Last Updated: 12.54 PM, Aug 04, 2023
Story: A poacher who hunted and took down every tusker worth the weight in ivory in the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka forest ranges, who then moved on to sandalwood smuggling till the jungle was nearly stripped of all traces of the type of trees
Review: Nearly two decades after forest brigand Veerappan was gunned down by the Special Task Force (STF) set up to capture him, which, in turn, ended a massive and expensive manhunt that spanned two decades, a four-part documentary on the bandit’s life has dropped on Netflix. Directed by Selvamani Selvaraj, the documentary is largely put together with accounts from Veerappan’s widow Muthulakshmi, investigative journalist Sunaad, former members of the brigand’s gang and police officers from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka who served on the STF at various points of time and news reportage of Veerappan’s activities.
In the first two episodes, the bulk of the narrative is based on Muthulakshmi’s account of events, and a few former STF officers offering insights into their operations. We are told how Veerappan began as a poacher who killed every tusker in the forest ranges of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, until it was said that the only remaining ones were still in the wombs of their mothers. When there were no tuskers left, he turned his attention to sandalwood and meticulously stripped the forest of any trace of it in record time. There’s also quite a bit of detail about how Veerappan went about getting rid of anyone in his path, mainly officers tasked with capturing him. One may even detect a tint of veneration in how Veerappan operated when on a mission, like, for instance, when he killed 21 officers in an ambush at a forest-range hair pin bend, for which he used heavy-duty explosives to get the job done. By all accounts, it was unbridled evil, and yet the documentary somehow manages to humanize Veerappan and his associates, with accusatory statements about the inhuman torture some of them, including Muthulakshmi, were subjected to during the time of former Karnataka cop Shankar Bidari’s time as STF chain. He, of course, is not a part of the documentary.
Episode three is when Veerappan’s most ‘daring’ act is brought to focus – the abduction of Kannada matinee idol Dr Rajkumar, along with three of his aides. When the trailer of The Hunt For Veerappan had come out, several Kannada audiences had taken to social media wondering how the team would deal with this sensitive subject, which, back in the day had led to widespread tension between Kannadigas and Tamilians, including reports of violence against the latter in Bengaluru. The episode details how Nakheeran magazine editor Gopalan and Kolathur Mani came to be intermediaries negotiating between Veerappan and the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to secure Dr Rajkumar’s release. The late Kannada actor eventually spent 108 days in captivity, during which time Veerappan made several demands that painted him an activist on a crusade for the cause of Tamil and Tamilians, especially in Karnataka. As Sunaad points out, “the demands were absolutely preposterous and quite ridiculous, which could not be met legally or realistically”.
Here, yet again, Shankar Bidari’s supposed ‘reign of terror’ comes in focus. Defense lawyer Venugopal alleges that hundreds of people, across genders and age groups, were arrested for supposedly being Veerappan associates in the early 90s. Venugopal claims that the only proof that the police had against them were ‘confession statements’ written by the cops and signed by Bidari. The former top cop also then invoked provisions of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA), which Venugopal says included draconian laws meant for hardcore terrorists. When Rajkumar was Veerappan’s hostage, one of the demands sent to the government towards enabling the actor’s release was that all the “innocent” people languishing in jail for being his alleged aides, ought to be set free. And this, according to Sunaad, was the only realistic demand put forth, which was met in record time. Dr Rajkumar’s release was imminent, thought everyone, but then, slain police officer Shakeel Ahmad’s father challenged the release of the TADA detainees in the Supreme Court. While that became a spoke in the wheel of the Rajkumar release, what made it worse was politician Nagappa’s escape from Veerappan’s clutches, after which Tamil Nadu politician Nedumaran became the emissary handling negotiations. Dr Rajkumar was eventually released after a ransom worth several crores was allegedly handed over, a charge that the actor’s family and both governments have vehemently denied. But there are multiple voices in the documentary stating on camera that money exchanged hands.
When I first saw the trailer of The Hunt For Veerappan, the first impression was that it seemed to glorify the forest brigand and the hope was that the tone of the documentary would be more neutral. It’s basic journalism to present both sides of a story, but the overwhelming feeling at the end of four episodes is that the objective was skewed from the word go and it was in favour of Veerappan. When a former STF member is just short of singing praise of Veerappan’s ambush strategy that would, most definitely, end in a kill; in this case, a bunch of police officers, you know something’s not right. After all the atrocities he’d unleashed, he was apparently hoping for a retired life of peace with his family, which, his former aides allege, was denied when the STF gunned him down, instead of letting him surrender on his own terms.
Verdict: The Hunt For Veerappan is, no doubt, an engaging watch, but likening him to Robin Hood and revolutionaries like Che Guera was a pill too hard and bitter to swallow.