A still from the movie.
A still from the movie.

Veerappan: The making of a killer documentary

Filmmaker Selvamani Selvaraj speaks of his four-episode Netflix documentary, The Hunt for Veerappan, and the unforgettable learnings he encountered while making it.

Who hasn’t heard the story of the dreaded Veerappan and how he eluded police capture for decades? And yet, as is so often the case with such stories, there is a whole lot more to it than the simplistic idea of an evil criminal outwitting good-natured upholders of the law. Selvamani Selvaraj, the director of the latest Netflix documentary, The Hunt for Veerappan, is convinced, in fact, that this is the “world’s best story”. When offered the chance to make a documentary on any topic of his choice, he had already decided he would use this opportunity to discover the mysterious story of Veerappan. This was a story that had enchanted him for years, a story he knew a bit of from anecdotes and literature, and personal experiences too—like when his family went on a trip to Sathyamangalam and forest authorities suggested that they take a different route, worried that Veerappan might be lurking nearby.

He set out to make this film by undertaking journeys to villages that Veerappan (and team) often frequented and getting a sample of tribal life. He managed to win the trust of important stakeholders, including Veerappan’s associates like Anburaj, relevant police personnel, and even Veerappan’s wife, Muthulakshmi. “There are two approaches to making a documentary: one, where you have an opinion on the subject matter and another, where you present the facts as an unbiased, empathetic observer. I chose the latter approach.” And yet when Selvamani began, he wasn’t so ‘unbiased’, especially about the police department.

“We feel a certain distance from the police on account of the authority they wield. I did too; however, after meeting them, it dawned on me that they had suffered too. I was able to extend my empathy to every single affected member in the Veerappan story, regardless of their allegiance.”

The story of Veerappan is pieced together as a tapestry of anecdotes from both those who were close to him and the police department. “I went on Veerappan’s trail almost 20 years after his death. At every step, I could see the resilience needed to live and survive as he did,” says Selvamani, who cites the redemption of Veerappan’s aide, Anburaj, as an inspirational transformation. “Veerappan’s aides, the police personnel, the tribal population of those lands… they are all heroes to me, given how they flirted with danger every day.”

The fundamental inquiry of The Hunt for Veerappan is a question each of us has asked at some point in relation to the Veerappan story. Why did it take so long to nab the forest brigand? “The documentary, in presenting answers to this question, discovers the story of Veerappan.” Veerappan is largely remembered by many as a handlebar-moustache-sporting, mass-murdering smuggler who evaded capture—and such easy labels make it easy to dismiss him as a ‘bad man’. The director believes such a simplistic classification to be quite unhelpful in understanding truth.

“When I told my friends that I was searching for the Veerappan story, they’d ask me the same question. ‘Was he a good man or a bad man?’ My answer to this question was always, ‘Please see the documentary and tell me what you think.”

Selvamani himself was no novice to the story, having spent substantial time learning about the bare bones of Veerappan’s life. This knowledge helped him gain the respect of those he was approaching for the documentary, including police officers who had played a part in taking Veerappan down. The filmmaker, who also doubled up as interviewer, relished the experience of ‘making someone talk’. “As an interviewer yourself, you know how much joy there is in disappearing and allowing your subject to express themselves,” he says. “Muthulakshmi and others trusted that I had no agenda. I was simply a curious man, eager to satiate my curiosity about this fascinating story.

That’s why I could ask the policemen whether they agreed with the harsh methods of investigation because they trusted that I wasn’t doing this film to get them. They have all encountered horrors we can’t even imagine; my life is nothing in comparison to theirs.” In a strange way, both Veerappan’s gang and the police force were similar in how they were living on the edge of death. “The police lived under the threat of ambush. Veerappan and the gang lived under the threat of capture or worse. This was a real dance of life and death.”

Is it surprising then that this documentary, at various points, feels like a thriller, an action film, and a romance even? “The real challenge was to determine how much was enough for this documentary. The editors and executive producers helped a lot. My sole objective was to ensure that everybody was well-represented and that my eagerness to make an engaging documentary didn’t result in the actual story getting altered,” says the filmmaker, who wasn’t perturbed that the subjects in the documentary might use this film to peddle their agenda. “Their perspectives are now yours, and you are free to make up your conclusions.”

Veerappan himself comes across as a complex man who’s hard to understand. On one hand, he loved the forest to bits and thrived in it. And yet, he slaughtered elephants by the thousands. While he began his journey motivated by profit and security, by the end, he seemed to be gravitating towards a selfless cause. “Even I couldn’t understand some of his contradictions. He loved the trees so much, and yet, he was chopping down sandalwood trees for profit. I think Veerappan had a moral compass of his own that didn’t really care for laws, which he felt benefitted those in power,” says Selvamani. It is debatable whether Veerappan was ideologically solid, but his reputation as a hunter is beyond doubt and the stuff of legends. “He was a mythical hunter who could hit his target from two-three kilometres away. He could take a position on one hill and bring down an adversary on another. Even those in the police department admit that a man like Veerappan would have been a matchless asset if he had joined the army.”

Time, Selvamani believes, has helped heal many wounds suffered—both by those who stood by Veerappan and those who stood against him. Even Veerappan’s wife, Muthulakshmi, who claims to have been tortured by the police, has come around a bit, he says. “She agrees Veerappan was a criminal. She also sees that not all police personnel are bad. In a way, I think everyone who’s part of this story is on the brink of finding closure.”

Selvamani hopes that viewers will not classify anyone easily and reject them. “When we classify, we lose depth. It’s easy to reject Veerappan as a murderous forest brigand, but when we look deeper into him, we uncover so much truth about him—and ourselves.” The filmmaker too uncovered some truths he won’t be forgetting soon. “I set out to make a film about unspeakable violence, and yet, now that it’s all done, I’ll remember it for the many research trips I went on and the incredible affection with which I was treated by those who had suffered so much pain.” It’s said that nature has the power to reclaim an abandoned city and turn it into a forest in a decade. It appears that the human tendency to rebound towards love isn’t all too different. “The tribals suffered so much trauma, and yet, when I went there asking about the story of Veerappan, all they gave me was love.” 

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