thiruvananthapuram, Palakkad and Kasaragod districts had more deep-rooted BJP vote banks.

Film scholars argue that the recipe for this political win had long been cooking in Suresh Gopi’s cinematic universe. "The on-screen persona of Suresh Gopi had already carved out a populist vigilante figure who rides through the slippery domain of the legal system and delivers poetic justice in a dystopian world of hopeless bureaucracy,” says Dr Sudeesh K, who has been awarded a PhD on "Crime Films in Malayalam Cinema" at the Department of Cultural Studies, EFLU, Hyderabad.

“The organic initiative and fearless khaki spirit embodied by him represents a corrective force in an otherwise corrupt system. Apart from the crime-fighting endeavours against crony capitalism, the desire for a strong man in politics who represents the common man’s anti-elite and anti-communal sentiments finds its expression in his cop movies,” adds Sudeesh.

According to M3DB, a crowd-sourced Malayalam cinephile website, Suresh Gopi’s film career began in 1984 and his next film came in 1986. His roles in both of these movies are uncredited. Later, he found some recognition as a villain but nothing came out of those roles to make him a bankable star.
Then in 1992, he acted in 'Thalasthanam', a movie that tells the story of a young man who avenges the murder of his brother by taking the law into his hands.

Suresh Gopi in 'Thalasthanam'

His collaboration with 'Thalasthanam' director Shaji Kailas and screenwriter Renji Panicker would continue. Out of the 223 Malayalam films he’s done, 15 were with Shaji Kailas. Despite being largely formulaic, the trio’s collaborations drew many box-office hits.

The other filmmakers who maximised his action hero roles were Joshiy and I V Sasi who made 14 and 10 films respectively with Suresh Gopi. K Madhu (9), Jayaraj (8), and Sibi Malayil (6) also made notable films with him.

Why these 1990s films were successful? Film scholar KP Jayakumar says the Suresh Gopi movies in the period made sense to a lot of people troubled by the fast political churnings globally and nationally.

“To those disillusioned with democracy, his films offered the solution by way of good deeds of the brave ideal men born in good families. In effect, these films propagated the death of social movements and collective social action,” Jayakumar adds that it would be wrong to call his films anti-establishment: “They were counter-establishment.”

Curiously for an upcoming politician he has finally become, rarely did we see him as a politician on-screen. Sathyaprathinja (1992), Yuvathurki (1996), Janadhipathyam (1997), Pathaaka (2006) and Rashtram (2006) fall into this category.

Suresh Gopi in 'Rashtram'. Photo: Manorama Archives.

In 2006, several of his films bombed at the box office except Chinthamani Kolacase. The lawyer-hero’s modus operandi of rescuing the criminals from the clutches of law and then brutally eliminating them had won the masses. This special delivery of justice, vigilante or instant, was a vintage Shaji Kailas.

In later years, fewer noteworthy films came out from him such as Nadiya Kollappetta Rathri (2008). Critics say while these along with Janakan (2010) made him popular among the women audience, many of his films fizzled out in cinemas without anybody's notice. So in 2015, he took a break from the movies.

Hilal Ahammed, a research scholar at the Department of Malayalam at Government Arts and Science College, Kozhikode, says Suresh Gopi’s return in 2020 was decent. “He could adapt to the grammar of the so-called new-gen movies, a feat still impossible for younger actors like Dileep. Varane Avashyamund is one of the movies I watch repeatedly.”

Hilal says the five-seasons TV game show Ningalkkum Aakaam Kodeeshwaran which ran from 2012 to 2020 made him a household name. “The show had more impact than his movies on his popularity. The home audience saw a different Suresh Gopi in the show. It might be the first instance in the state that a person handing out largesse on TV. The failed or disappointed show contestants would suddenly get Rs 25,000 or 50,000 as Suresh Gopi’s ‘ente vaka.”

Jayakumar agrees: “There might be philanthropists who gave out more. But here millions of people watch a star lavishly giving out money. He later expanded his fan base by visiting some contestant's homes. Later people began to reach out to him. All these were unprecedented in Kerala.”

“Actors being worshipped or not is not a measure of a state’s perceived progressiveness and we can’t say the people of Thrissur are regressive just because they elected an actor,” says film critic GP Ramachandran.

“Tamil Nadu’s Pattali Makkal Katchi is vehemently against celebrity politics, yet their social values and aggressive caste pride are problematic. When it comes to Suresh Gopi, what we should be looking for is whether the values he stands for on-screen or off-screen are progressive or not.”

“This is a troubled and confused time. People are hopeless due to various factors and some of them might have been attracted by the continuous propaganda in favour of Suresh Gopi,” Ramachandran concludes.

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