As a South Indian millennial, I grew up hearing stories of Veerapan. Especially as a girl in a household of boys and a father with a boy-like spirit, I heard of Veerapan. Veerapan was written about in a million ways in newspapers and talked about on radio and TV shows. He was portrayed as a modern-day robin hood at first, causing the government crores of loss by stealing sandalwood and hunting elephants for their ivory. But soon enough, Veerapan became unfathomably violent and killed too many people and caused substantial loss of money and people for the government in their attempts to hunt him down.
Until he became overtly violent, Veerapan and his luxurious moustache were a real-life anti-hero/cult figure in South India. From my brother back in the 80s to a relative in the early 90s, the rare few images of Veerapan with his mighty guns in his camouflage uniform were cut out and cherished. In any place where machismo and rebellion are revered, outlaws and rebels held such a place of cult figure status - from Pablo Escobar to Bonnie and Clyde. The stories of Veerapan’s acts in the media coalesced to create a complex figure that captured the imagination of the young. But the continued man-hunt for Veerapan is one that was filled with as much intrigue and twists as one of those movies a young South Indian boy in the 90s would’ve loved to see, even without any dramatisation.
The Hunt For Veerappan and Narrative Neutrality
In the ever-evolving landscape of documentary filmmaking, the delicate balance between presenting objective truths and shaping a narrative that engages audiences has always been a topic of debate. Netflix's latest documentary, "Hunt for Veerappan," by director Selvamani Selvaraj is an attempt at telling the story of Veerapan keeping in mind the need for narrative neutrality. Drawing insights from those who were close to the situation on both sides - his wife Muthulakshmi and his erstwhile followers to the STF office who was monumental in ending his reign, all are part of the documentary. It delicately navigates the complex terrain of storytelling while presenting the hunt for one of India's most notorious criminals.
The pursuit of Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, the notorious Indian sandalwood smuggler and outlaw responsible for numerous deaths and acts of terror is chronicled in this documentary. It captures the relentless efforts of the Special Task Force (STF) to capture Veerappan, spanning nearly two decades. Critics argue that the very act of storytelling inherently involves making choices about what to include, exclude, emphasise, or downplay. This selection process, intentional or not, can lead to a narrative that might inadvertently sway viewers' opinions. In the case of "Hunt for Veerappan," the question arises: How effectively does the documentary tread the fine line between telling a compelling story and maintaining narrative neutrality? By employing a mix of interviews, archival footage, and reenactments to reconstruct the events surrounding Veerappan's pursuit. Critics have highlighted the importance of contextualising these elements, as they can influence the audience's perception of the subject matter.
Presenting the reality of Veerapan, the company he kept, the things he enjoyed, and the kindness he has shown to people also helps people understand the reverence that was shown by smaller villages to him. The documentary also looks at not just the criminal activities of one of India's most notorious outlaws but also the systemic issues that contributed to his rise and eventual pursuit. But on the same note, it meticulously portrays his involvement in a string of kidnappings, murders, and acts of terrorism, revealing the extent of fear and chaos he sowed in the region. While the crimes committed by Veerappan are unquestionably reprehensible, the documentary delves into the socio-political context that might have contributed to his actions. It explores the grievances and injustices faced by local communities, shedding light on the exploitation of resources and marginalisation that likely fueled his anti-establishment stance and the support given to him that allowed him to rise to power. Again, this contextualization does not excuse his actions, but rather seeks to explain the underlying factors that could have contributed to his transformation into a ruthless criminal.
The portrayal of the STF's actions, motivations, and decisions could potentially shape viewers' understanding of the larger ethical questions surrounding the pursuit as well. One of the most jarring revelations in the documentary pertains to the government's conduct during the man-hunt for Veerappan. The documentary shows instances where the government resorted to morally questionable tactics, to extract information. This dark chapter sheds light on the lengths to which authorities were willing to go, raising unsettling questions about the ethics of their approach and the blurred line between justice and cruelty at an unpredictable time. But again, it is driven by pressing conversations with people like retired Assistant Commissioner of Police B.B. Ashok Kumar to hear the reality of this two-decade spanning man-hunt.
Capturing The Nuances of Interconnected Issues
The "Hunt for Veerappan" is not just a documentary about a criminal's reign of terror and the government’s victory over him; it's a thought-provoking exploration of the interconnected issues that led to the rise of an outlaw and the complex responses by both the criminal and law enforcement. It catalyzes important discussions about the relationship between criminality and societal context.
The documentary itself goes beyond surface-level storytelling to explore the nuanced realities surrounding the criminal's actions and the government's response. By delving into the socio-political context that contributed to Veerappan's crimes and exposing the questionable actions taken during the man-hunt, the documentary raises important questions about accountability, justice, and the responsibilities of both individuals and institutions. As viewers engage with this documentary, it is essential to recognize that it serves as an invitation to deeper conversations about the intricate relationship between crime, societal dynamics, and governance.
But ultimately, it does one well to remember that no documentary is free from the influence of human choices, perspectives, and storytelling techniques. As viewers, we must remain discerning and critically engage with the narratives presented, recognizing that even the most well-intentioned documentaries might not be entirely immune to biases and subjectivity.
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