Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is really mad: one at whom the stones are pelted or the one who pelts the stones.

In a popular talk show on Manorama News, a prominent Malayalam TV channel, the talking point is Santhosh Pandit, himself a member of the panel. Into the discussion, another panelist, a moderately successful actor who has found a place in the panel only because he had a sidekick’s role to play in the  latest hit , turns to a psychologist who is also in the panel, points a finger at Santhosh Pandit, and asks: “Sir, is this guy mad?”

It is a question that lakhs of Malayalees have been asking too: Is Santhosh Pandit really mad? It is also a question that serves as an answer to another question: Are lakhs of Malayalees really mad?

Here is the story. One day a music video of Santhosh Pandit titled  Rathri Sivarathri—in addition to acting in the video, Santhosh wrote, composed, sang and also edited the video—is posted in YouTube. If you discount the quirky body language of the hero, there is nothing in the video that is not familiar to Malayalees: a hero performing what is supposed to be understood as an act of romancing a girl—fooling around with what looks like an underaged girl in paddy fields in the company of dancers who are kids, lewd expressions that every lover would be warned against trying, dance steps that could well be interpreted as some sort of a spoof of the dance scenes in Malayalam movies, and every other typical ingredient you would associate with the usual cine masala. And if you discount the slightly quirky rendering, there is nothing in the song too that is not familiar to Malayalees: senseless and catchy lyrics, and an unremarkable and easy-to-sing tune.

But you don’t discount quirkiness when you are talking Malayalam.

In what was to become a prelude to the Kolaveri-YouTube revolution, Rathri Sivarathri went viral online. There’s a difference, though: If the Kolaveri phenomenon established Dhanush as a cult hero, the Rathri Sivarathri phenomenon had Santhosh Pandit as a cult villain. Then again, who knows who is a hero and who is a villain in a YouTube revolution?

In the blink of an eye, the link was visited by thousands, many of whom also posted what can be mildly termed as vulgar comments, but what would perhaps best be described by whatever they would have filled these (expletives deleted) with. If it was an attempt at character assassination, the method adopted was the lewdest possible even by the standards of intolerance Malayalees have set for anything or anybody who violates their conventional codes for aesthetics and morality.

In fact, Santhosh Pandit was the latest in a recent list of such victims of vilification that includes S Sreesanth and Sashi Tharoor. But unlike Sreesanth and Tharoor, Pandit took the mob head on and beat them at their own game.

Call it a fluke or a blind stroke of marketing genius; he started posting more music videos which elicited similar comments and about as many hits. He even began to find a place in the top ten Google trends.

Magazines and websites would feature essays by critics that analysed Pandit as a socio-political phenomenon—a victim of the hegemonic Brahminical sensibility and a product of the sado-masochist tendencies that rule the Malayalee psyche—while social networking sites like Facebook were filled with discussions about him.

Soon the cult of Pandit was established and would find its moment of crowning glory when the film he produced, Krishnanum Radhayum—in which he starred as a hero and handled all technical aspects except camera—became an instant hit.

More episodes of the absurd featuring Pandit as the protagonist would follow that success. Suddenly he was everywhere and on every lip. All prime time talk shows on television channels would have him as their subject. Employing the same tactic that helped him garner the online audience, Pandit would play Pandit on television screen—irritating, entertaining, and ultimately milking the public with his eccentric body language and unique style of dialogue delivery.

Magazines and websites would feature essays by critics that analysed Pandit as a socio-political phenomenon—a victim of the hegemonic Brahminical sensibility and a product of the sado-masochist tendencies that rule the Malayalee psyche—while social networking sites like Facebook were filled with discussions about him.

Corresponding to discussions that debated whether Santhosh Pandit is mad or not, there were discussions that focused on the aesthetics of cinema, seriously debating whether Krishnanum Radhayum is a movie of abominable quality or a brilliant spoof that lays bare the mediocrity of Malayalam cinema.

Santhosh Pandit.jpg

The game would have a fittingly absurd climax when the possibility of a catastrophe displaced Pandit from public imagination and media space. As minor earthquakes revealed cracks in the Mullaperiyar dam and the possibility of a megadeath tragedy was debated, the public and the media had found a new event to indulge in. But in a month’s time, that event too fizzled out and it was business as usual.

Santhosh Pandit may well be the first movie star in the world to have risen to fame almost entirely using internet and television. He is also a wonderful lesson in the art of brand building. Having understood that the tea/toddy-shop culture (a culture of discussing everything under the sun with an intense yet detached fervour at a tea or toddy shop) rules the roost in Malayalam online space, Pandit decided that the best way to ensure his success was to continuously remain a talking point, and then went on to play his cards smartly.

If not being weighed down by a torrent of obscenities can be equated to courage, he’s shown plenty of that—to the extent of openly inviting it. “I really don’t care when the Malayalee public abuses me. People don’t know that whenever they  abuse me, I’m earning some money too. People are just jealous of my success and there is nothing that I can do about it.” And to the accusation that he is mad, he retorts: “If a madman like me can do so much, imagine what all wonderfully normal people can do.”

