Presenting documentaries in a compact packaging is always a tricky ordeal, especially since the narrative so offered to the audience can easily reflect the filmmaker’s own views and perspectives in that manner. Selvamani Selvaraj’s The Hunt for Veerappan premiere (created under the banner of Awedacious Originals) on Netflix on August 4, 2023, goes beyond picking sides of an argument. Despite it being but natural for a director’s vision to seep into the story threaded by him in his work, the Nila (2016) mastermind lets the subjects at the focus of it do the talking for themselves, while himself keeping afar so as to not let his personal dialogue take over their words.
Documented as a 4-part series, Selvaraj’s project deconstructs the life of the infamous moustachioed brigand, commonly known as “The Forest King” or the “Robin Hood of South India” among the local population. Once the OTT platform released the teaser of the docu-series, people in huge numbers turned up to comment down extolling words in the “Indian bandit-turned domestic terroritst’s” name, proving that his relevance continues to pervade the Tamilian population to this day.
Despite the many written paraphernalia available about him, Selvamani’s work gradually takes us through trajectory of it all as he captures the violent transition in four steps across each episode of the series. The first one titled “The Forest King” begins with the first-hand narration of his wife, Muthulakshmi. Soon, the changing political tone of the storyline grabs on to how he resorted to “crimes against his wildlife” to give back to the local community getting pushed under the exploitation of the government and inequitable distribution of wealth among different groups of society.
These very actions led him to gain the honorary position as the people’s leader, who then also raised him to the status of a God looking out for them. Switching his motives gradually, he then turned into sandalwood smuggler, which furiously caught the attention of the government. It is only thereafter that his actions shape into violent bloodbaths, especially with the brutal killing of the then Forest Officer Srinivas.
At this point in the documentary, Muthulakshmi’s rather proud reminiscence of her husband’s doings is countered by the incoming counter interviews of the police forces that were embroiled in the action back then. Nevertheless, Selvaraj doesn’t switch his storytelling tactics. He constantly keeps up with his talking head interviews, archival footage and audio clippings of Veerappan to complete the story altogether. He doesn’t once involve the dramatic manipulation of re-enactments to favour either side of the story.
A particular build-up in Episode 1 addressing Srinivas’ intervention to catch hold of Veerappan first begins with accounts from Gopinatham residents speaking out about how the Senior Forest Officer helped rehabilitate their situations. But, the very next moment, the conversation switches over to Muthulakshmi’s side, who calls him out for putting up an identical act as her husband’s ways of helping the forest people. Selvaraj continues to show later on how the villagers particular mourned Srinivas’ death eventually, while also bringing up how the bandit’s wife saw the Forest Officer’s actions as mere tactics to coerce out information from them.
Selvamani never complicates the debate. He rather lays out the details linearly so that even an outsider can easily catch up to the mythos of the man in question. Moreover, his camera is not merely focussing either on Muthulakshmi’s words or the Special Task Force (STF) deployed to capture the feared public figure. It also pans out to take in the words of the Forest Officers, who didn’t always agree with the STF, and even the old citizens inhibiting that space.
And it’s not to say that the bloodbath initiated by Veerappan isn’t caught on his lens. He gets it all, but again without leaning towards either claims. Moreover, without glorifying his deeds (no matter what the cause or context), Selvamani narrates his brutal actions as well, but without turning a blind eye to the equally malicious actions taken by the STF.
Some of their own testimonies in the series speak up about how the polices forces also “became mercenaries”, and resorted to many means “that will not be understood by any court of law or human rights or anybody”. Shankar Mahadev Bidari’s names is especially brought up to reveal the horrors of the eventually established “workshop” in the area, which was “designed specifically to torture people”. Through this revelation of the other side of the plot, Selvamani Selvaraj again balances the bridge. It pushes the audience to question how this so created “second hell” was any different from what is conventionally termed as “evil” by our conscience.
Even Muthulakshmi later brings up how she was tortured in this structure typically sanctioned by the government’s side. Moreover, the details of mysterious murder plan of eliminating Veerappan for once and for all are still under wraps. Trimming off the moustache that was synonymous with his identity, it’s almost as if the STF takes pride in its actions, which no one has a clue about what they really were.
Senthamarai Kannan of the Tamil Nadu STF also ends his interview with the remarks that “my point was STF was given the task to accomplish. It has been accomplished and there ends the matter”. Is this to say that whatever means were opted by these forces in charge in the end are never to be questioned because they were exercising their duty in response to the government’s word?
While this all may make it seem as if the co-writers Forest Borrie, Apoorva Bakshi and Kimberly Hassett with Selvaraj are fully sympathising with Veerappan’s words and side, but they’re not. Just when the documentary seems to be tilting towards one concern, it brought in the other side’s words to balance it out. The gory details of Veerappan’s actions are equally paid attention to as is the system at work. Regardless of which side seems more white than the other, the series’ gravity chooses to be defined by the years worth of painful trauma weighing both of them.
The Hunt for Veerappan: Final Thoughts
In the end, the whole argument puts up several questions for the audience to ponder over –
- Did Veerappan choose to become the “domestic terrorist” he’s claimed to be out of his own volition, or did the socio-economic and political landscape of his surroundings turn him into the dreaded figure?
- Does the end justify the means? And if it does, then why is this conversation only favourable to those who’re protected under the government’s cloak and name, while the other side continues to be vilified?
- Who decides if Veerappan was a criminal or a rebel? And if he’s to be labelled the former, then why did the locals view him as their hero despite knowing that he’d been a longtime “wanted criminal” by the government?
- What sides of the truth is the government hiding in this case? Why was the ambulance he was killed in covered up, and why weren’t the details of the deed outed to the public?
The docu-series ends with the interviewer asking Muthulakshmi what bravery means to her. Her answer follows, “Bravery is being absolutely fearless. No matter how big the problems are, we should face them and live on this earth … Even when an enemy comes, one should fight and win”, to which the man speaking to her behind the camera claims that for him, “the act of killing is not bravery”, and that in itself sums up Selvaraj’s take on this matter as well because this statement falls in a grey area and can be used to back up each side of the story ultimately leaving the final interpretation to the audience.
The Hunt for Veerappan Netflix series is now available for streaming.
Also read: Dayaa Review: JD Chakravarthy is the Sole Driving Force in This Sketchy Adaptation