Debutant director Sharath Jothi's six-part docu-series, which is only the first season based on Nakkheeran Gopal's tapes with Veerappan, has been hailed as one of the best in the format.
Koose Munisamy Veerappan – Unseen Veerappan Tapes, the new documentary about the slain forest brigand on Zee5 has been widely lauded for its exceptional story-telling. Based on never-before-seen tapes by Nakkheeran with Veerappan, the first season of the docu series sheds light on his early life and how he came to be a poacher and smuggler, and the circumstances that led to him killing people as well. Over decades, the police from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka attempted to capture him – dead or alive – with little success. This was a time that was immensely tragic for the people in the areas frequented by Veerappan. If they cooperated with the police, Veerappan would kill them, and if they helped him instead, the cops would take them to task with inhuman third degree torture. And this is the story that debutant director Sharath Jothi and his team want audiences to see. “Once you see the tapes of the people who were tortured by the police, you will all but forget about the Veerappan tapes,” says Sharath, during a conversation with OTTplay.
How did Veerappan become the subject of your directorial debut?
I did not choose the project; the project chose me. The team from Nakkheeran (Tamil Investigative Magazine) have been trying to do this documentary series for quite some time, maybe since 2017 or 2018. Nakkheeran Gopal’s daughter Prabhavati wanted to make it as a docuseries. But back then, the docuseries format was not very familiar to Indian audiences. She had been pitching it to platforms, but they remained hesitant, as the subject could generate political tension. Also, since the base language was Tamil, they did not have any data about how many people would watch something like this. It was only by 2020 that Zee Network showed interest but it was finalized only in 2021. It was in 2022 that they began looking for a director to helm the project, and they liked my profile, as I had worked with Shankar on 2.0. That’s how I came onboard.
The time that you began working on this documentary is also perhaps when news of Netflix’s documentary – The Hunt for Veerappan – would have come out. Did that, in any way, impact your approach to the subject?
Not really! The biggest strength of our series is the footage that Nakkheeran Gopal had from his interactions with Veerappan. We were confident that it would be impossible for anyone else to match the narrative that we were trying to build. Everyone’s going to present the police version of events, or, maybe the media perspective, depending on the available resources. Here, we had the luxury of having Veerappan himself talking to the camera. We knew we had nothing to worry about, even if there were other documentaries or films on the subject.
How much footage did you have to work with for Season 1? What was the edit like in identifying bits that you wanted to retain in the final narrative?
The whole process was quite challenging, not only in terms of the footage we had, but also the deadline we had. We had only 12-14 months to complete the docuseries, which is not much for a project of this nature that requires a lot of research to be done, as well as to gauge the on-ground reality. Veerappan died in 2004 and we needed to figure out what people in the areas he frequented still thought of him. By the time I came onboard as director, the core team had already done some level of research, which was helpful. But my first challenge was sifting through the 9 hours of footage that I was given. The six episodes in Season 1 include the filtered bits from these 9 hours. We’ve used about 20 minutes of Veerappan footage in each episode, so, roughly 2 hours in all.
Condensing this information was not easy, but what helped is that in this 9 hour footage, Veerappan’s narration was fairly linear. Very rarely did he deviate completely off tangent, where, for instance, he’d say that he’d have to tell a story for them to understand another one and then come back to the first point he’d made. More or less, though, we’ve followed the exact structure as is on the tape, which helped in putting the screenplay together, starting with his early life in a poor family of hunters, the hunting ban, figuring out how to then make a livelihood, to his first murder and the politics involved in that, etc. There was a chronology to his narration, which helped us figure out what to keep and what not to. Everything that is sensitive and important has been retained in Season 1. We have not trimmed anything that could drive legal issues. We only omitted some parts where we thought he was being repetitive or if it did not take the narrative forward. Like, for instance, there are parts in which he spoke about how he hunts and lives in the forest for about an hour and another half an hour on his views about the Ramayana – there are parts like that we had to skip as it would deviate from the actual intention of the screenplay. We had to watch the footage multiple times to cut it down to the 2 hours we have used eventually and to figure out in which episode to place them.
If you see the episodic progress, the first two are more personal, including the political and business rivalry that ended in him killing someone, and then his rivalry with forest officer Srinivas. By the third episode it becomes police vs Veerappan and from the fourth it is the people’s story, including the torture workshops that the STF set up. The fifth was about informers stuck between Veerappan and the cops. Our head of research, Vasanth, joined Nakkheeran’s chief reporter in heading into the forest fringe areas to talk to people who had been impacted by Veerappan’s time there.