Santhosh Pandit was born to Appunni Pandit (a project assistant engineer in the Irrigation department) and Sarojini Amma in a village called Peruvannamoozhi, Kozhikode district. He claims that his ancestors migrated from Uttar Pradesh and hence the name Pandit. Having travelled all over India with his father, Santhosh grew attracted to Gandhian philosophy, and says his life is a pursuit of truth in the Gandhian model. After graduating in English from Kozhikode Meenchantha Arts and Science college, he went on to notch up many diplomas, including one in engineering, from Calicut University. His marriage ended in a divorce with his  wife being granted custody of their son who incidentally sang one of the songs—“Anganavadiyile teachere”—in Krishnanum Radhayum.

Before deciding to become a filmmaker, Santhosh was an overseer in the Irrigation Department. When he realised that cinema was his true calling, he decided to take a five-year sabbatical. When he heard from a friend about the possibility of making extremely low cost films using a Canon 7-D camera, he decided to explore the possibility. (The emergence of the 7D camera is a major sub-plot of the Santhosh Pandit story as it has heralded a new chapter in filmmaking in Kerala with a large number of young people now approaching cinema as a not-so-difficult medium to access. It has democratised the movie industry with artists experimenting with more independent projects that do not have the backing of bigwig producers or production houses.)


To find money to invest in his project, Pandit sold his house and property. He then learnt various technical aspects about filmmaking online, and after feeling sufficiently emboldened, he started shooting with his friend Jayaprakash handling the camera and he taking charge of everything else. They shot the songs first which were then posted on YouTube. The rest is Santhosh Pandit.

The bricklayers who played a major part in building the Pandit cult came from the IT sector—people who operate computers as part of their job. That is an interesting phenomenon in itself which many IT professionals ascribe to the pent-up frustration of their job. Anoop Jacob, a 27-year-old IT engineer who works in Techno Park, and a “diehard Pandit fan” says: “We are under a lot of stress most of the time with the pressure of deadlines and strain of extremely difficult working relationships. So when someone like Santhosh Pandit came along, we found his comic demeanour a great stress buster. Even the slander and abuse that are posted in the link are things to joke around for us during a break, and serve as the material for funny SMS-es to circulate around.”

Sriram Rajan, another IT professional, has a different point of view. He thinks Santhosh deserves the abuse  he gets. “The kind of endeavours that Santhosh Pandit comes up with should never be encouraged in art. We have a tradition that should not be treated like shit.”

But does that justify the abuse heaped on him? “Yes”, says Sriram. “Santhosh is abusing us. So why should we not abuse him?” But then why did it not stop him from making more videos and eventually a film? “That is because he is not normal. The guy is mad.” Sriram says with a frown.

Outside the IT population, Pandit has a huge fan base among the ordinary working class who find in him someone like them who has made it big despite odds stacked against him. To them, his is a story of an ordinary man who took on a mighty establishment and emerged as a triumphant hero.

The fact that Santhosh Pandit made a film without being part of any of the unions in the film industry adds more substance to this myth of a one man army who toppled a kingdom.

In Kerala, actors, producers, distributors, theatre owners, directors and technicians all have unions of their own which are always in the news for being at loggerheads with each other. Ajay Thamban, a lorry driver, says: “Everyone is jealous of his success. After all, what did the poor man do? He did not kill or rape anyone. All he did was to make a film. Why should he be crucified for that?”

Leelamma Mathew, a middle aged housewife, too, has a similar view: “Whatever the quality of the film, no one has the right to abuse him. His film has been given a U certificate. If the censor board did not find anything vulgar in the film, why should these people find his movie obscene? And in any case, it is not as if Malayalees are making great films every day.”

In fact, the argument that Santhosh’s victory is actually the Malayalee public’s message to the mainstream Malayalam movie industry to arrest its alarmingly declining quality is one that has  gained widespread currency. C S Venkiteshwaran, an award winning movie critic, wrote in an essay on Pandit that his movie is far better than most superstar movies churned out in Malayalam.

As most Malayalam films fare miserably at the box office, the movie-going public and theatre owners have started putting their faith in Hindi and Tamil films. Krishnanum Radhayum was the only Malayalam film to have a Diwali release last year in theatres in Kerala, and ironically, the other films to be released along with it—Ra.One and 7Aum Arivu (Tamil movie starring Surya) were superhero movies. V M Devadas, a noted Malayalam writer and an IT professional, says: “It was as if the audience were telling the establishment: ‘either you stop giving us what you have been giving us for some time, or we move away to people like Santhosh Pandit.’”

According to B Aboobackar, a prominent film critic, if Santhosh Pandit is vilified for the  “atrocious way” in which he made and acted in his movie, then Mohanlal and Mammooty, the reigning superstars should also be meted out the same treatment.

