The Hunt for Veerappan

The Hunt for Veerappan
The Hunt for Veerappan
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“Killing isn’t bravery,” the person being interviewed says at some point during The Hunt for Veerappan. The woman she is talking to looks at her, searching for what she means. Then she says “Seri (all right)” very slowly, still not understanding. Half a second later there’s almost a smirk on her lips, and in her eyes you can see a glint of pitiful contempt. What for the interviewer is righteous idealism smacks of naïveté to her. She is, after all, Muthulakshmi, beloved wife of Veerappan; survivor of (allegedly) the Workshop of torture that was set up to extract information about her fugitive husband from her; and whom the police tried to manipulate in various ways to lure Veerappan into their traps. This is a woman who knows about killing. That’s why she’s being interviewed. She’s seen people killed by hers and those she considers her enemies’. Her husband called her a “warrior”. For all the “seri” that comes out of her mouth you can tell that she believes some kills are brave acts and no interviewer will be able to convince her otherwise.

By the end of The Hunt for Veerappan bravery feels like an idea soaked with blood and irrelevant. It isn’t scarce — he shows it when he doesn’t back down; they show it when they keep setting traps for him despite setbacks; they show it when they sit in front of these cameras and sincerely recall — and having it seems to do nothing really at all but get more people killed harder later on down the line somewhere else again anyway no matter where or who or how much one might have had at any given time before then or now so why would anyone ever want anything other than death which always comes next anyway over life which never does? In 2004 after years lost living hard it isn’t bravery that kills Veerappan, but deception. He’s drawn out from his enemies’ protected woods not by an affront to his ego or even honour, but a much less exciting thing altogether. 

To humanise someone who is widely seen as having done wrongs is almost standard procedure in the true crime documentary era and director Selvamani Selvaraj makes sure we know that there was more to Veerappan than the crimes against his name. While those behind the special task forces (STF) set up to find Veerappan talk about how he would outwit rivals, Muthulakshmi and other former associates describe him as “Forest King”. The same man who bragged about killing so many tuskers could also speak with babblers. She remembers one day when they were together in the forest and a flock came down to them, chattering away. He listened for a moment and then told her they had to leave because the birds had told him that police had entered. Even brigands — this word was always used in news reports about Veerappan from the Nineties — have many sides.

The Hunt for Veerappan is told through three lenses – the media, the state law enforcement and Veerappan’s accomplices. What shakes one is how easily STF members recount (and forget) the violence they unleashed on innocents. It’s interesting that Shankar Mahadev Bidari, an officer who is believed to have set up the Workshop where hundreds of villagers were detained and tortured though there was no evidence linking them with Veerappan, isn’t interviewed; nor is K. Vijay Kumar, former chief of the STF that killed him.

No police officer is also asked to respond to Muthulakshmi’s allegation that she was subjected to electric shocks “where a baby drinks milk from” and on her genitals. One cannot watch The Hunt for Veerappan without thinking about Vetrimaaran’s films, especially Viduthalai Part 1 (2023), where police try to catch a man labelled as a domestic terrorist but protected by locals.

With stunning visuals of picturesque landscapes and deft interplay between archival footage and staged scenes, Selvaraj lends fiction storytelling sheen to The Hunt for Veerappan. This works well in terms of holding attention but despite all the research put into it and carefully telling its story i feel like still something more needs be done so this documentary does not seem enough for me because after watching it. I did not come out knowing why only veersappen could rise upto such levels whereas many others are involved in poaching sandal wood smuggling among other crimes neither do we know what drove him.

Compared to the violent elaborate tactics deployed by the state machinery along with their huge budget spent behind this operation veerapan seems like an underdog in The Hunt for Veerappan – he wins against all odds posed by STF due his smartness coupled with thorough understanding of terrains; As each cop falls off you know he has seen every hairpin bend on road and each forest sign.

The way The Hunt for Veerappan portrays the conflict however does not fully capture the fear that Veerappan instilled in people during the Nineties. For instance, there is only a brief mention of crimes against common civilians. Conversely, STF is presented as a terrifying force especially at the tail end of the program when they used “tactical intelligence” to lure and capture him. In this documentary series lies a narrative perhaps only fiction can uncover; that a young woman was planted to glean information from an older Muthulakshmi, and somehow they became friends without either betraying their loyalty. While many movies have been made about Veerappan before this one, it might just be enough to make someone tell Muthulakshmi’s story too – turning her into an unsung hero who hides among ordinary people but says everything with one word “seri”.

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