It was 2004. Almost a month before the Lok Sabha elections, when former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa's AIADMK aligned with the BJP in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa was on a campaigning spree and roadshows across Tamil Nadu calling AICC leader Sonia Gandhi as Antonia Maino were getting popular among the masses of Tamil Nadu.
As a correspondent working for Jayalalithaa's Jaya TV, I travelled for around 60 days during the campaign with her convoy, covering the first leg of her election campaign. At Sathyamangalam, I decided to step down from the convoy and my colleague Ramani took over.
After spending a day at Sathyamangalam, at the behest of former minister K.A. Sengottaiyan, who was organising Jayalalithaa's campaign, I decided to go home to meet my father in Coimbatore. But all of a sudden there was a change of mind as I read the morning newspaper. I wanted to go into the Sathyamangalam jungle and work on a story on forest brigand Veerappan. This was when Operation Cocoon was at its peak and the Special Task Force (STF) was working tirelessly to nab the dreaded bandit.
I walked into the jungle, with one of my junior colleagues Bhuvana and my camera person Radhakrishnan, enjoying the scenic beauty of the forest. Sounds of chirping birds and the sight of mist covering the trees, gave us the energy to walk up further. After a few kilometres, as we tread deep into the forest, we were stopped by a set of STF policemen. After the usual inquiry we went up further into one of the STF camps. I had a long conversation with one of the officers at the camp. It was an off-the-record chat, where he gave me details of Operation Cocoon, its progress and what kind of a person Veerappan was. But he wanted us to return to the foothills of the Sathyamangalam forest as early as we could. He took us in his Jeep to yet another camp, further deep into the jungle, and showed us how the police personnel were working in difficult times. Later, he dropped us back at the foothills. I had spent a whole day with the STF, but did not get an exclusive story.
As a reporter, who had reported in depth on Kannada superstar Rajkumar's abduction by Veerappan, his associate Nagappa's escape, press conferences of journalist Nakkeeran Gopal, who was sent as an emissary to meet Veerappan and also Tamil Nationalist leader Pazha Nedumaran, there was always an urge in my mind to do a detailed piece on Veerappan, his life and his days in the jungle. On October 18, 2004, when my colleague was sent to report on the killing of Veerappan, I even fought with my editor for not sending me.
'Hero' and criminal
And now, decades later, as I watched Netflix's four-part docuseries The Hunt for Veerappan, directed by Selvamani Selvaraj, I am taken back to those days which came to an end with Jayalalithaa felicitating the entire STF team for killing Veerappan.
The docuseries, which runs a little over three hours, begins with Muthu Lakshmi, wife of the forest brigand, recalling the day she first met him. She slowly shares anecdotes of him being celebrated as the 'hero'. It also features interviews of journalist Sunaad and forest officer B.K. Singh.
Old photographs, newspaper cuttings, disturbing music and aerial shots of the deep dark jungle set the mood for the documentary about one of India's most famous outlaws. The first episode delves into Veerappan's journey from an ordinary village boy to an elephant poacher and sandalwood smuggler who was called the "forest king." The Hunt for Veerappan strings together the accounts shared by Muthu Lakshmi, Sunaad, Singh and STF officer 'Tiger' Ashok Kumar supplemented with archival photographs, videos and audio cassettes playing messages from Veerappan. The interviews are revealing, particularly the one with officer Senthamarai Kannan and the trader who did not want to reveal his identity. The villagers also share intimate details of the sufferings under Veerappan.
The Hunt for Veerappan reflects the deep research work done by Selvaraj and his team before they sat down to record these interviews. The narration by journalist Siva Subramaniam, who was the first person to photograph Veerappan, shows us how Veerappan’s life changed after that.
As much as the gripping docuseries captures the true spirit behind the police operation, it also portrays the disdain of cops in an era when technology was limited. In the beginning, however, it seems that the series is glorifying Veerappan. The second and the third part do complete justice and reveal the true story of a dreaded criminal.
Despite the intense research and use of archival material in the docuseries, The Hunt for Veerappan stands out for some key omissions. Decorated police officer Shankar Bidari, best remembered for destroying Veerappan's gang, has not been interviewed by the makers. Vijay Kumar, who led operation Cocoon, has also not been interviewed. Yet another significant man is missing—Nakkeeran Gopal, a man who is believed to have known Veerappan up and close.
That said, the series stays true to its title by delivering details and sticking to the timeline from 1989 to October 2004.
Show: The Hunt for Veerappan
Director: Selvamani Selvaraj
Streaming on: Netflix