“For years now, they have been coming out with crap and yet their superstardom is never questioned. What the Santhosh Pandit saga reveals to us is the hypocrisy with which Malayalees operate. The real reason for heaping abuse on him is the fact that he has managed to question their mediocre cinematic sensibilities which in turn provoked their inflated superiority complex.”

Aboobackar himself has been vilified by the online public for never failing to point out in his reviews that whichever movie he's analysing is anti-minority, anti-women and politically incorrect. Some even voiced the suspicion that Aboobackar was just a pseudonym of Santhosh Pandit.

Pandit too claims that his victory is a reflection of the deteriorating quality of Malayalam cinema. “The audience were waiting for something different. They were tired of seeing the stars dish out rotten stuff time and again. When I gave them a different product, they accepted me wholeheartedly. That is what my victory shows. It is in reality a victory of creativity. If you give the audience something creative, they will accept it. That is why they have made me a superstar.”

Pandit also refutes the notion that Krishnanum Radhayum is a spoof and claims that it’s a work of such originality that a theme of similar nature has never been made anywhere. He plays the character of John in the movie, a budding musician who is in love with a Hindu girl named Radha. After they marry, they find it difficult to get a house to stay as they are from different religions.

To overcome this situation, John changes his name to Krishnan and manages to rent a house. The twist is when Radha dies as everyone now comes to know that Krishnan is actually John. He finds it difficult to hold her cremation. After prevailing over many challenges, he finally manages to cremate her. In the climax he comes back and murders those who had made his life hell and goes to jail. “Tell me, where has a film like this been made?” asks Santhosh. “My cinema has a message. It is a movie about divine love, the importance of preserving secular values, and above all about the helplessness of a dead body.”

If till the release of the film, the legend of Santhosh Pandit was a product of the online community, television made him a household figure after the movie, with  news channels competing to spend hours on him. The pattern adopted by television anchors to confront him was similar to the one witnessed in online platforms. He was subjected to vicious abuse, which he dealt with in his inimitable fashion. Appearing on the shows clad in suit and coat, using the same body language he employed in his movie—consistently restless and fidgety, and frequently jumping up and down from his chair, and delivering the kind of punch lines he made immensely popular in Krishnanum Radhayum, he managed to steal the show every single time.

When M V Nikesh Kumar, editor-in- chief of the Reporter channel, launched a scathing attack on Pandit for making a mockery of the history of Malayalam cinema, he retorted with a smile: “Sir, have you seen the movie?”

After Nikesh answered in the negative, Pandit silenced him asking how an eminent anchor like Nikesh could criticise a movie without watching it and based only on hearsay.

In another show, when John Brittas of Asianet News, a legend of Malayalam news television asked if it was because Pandit now has the airs of a  “superstar” that he was now wearing coat when appearing on television shows, Pandit replied: “Sir, is it because you or other news anchors are superstars that they wear coats when presenting news?”

In a bizarre turn of events, YouTube videos of these television shows in which Pandit trumps prominent anchors too were celebrated by the online public with many now starting to sympathise with him.

The way he was treated in these shows met with widespread criticism, with cultural critics accusing television anchors of irresponsible media behaviour.

Aboobackar says: “The attitude of television anchors like John Brittas, Shani and Nikesh stinks of deeply ingrained Brahminical tendencies.

“They just cannot tolerate the success of someone who does not conform to Brahminical notions of aesthetics. If you are dark or have a body language that is unusual, then the so-called critics think they have the licence to mount on you whatever form of attack they want to.”

There is also a counter argument according to which television and Santhosh were playing a win-win game. Devadas says: “Television could milk Santhosh only if the shows had Santhosh Pandit playing Santhosh Pandit. And for them to make Santhosh Pandit play Santhosh Pandit, they have no other option but to rile him. As for Santhosh Pandit, he was never in any doubt about what makes him click.”

Santhosh Pandit is now ready with his second movie titled Jithubhai Enna Chocolatebhai whose songs have already been posted on YouTube. As in Krishnanum Radhayum, Santhosh is involved with every aspect of the movie except camera. If the songs can be considered trailers there is nothing very different to expect from the movie. And while the response has been less manic this time, the general tone of the comments is still one of hatred.

If Santhosh Pandit won’t change, Malayalees too won’t change.


Santhosh Pandit’s punchlines

A dog cannot hide its shame  with its tail.

That you are a big guy does not mean that I am a small guy.

Just because the hen is black, don’t think the egg it lays is black too.

If you can drink its milk, what is wrong in eating the cow’s meat?

If you want to save a  drowning man, you first need  to learn swimming.

A pig’s favourite meal is shit. There is no point feeding it milk and honey. Advising people like you is just like that.

When you dig a well, what comes first is not water, but sand and stones. At some places you find water thirty feet down. At some other places you find it hundred feet down.

Politics is good. But bastards like you made it filthy.

The donkey that carries sandalwood knows only its weight and not its sweet smell.