Veerappan’s phenomenon is a unique phenomenon, we’re told in Netflix’s docuseries The Hunt For Veerappan, which dropped on the platform on August 4. “He was a wild animal in human form.” Selvamani Selvaraj’s documentary explores the life of the elusive criminal, who held “two states to ransom” in guerilla warfare until his death in 2004. While to a few he was the bandit who poached countless elephants and killed people, to a few, he was the Robinhood of the forests. Selvaraj, in an interview with Film Companion, says he never set out to box him into either. “Things like this are never so binary. I don't have an answer even now. What I was interested in was finding out more about this man who is known for his brutality and yet loved by his people.”
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Let me start with the most obvious question, what is the change you felt while making your transition from a feature film director (he made the Tamil film ‘Nila’) to a docu-series? Are there things that you got to do here and things that you miss from the film experience?
This was a major part of my training and now I can confidently say that I know how to make non-fiction. There was a lot of learning. I also want to add that Netflix is the reason why I fell in love with non-fiction in the first place and they made me realize that the gap between fiction and no-fiction is so narrow. When they pick up a feature film director to make a non-fiction show, especially in my case, they help the creator by picking the right collaborators.
For instance my executive producer Kimberly, who has been an industry professional for more than three decades, helped point out the trappings that filmmakers get into while embarking on making a non fiction material. The major difference, I feel, is that in fiction you have some kind of control, but in non-fiction there is no guarantee like that. I needed to have a lot of trust and patience with my collaborators.
The one thing that has changed me after this experience is how I am going to approach representation in my work in the future, be it fiction or nonfiction. I will keep a closer eye on how a character looks and behaves in a way that we get the representation clear and close to the truth. I think I will tend to stick to facts and truth a little bit more rather than take any major liberties.
So, whose idea was it to make something on Veerappan?
The idea to make it non-fiction came from Netflix.
We as South Indians know more about Veerappan and have long ago decided a side to pick in the whole narrative around his legend right? What was your internal conflict going into this project with regards to picking a side or not picking one at all?
Yeah, that's the one thing everybody wants answers to. But honestly I never thought of it like that because it's a form of reductionism and not a sign of good exploration, if I set out to find an answer to the question. Things like this are never so binary. I don't have an answer even now. What I was interested in was finding out more about this man who is known for his brutality and yet loved by his people.
So I knew that I could not box him into a particular slot and Netflix pitched this to me through the lens of following the man who was practically impossible to catch. That framing helped me feel liberated to focus more on the political, social and time-bound chain reactions that contributed to his story. It's a dream for any storyteller to get to explore a story like this and my team also believed that it's not easy to come across such a huge, mysterious life story.
Yeah, one thing I found really fascinating is how your list of editors includes two US-based editors. So what was it like for them to encounter this person, going through hours of footage and what was their objective take on the whole story?
Kimberly was there from the very beginning, even before I came up with the structure for the whole thing. So she set up the team for us. And our supervisory editor Forrest Borry, he went on a mad journey along with me and was consumed with Veerappan and brought in a lot of objectivity and had no agenda to insert in the story. They felt confident that this content would travel the world and be somewhat of an equivalent to the ‘Wild Wild Country’ doc from India, purely in terms of the subject matter and appeal.
How did you decide on who you were going to talk to? One may have expected subjects like the journalist Nakeeran Gopalan and or the decorated officer Vijayakumar.
It was fascinating to sit back and see how these people became great storytellers once they came across Veerappan’s life story. It's a story of over 20 years, so except for Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi, everybody else had a stipulated presence, dropping in and out of his life from time to time. We were very sincere with what we were doing and I feel like the show chose its own people, and I happened to witness that process.
I want to ask you about a very specific scene , a two- three minute sequence towards the end of the third episode. It's so beautiful and cinematic, especially the way you chose to debut Veerappan’s recordings over visuals of Muthulakshmi going about her regular day. Did you have an idea of putting that together while filming or was it developed as you went along?
The idea of using his voice at that crucial moment, came from our producer Apoorva. There was always a lyrical quality to the telling of this story even though we are deconstructing violence. But the compassion and beauty we saw during the production in and around him, those beautiful moments sort of lend its way into the telling. A lot of the visuals were coming from the subjects of the story, like Muthulakshmi, who made an entrance in a scooter wearing a tiny helmet to shatter our expectations of how she would be. All this adds the lyrical dimension to the presentation as she would share these poignant anecdotes of seeing him in her dream and still searching for him in her own way.
One more interesting thing for me was the strong arc that Muthulakshmi got from the story and how she admits to certain things, like her neverending wait for Veerappan in prison. Can you take me through what kind of time it took for you to get her to trust you enough to open up like this?
It goes back to perception. People have a wrong impression of her and she is much deeper than what she gets credit for. It did take us time to get to her and gain her trust. In a way, nobody can understand Veerappan the way she can and she did not want to open up initially as she was waiting for the right set of people and time to share her side of the story. But once she believed that we were the right people with honest intentions, she started opening up and since she is such a natural storyteller, we just had to point the camera and capture.
Finally, what was the moment in between all the chaos, when this whole process became more than just a show or a project, where you felt like you were not ready to deal with such a dark subject?
I always wanted to take this journey and it was such an integral quest that Netflix helped me put together. It was a personal journey for me in many ways. I wanted to know things like where Muthlakshmi found her strength and it was such an honor to sit down and capture all this. It never was like a forced journey or project for me, it was about me being curious and asking people to tell me their truth.