The Hunt for Veerappan (2023) Docuseries Review: “In my opinion, the act of killing is not bravery.” So remarks the unseen interviewer to the interviewee, Muthulakshmi, the wife of Veerappan and the subject given the most screen time in this docuseries. The interviewer’s identity is never explicitly revealed, but one can safely assume it is the director Selvamani Selvaraj. His remark stems as a counter to Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi’s claim that her husband’s death at the hands of the STF had been an act of bravery.
There is an argument that a documentarian intentionally breaking the narrative flow and questioning the interviewees while the camera is rolling might be jarring or that it can break the rules of documentary filmmaking itself. It is an argument whose validity might have some credence. However imperfect the procedure is, Selvaraj’s propensity to puncture the carefully constructed narrative of his interviewee’s statements and suddenly put them in an area of hesitancy, where uncertainty flashes through their faces as they scramble mentally to answer the questions without losing their composure, because, inadvertently, the questions would deal with events from much more critical discourse.
It’s not a surprise that the docuseries is called “The Hunt for Veerappan” and not just “Veerappan” because while Veerappan is the central focus, with his reign of terror and his canny ability to use the jungles of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as his home base and carry on his reign through both states, the docuseries also deals with the manhunt. The manhunt for Veerappan had been a costly affair, both from financial and even sociological perspectives. Thousands of police officers had laid down their lives to capture Veerappan, and while that is covered with the appropriate level of alacrity, the cruelty and aggressive interrogation techniques applied by the same authority figures in their overzealous efforts to catch Veerappan aren’t swept under the rug. For all the flaws of Netflix documentaries—the simplistic structure, not having much of a filmmaking flair — The Hunt of Veerappan can never be called a partial testimony skewed towards only one perspective.
Selvaraj, through his interviews of both administrative officers and ex-leaders of the task force, as well as ex-members of Veerappan’s gang, tries to present both sides of a very flawed picture. As a result, Veerappan’s daredevil efforts are never glamorized to the extent that he is always depicted as the rebel against the underdog or the authority. Neither the STF, nor their dynamic and charismatic leaders are being depicted as heroes responsible for bringing a dreaded fugitive to justice. However, we can argue that the imperfection of actively questioning his interviewees almost forces and reconfigures the documentary to become more balanced and, if not exhaustive, definitely much more than simply surface-level.
The one thing “The Hunt for Veerappan” never stops being is compelling and surprising. It is compelling not just to listen to accounts of how Veerappan evolved from elephant poacher to sandalwood smuggler to one of the biggest domestic terrorists of the 90s, but it is also compelling and shocking to understand how the government and the police force tried to apprehend the dreaded outlaw. The second episode especially focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between the authority and the outlaw, and the documentary almost seems to be in awe at Veerappan’s prowess at foiling the well-laid plans of the authority. If this had been a movie, the sentiment would have continued unabated within the audience. However, every time Veerappan would try to foil the plans of the STF (digging in 13-foot-deep pits and burying 25 kilos of explosives, and then blasting them to critically injure and kill key members of the STF), Selvaraj would show the newspaper reports and the destruction and the mutilated bodies left as a result of the carnage.
Almost immediately, the dopamine rush subsides, the reality of the situation sets in, and the awe dissipates as you watch the moments with abject horror. The third episode, dealing with the kidnapping of Kannada superstar Dr. Rajkumar by Veerappan and his rescue after almost 108 days, is especially revealing. While it never goes too deep, the interviews reveal how the kidnapping of an individual and the tension between the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu State governments reach a boiling point on the political stage. It is never explicitly stated in detail, but the documentary does remark that the manhunt for Veerappan as well as Veerappan’s actions, have become mouthpieces for political machinations.
How Rajkumar’s kidnapping forces the Karnataka government to abolish TADA and free the villagers captured due to their association with Veerappan is a result of the outlaw’s sole reasonable demand hidden among a series of preposterous ones. The fact that the government is forced to walk back that step because one of the deceased officers’ parents raised the legal rigmarole of the sovereign state dealing with a terrorist is ample proof of the muddy waters the administration has been wading through throughout the 20 years Veerappan has been active.
Thus, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the death of Veerappan is also under intense scrutiny, especially in the interview with the then commander-in-chief of that task force. His ambivalence towards the people constructing their narratives shows the underlying distrust the populace had against the government. As members of Veerappan’s gang stated and as history has always proclaimed, one man’s outlaw is another man’s revolutionary. And the documentary never paints Veerappan or his family in a singular light. It is more interested in the effect that man and the efforts of the government to capture him had on the general populace. It doesn’t work as some sort of bastion for a documentary series or a vanguard of documentary filmmaking, but as a balanced outlook emphasizing storytelling while striving to keep the facts unvarnished, you can do far worse.