The Hunt for Veerappan Review: Slow, Riveting but Riddled with Questions
The Hunt for Veerappan Review: Slow, Riveting but Riddled with Questions

The Hunt for Veerappan Review: Slow, Riveting but Riddled with Questions

The four-part documentary series on how the STF followed and eventually killed notorious smuggler and poacher is streaming on Netflix

Director: Selvamani Selvaraj

Writers: Apoorva Bakshi, Forrest Borie, Kimberley Hassett, Selvamani Selvaraj

Streaming Platform: Netflix

“To me, an act of killing is not bravery,” says the interviewer at one point in The Hunt for Veerappan. The woman he says this to stares at him in silence, trying to understand what he means. Then she slowly says, “Seri (all right)”, clearly still uncomprehending. Half a moment later, there’s an almost smirk on her lips, and a glint of pitiful contempt in her eyes. What is righteous idealism to the interviewer smacks of naïveté to her. She is, after all, Muthulakshmi, beloved wife of Veerappan, a survivor of the Workshop of torture that was (allegedly) set up to extort information about her elusive husband, and whom the police tried to manipulate in various ways to lure Veerappan into their traps. This is a woman who knows about killing. That's one of the reasons she’s being interviewed. She’s seen people killed by her own and those she considers her enemies. Her husband described her as a “warrior”. For all the “seri” that she may murmur, you can see that she believes that certain kills are acts of bravery and no interviewer will convince her otherwise.   

By the end of The Hunt for Veerappan, bravery feels like a blood-spattered and irrelevant idea. There’s no shortage of it — Veerappan shows it as he refuses to back down; the special task force shows it when it continues to lay traps for him despite setbacks; villagers show it by sitting in front of the camera and honestly recollecting their experiences — and possessing it doesn’t really seem to help anyone. Ultimately, in 2004, after years of lives lost and hardships endured, it isn’t bravery that brings down Veerappan, but subterfuge. He’s lured out of the forests that protected him from his enemies not because of a challenge to his ego or honour, but because of something far more mundane. 

To humanise a figure known for his misdeeds is almost standard operating procedure in the age of true crime documentaries and director Selvamani Selvaraj makes sure his viewers know that there was more to Veerappan than the crimes against his name. While key members of the special task forces (STF) set up to find Veerappan describe how he outwitted adversaries, Muthulakshmi and his former associates talk about how he was “Forest King”. The man who boasted of how many tuskers he’d killed was also the man who could speak to babblers. Muthulakshmi remembers being with Veerappan in the forest one day when a flock of babblers came to them, chittering away. Veerappan listened to them for a moment and then told Muthulakshmi they had to leave because the birds had told him that the police had entered the forest. Even brigands — this word was always used to describe Veerappan in news reports from the Nineties — contain multitudes. 

The Hunt for Veerappan on Netflix
The Hunt for Veerappan on Netflix

The Hunt for Veerappan uses three perspectives to tell its story — that of the media, the state’s law enforcement agencies, and of Veerappan’s associates. The ease with which STF members recount (and forget) the violence they unleashed upon innocents is chilling. It is worth noting that Shankar Mahadev Bidari, the officer who allegedly set up the Workshop — a place where hundreds of villagers were detained and tortured despite no evidence connecting them to Veerappan — is not interviewed. Neither is K. Vijay Kumar, who was the chief of the STF that ultimately killed Veerappan. The Hunt for Veerappan doesn’t specify if these officers refused their interview requests or if they were not approached at all. 

The documentary also doesn’t ask any police officer to respond to Muthulakshmi’s allegation that she was subjected to horrific acts like using electric shocks “where a baby drinks milk from” and on her genitals. It’s impossible to watch The Hunt for Veerappan and not think of Vetrimaaran’s films, particularly the recent Viduthalai Part 1 (2023), which shows the police trying to catch a man who is labelled a domestic terrorist but is protected by locals.

With stunning shots of the beautiful landscapes and clever use of both archival footage and staged scenes, Selvaraj brings the gloss of fiction storytelling to The Hunt for Veerappan. It’s an effective tactic in terms of holding the viewer’s attention but despite the research and careful storytelling, The Hunt for Veerappan doesn’t feel exhaustive. It doesn’t leave us wiser about why Veerappan alone was able to rise to the heights that he did, despite many others who engaged (and continue to engage in) poaching, sandalwood smuggling and other criminal activities. Neither do we know what motivated him.

The Hunt for Veerappan offers a compilation of his greatest hits, but more than an understanding of Veerappan, the documentary series offers a portrait of how the tactics used by law enforcement agencies have changed over the years. In this project, it is an outstanding work because Selvaraj has been able to bring in a range of former officers, many of whom are candid about their disappointment with how certain aspects of the manhunt were carried out. Officers who have no such doubts, like Senthamarai Kannan of the Tamil Nadu STF (who not only planted informers but also convinced Veerappan that he was an arms trader with connections to the Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka) make for equally fascinating figures.    

The Hunt for Veerappan on Netflix
The Hunt for Veerappan on Netflix

Compared to the violent and elaborate tactics that the state deploys and the money it spends on this manhunt, Veerappan seems almost like an underdog in The Hunt for Veerappan. He wins against the might of the STF because of his intelligence and in-depth knowledge of the terrain. As he plucks off one police officer after another, you realise he knows every hairpin bend of the road and every sign of the forest. 

However, the terror that Veerappan evoked in the Nineties doesn’t entirely come through in the way The Hunt for Veerappan frames the conflict. There’s only passing acknowledgement of the crimes he committed against regular civilians, for instance. In contrast, the STF emerges as a daunting figure, particularly towards the end of the series when “tactical intelligence” is used to entrap Veerappan. Lurking in the documentary series is a story that perhaps only fiction can excavate, about how a young woman was planted to extract information from an older Muthulakshmi, and how a friendship developed without either betraying their loyalties. While there have been many films inspired by Veerappan, perhaps The Hunt for Veerappan will inspire someone to look at Muthulakshmi’s story and elevate her to the heroine who camouflages herself in the everyday and who can pack a world of meaning into a single “seri”. 

Watch The Hunt For Veerappan Official Teaser

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