When I sat to watch the four-part docu series The Hunt For Veerappan on Netflix, seeing the director's name Selvamani Selvaraj, I couldn't help wonder to myself whether the name Selvamani was something of a de rigueur to make some celluloid offering involving the Veerappan character.
For, the most famous fictional cinematic work on the life of the notorious brigand — a word that is almost confined to be used only in his context — was the 1991 Tamil film Captain Prabhakaran (the arch villain was the forest bandit named Veerabhadran).
It was directed by RK Selvamani. And the film named after the LTTE chief probably did not know that the Tamil Eelam outfit would, a decade later, be in the thick of things and also play a hand in the way Veerappan was eventually taken out. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The Hunt For Veerappan opens promisingly with the query: Who is Veerappan?
Of course, even before one watched the series, one knew that Veerappan, the notorious sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher, was a menace for over 36 years in the sprawling and camouflaging forests that nestle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — before he was snuffed out by the Special Task Force (STF) on 18 October 2004 — in a covert operation that is still shrouded in mystery.
Veerappan, according to Wikipedia, "killed approximately 184 people, about half of whom were police officers and forest officials and was also wanted for poaching more than 2,000 elephants and smuggling ivory worth $2.6 million (Rs 16 crore) and about 65 tonne of sandalwood worth approximately $22 million (Rs 143 crore).
The series too puts out some such similar numbers (though the killings mentioned are 'more than 120 lives') and beyond what these cold numbers convey to us, the series doesn’t offer any better.
Just surface-level perspective
Of course, we are told that Veerappan was an emotional man and remained trusting of people. He was god-fearing, a fearless hunter and a man who understood the deep woods of MM Hills like the back of his hand.
The STF operations to nab him were feckless to start with. The STF team, especially the Karnataka arm of it, was ruthless and remorseless with its treatment of the villagers who it felt sided with the dreaded dacoit. These are info that are already in the public domain.
Yet, these are the main points you walk away with after watching all the four episodes (which run to around 45 minutes each). If anything, the interestingly abstruse words of Muthulakshmi, who gets an extended say in the series, show up the greys, whites and darks of Veerappan better than the rest of the series.
A helmeted Muthulakshmi riding a scooter with a deadpan expression has to be the real highlight of the entire series.
The problem with The Hunt For Veerappan is it doesn't go where it should have. It is just a kindergarten level primer on Veerappan to a generation to whom anything that happened even a decade back is now a grand revelation.
The series doesn't ask the questions it should. It doesn't venture anywhere near the people who ought to have been in the hot seat. Take for example, the most storied part of Veerappan's depredatory saga, the Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar's kidnap episode.
It was as murky as they came with the kind of shady politics, especially that the Tamil Nadu government played at that time.
The then clueless SM Krishna regime at Karnataka was totally at the feet of the Karunanidhi regime in TN, which was orchestrating all kind of emissary missions to negotiate with Veerappan.
There is no interview of the man who made his career out of selling and marketing Veerappan, Nakkeeran Gopal. It may have been quite possible that he may have refused to appear in the series.
But the questions that needed to be posed about him, about his less-than-above-board frequent trips to meet Veerappan, his role as an emissary that ended in failure (but the time of six mission as emissary Veerappan did not want him in the entourage that was taken over by LTTE and Tamil nationalist movement sympathisers like Nedumaran, Kolathur Mani, Kalyani and Sukumaran).
Many accounts from that time claimed that Veerappan was unhappy with Gopal for profiting off him. None of Gopal's questionable ways merit even a passing mention in parenthesis. His role, if you go by the series, was heroic.
Mani, a statesman? C’mon gimme a break!
Worse is the director Selvamani Selvaraj's narrative depiction of Nedumaran and Kolathur Mani, both known sympathisers of LTTE, the killer of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
In October 2000, when these guys were chosen to be emissaries to convince Veerappan to release Rajkumar whom he had kidnapped on the night of 30 July 2000, Sonia Gandhi was less then impressed.
Speaking in Raichur in northern Karnataka, Sonia Gandhi said: "I know those who are mediating with Veerappan have connections with the LTTE. I discussed this with Chief Minister S M Krishna and it is clear the choice was made by the Tamil Nadu government".
Okay, these are political aspects that the director may have chosen to elide for his creative focus. But to describe a dubious character like Kolathur Mani as 'Statesman' shows where series sympathies lay. After such a description, it was very hard to continue watching the series.
The Jain Commission that probed the conspiracy angle behind the Rajiv Gandhi assassination concluded that Mani was a dubious character.
The Special Investigation Team that probed the assassination even kept Mani in its custody for some time. Also, read this report from Times of India from March 2002 which elaborates how Mani was running the show of Veerappan.
The report, quoting unnamed sources, says that Mani was the kingpin of the extortion racket that he was running with the help of Veerappan.
These may be serious allegations without much evidence, but the fact of the matter is the Karnataka STF did arrest the likes of Mani, Nedumaran and Sivasubramanian (the photojournalist who first clicked those now famous pics of the brigand) in 2002.
And as it happens, the release of Mani from jail was one of the demands of Veerappan to release former Karnataka Minister Nagappa on 25 August, 2002. (For the record, the Congress government in Karnataka, on the insistence of Veerappan, went to the extent of dropping charges against Mani, but could not release him from prison due to legal difficulties).
But, oh yeah, this infamous incident doesn't even merit a mention in the series. The kidnap and heinous murder of a former Minister, which was in bold headlines for days without end then, is not given a footnote in this series.
The former Minister was found dead on 7 December 2002 while in custody of Veerappan, who, however, claimed — in what else but an audio cassette — that he was not responsible for Nagappa's death. There were also rumours that either Karanataka or TN STF had finished him off.
But heck, whatever may be the truth, to totally miss this rather gruesome incident is perplexing, but also again revealing of the series questionable motives.
The documentary also doesn't get anywhere near the so-called Dr Bhanu, whose role in the release of Rajkumar, is still a huge mystery.
The series also stays away from the bombshell allegation of the former Karnataka cop C Dinakar (he was the DG & IGP of Karnataka during the 109 incarceration of Rajkumar in MM Hills) that Rs 20 crore ransom was paid to release the actor from the clutches of the bandit. (He made this allegation in his 318-page book, titled Veerappan's Prize Catch: Rajkumar).
The narco analysis of Veerappan's aide who also alluded of a huge ransom also doesn't figure here. It is not as if these are obscure details. They were major news stories in the first decade of this century.
Anyone who had been journalist in Bengaluru or Chennai in these years would doubtless recall all the tumult and shenanigans that were underfoot then. But the series just stays with one journalist (Sunaad), who has anyway penned his info in a book.
There has been a concerted campaign to whitewash Veerappan's monster methods. He is being sought to be transmogrified into some kind of avenging angel against state excesses and police brutality.
It is disingenuous to condemn State violence and (almost) celebrate wicked vigilantism.
The way the series ends with a smiling Veerappan and a rousing song in the background. It kind of heroises an essentially villain element.
And that's equally villainous and vile.
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