New Delhi: Veerappan’s image is imprinted as this moustachioed, gun-wielding sandalwood smuggler in pop culture, but filmmaker Selvamani Selvaraj was more interested in finding out about the man behind the notorious brigand in “The Hunt for Veerappan”.
Selvaraj, who worked as an assistant director to Oscar winner Ang Lee on “Life of Pi” and made critically-acclaimed “Nila”, said he grew up with Veerappan’s story. He was keen to find answers to questions like “what created him and why did it take so long to capture him”.
The filmmaker teamed up with producers Apoorva Bakshi and Monisha Thyagarajan, founders of Awedacious Originals and Kimberley Hassett for the four-part Netflix docu-series.
“Except for the fact that he was known for his moustache, carried a gun with him and was fighting the police, I really didn’t have the answers for these questions. I kept going into depths just to understand the fact that such a bandit, such an outlaw existed here… Just the polarising nature, it kept the team completely excited. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime story for a storyteller,” Selvaraj told PTI in an interview.
The series goes back in history to deconstruct the life and time of Veerappan, who eluded capture for decades, kidnapped major politicians and Kannada actor Rajkumar for ransom and killed many forest officials and police officers. He was charged with sandalwood smuggling and poaching of elephants in the scrub lands and forests in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
Veerappan and his associates were killed in 2004 by a team of the Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu Police at Papparapatti village in Dharmapuri district of the state.
Selvaraj, who held the story a “little too close” to himself, said a figure like Veerappan had to happen in the ’90s.
“Like, now a GPS could probably be easier with all the tracking. But it happened in the ’90s when the broadcast was coming. So it is a unique story… Saga is the word that we kept coming back to. Every time we heard the story, something about the story would make us go, ‘This is unreal’. But this happened,” he added.
Bakshi and Thyagarajan, who produced “Delhi Crime” for Netflix, said they decided to board the project because Selvaraj, having already researched Veerappan, had a unique perspective on the story.
“The amount of research he had done was extremely convincing for us to be able to understand that there is a real story here. And one that is extremely important to tell and a version that has never been done well before,” Bakshi added.
According to the producer, while there were several literary pieces on Veerappan, his story was never presented cinematically “in a more comprehensive, wholesome way”.
“The Hunt For Veerappan” features several important figures, such as Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi, former gang members, forest officials and the officers from the Special Task Force that was formed to capture him.
Thyagarajan said when they approached people for the documentary, they were constantly faced with the question of “why should we speak with you about something that’s guarded”.
“There was actually a researcher of ours who met with the officer who said ‘You are at zero per cent trust right now. When you reach 100 per cent is when I will consider giving you an interview’. He took about eight months, but eventually gave us the interview,” she recalled.
Similarly, Muthulakshmi was unwilling to speak with them initially, she said.
“It’s only after spending time, with persistence, that kind of came from all of us collectively, just meeting her and trying to tell her that there is no agenda here,” Thyagarajan added.
Selvaraj said while he wanted to include everything in the story, they faced challenges in what to keep because they didn’t want “any perspective to be inadequately represented or misrepresented”.
“We are not giving all the answers, but we have given you the right ones for you to form the answer for yourself. That was also a great learning that you can get as close to the truth as possible.
“In a pursuit like this, when you want to get to the bottom of a certain truth, whatever honesty, whatever you can do, you can only go as much and the rest is subjective in that sense,” Selvaraj said.
“The Hunt for Veerappan” is streaming on Netflix.