You said that the aim was to steer clear of grey areas that could have legal issues, and yet, episode 4 onward, wherein the torture of the STF is detailed is just that, considering that the alleged perpetrators have got a clean chit in the court of law.
The people featured in the documentary had spoken to Nakkheeran way back in 2000 and had been presented before the Sadashiva commission as well. What we made sure is that no individual in particular was named; instead, the focus was on questioning the establishment and how the government could allow its police force to unleash such atrocities. By avoiding naming people, we ensured that we could bring the issue to the mainstream audience, because otherwise any legal issue could have stopped us from broadcasting the series. A lot of effort has gone into it and there is a core story with a lot of soul to it. Nobody has covered the people’s story ever. Everybody who covers the Veerappan story, either make him a hero or a villain; it will always be about police vs Veerappan. The real story is about the people who lost their livelihoods for a decade. For instance, a political leader called Mohan Kumar who is a part of the show spoke about how several tribal villages that did not get any development until Veerappan died. Government officials were afraid to go into those villages, fearing they’d be kidnapped by Veerappan and then, all that money was then siphoned off by people in power, claiming that they were developing these villages. There was no education, public transport or electricity, among others. It is only since 2004 that those villages have begun to see some development, but even to this day, they are at least 15-20 years behind the rest of other towns in Tamil Nadu. We wanted to shed light on these stories – about the people who were caught between Veerappan and the police. The police side of the story is in the public domain. People know who was responsible, and we thought there was no point in rekindling something if it is going to spoil the whole show. Our aim was to bring the people’s story to the current generation.
At what point did you realize that this story would need more than one season?
The content that you’ve seen so far is from the 9 hours of tape that Nakkheeran had provided. That is done and dusted and will not be revisited. There are a lot more tapes that are in the possession of Nakkheeran, so, Season 2 will have new footage. This is a big story, which would be impossible to tell in just one season. We did not want to tire the audience with too much at one go. In fact, the feedback we got from several quarters is that after episode 4 (the STF torture sequences), audiences found it hard to continue binge watching. If the content is like this for another six episodes, it will be tedious for people to watch. There is a midpoint in the screenplay right now.
There was a random person who used to hunt and poach elephants and how he became a huge societal problem and if the government had stepped in at the right time and got him to surrender, the problem would have stopped long ago. But since that did not happen and the government did not stop him from stuff he did later on - that is the point where we’ve stopped Season 1 right now. Work on Season 2 will begin as soon as we get official clearance from the network. Once that happens, we could be looking at a similar timeline of 12-13 months to get Season 2 in place.
I am not sure how much more footage is with Nakkheeran. I have only seen 9 hours and am yet to see what they will provide for Season 2. The tapes used in Season 1 are from 1 meeting with Veerappan spread over three days. The next set should ideally be from when Nakkheeran Gopal went to meet him as an emissary from the government to secure the release of Dr Rajkumar. The next season could present a different perspective about Veerappan from where we’ve stopped the story now. It will be more about the government vs Veerappan.
Why has it taken Nakkheeran Gopal so long to bring these tapes to light?
He was under tremendous pressure from the government back then to hand over the tapes. There were numerous raids on his offices to find them, because no one other than Gopal’s team knows what’s on them. He manged to preserve the tapes over these years, and converted them to digital format also. In fact, Gopal had offers from international networks like BBC and CNN, but he was afraid of how they’d use the information on the tapes and potential misuse. At any cost, he wanted the people’s story out and he had no avenue, until the advent of OTTs.
What was the condition of the footage, though, considering some are almost three decades old?
They were surprisingly good. In fact, the best bit was the audio quality, which was caught on camera and not with any additional sound recording equipment. Even to this day, capturing live audio is a task and it won’t be clean. But the audio in these tapes did not even require a clean-up or grading. All we had to do was some basic processing to match the levels in the other interviews.
Did you expect this kind of response to the documentary?
People are celebrating the show, but our intention from the start was to get the story of the people impacted by Veerappan in the public domain. The core of Koose Munisamy Veerappan – Unseen Veerappan Tapes was the people’s story. The real success would be if the government reacts to the series and provides these people with some relief.