‘The Hunt For Veerappan’ director Selvamani Selvaraj on why the story of the manhunt has to be told now

The filmmaker speaks about taking an unbiased stance in telling the story of Veerappan, gaining the trust of the sources to share their stories, condensing and structuring the tale into a four-part docu-series, and more

August 02, 2023 05:50 pm | Updated 05:50 pm IST

Selvamani Selvaraj; a still from ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’

Selvamani Selvaraj; a still from ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Years ago, a student journalist met a man from Tharkadu, Kolathur, who spoke about the time he came across the infamous forest brigand Veerappan incarnate; when asked to tell his tale, he would go on to speak about what Veerappan means to the local villagers but wondered if the world still finds the late brigand, killed in 2004, intriguing enough to write about. So when Netflix announced the docu-series The Hunt For Veerappan, the obvious question was: what makes the story of Veerappan relevant to today’s world? “This docu-series is an exploration to know if the socio-political situation of a society can create an entity like Veerappan and if he was indeed that entity. Understanding this is important even now,” says Selvamani Selvaraj, the director of the Netflix series, adding that he wanted the world to know everything that happened during and because of Veerappan’s manhunt.

It seems like Selvamani has been mulling over Veerappan for quite some time, much before he landed this project at Netflix. But how did this newcomer, who is yet to make a popular mainstream title, get to helm such a mammoth project? “After working as an Assistant Director to Ang Lee in Life of Pi, I made my film Nila, which was revered in the festival circuit. Things changed for me when Netflix bought our small-budget film, and it was one of the first three Tamil films that streamed on Netflix. And circa 2019, when Netflix asked me for a story, I pitched the idea of doing a fictional series on Veerappan,” says Selvamani. The streamer suggested making it as a documentary and having already been doing some research into the story, Selvamani realised that non-fiction better suited the subject. “I met many sources for the story and I realised that our job is only to let them tell their story.”

Selvamani Selvaraj

Selvamani Selvaraj | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Selvamani and his team then spent four years making this docu-series — two for research, and a year each for shooting and post-production. The story of Veerappan is quite extensive and even cumbersome considering the multiple perspectives, and Selvamani was keen on knowing it all. “I read the books, but most importantly, I met everyone I can to know more. If I wanted to know about a police station that was attacked, I prefer going to that location and getting things done there. Such a story has not happened in the history of the world and it cannot happen again as well; it’s so vast and felt like reading an epic.” That there were many questions still left unanswered, despite all the available material, was what motivated Selvamani further; the series, he says, attempts to find those answers.

Making it a four-part series was always the idea but condensing and structuring a story that spanned over decades should have been a little tricky. Selvamani had a solution. “We wanted to explore who’s Veerappan, why he came to be, why it was difficult to capture him, and why it took so long. For this, we divided the manhunt into four thematic parts: first is how he lived as the King of the Forest, then how the clash with the police happened, third is how it all turned political, and finally his desperation to escape the clutches of the forces.”

Muthulakshmi in ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’

Muthulakshmi in ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy Of Netflix

The series aims to strike a balance in telling this slippery slope of a narrative with polarising opinions — some parties speak of the crimes he committed while some justify his actions as extreme reactions to the injustice by the police; this ensures we get to see the events from multiple perspectives. Participants include Veerappan’s widow Muthulakshmi, members of Veerappan’s gang and the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, the locals in the villages, media personnel including an investigative journalist and a photojournalist, the members of the Special Task Force, and so on. To persuade these sources to talk, Selvamani and his team had to gain their trust. “We had to explain the importance of why we need to tell this story now and that we had no agenda in doing this but a desire to find the truth. Every one of them understood that and we didn’t have to persuade them much beyond this.”

The nature of the events that transpired was such that many of the incidents discussed could still send stir up controversies and Selvamani says he was conscious not to let anything be misinterpreted. From Muthulakshmi narrating the abuse and torture she endured to the police allegedly burning down houses of innocents at Nallur and the alleged custodial torture by a special force headed by former DGP and Police Commissioner Shankar M Bidari, The Hunt For Veerappan leaves no stones unturned. The infamous 1992 Vachathi case, however, doesn’t feature in the series and Selvamani says they avoided it as “it wasn’t directly connected to the manhunt per se — that case had many other angles to it.” The filmmaker, however, cites S Baslamurugan’s novel ‘Solakar Thotti’, which spoke about the Vachathi case, as a major influence on his work in the series.

The Hunt For Veerappan features some remastered pictures of Veerappan in pristine quality and such archives were like treasures to the team, says Selvamani. “I have to thank late photojournalist Netra Raju for many shots you see in the series.” Another striking aspect is the intro song, through which Selvamani and music composer Jhanu Chanthar wanted to capture the spirit of what Veerappan was to them when they grew up. “We thought of how it’d be if the forest spoke to Veerappan because the forest doesn’t care whether you’re a cop or a brigand.”

Anburaj, a member of Veerappan gang, in a still from ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’

Anburaj, a member of Veerappan gang, in a still from ‘The Hunt For Veerappan’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy Of Netflix

Interestingly, the series speaks about this mystic relationship that Veerappan shared with the jungle. “He used to talk about a Vanadevathai (a forest angel) and a spiritual connection with the forest. I can never understand that because he was someone who could sense things from the way the birds fly above or the way the animals made noises; Veerappan and his gang would be aware of everyone in their eight-kilometre radius.” Selvamani recollects a gang member telling him how society lost the knowledge of the forest from a man who spent 10,000 nights there.

Now that he has spent four years making this series, who does Selvamani wish to make a documentary on next? “I still haven’t thought about that but I will do more non-fiction projects. Up next, I am doing a fictional feature film (Kaantha, starring Dulquer Salmaan and produced by the actor along with Rana Daggubati), which is currently in pre-production, but you can expect Tamil documentaries from me in the future.”

The Hunt For Veerappan releases on Netflix this Friday, August 4

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