A reporter who went hunting for Veerappan watches ‘Veerappan’ the movie

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Having spent a good part of my career visiting the jungle which Veerappan ruled, and writing about him in the newspapers where I worked, I watched Ram Gopal Varma’s movie with some expectations. I must confess that it left me frustrated and disappointed.

At best, the film offers glimpses into Veerappan’s character. A glimpse is what a short story is made of. A novel or a film needs to tell as complete a story as possible. A series of glimpses spliced together do not make a film. They only produce an episodic hotchpotch that raises more questions than answers.

One of the many reasons why the movie looks patchy is that Varma presents Veerappan as a flat, one-dimensional, pure-evil character with an almost permanent scowl on his face, ready to kill any moment. The film tells viewers ‘what’ the bandit did and ‘how’ he did it, but leaves them scratching their heads and wondering ‘why’ he did what he did.

The film is long on Veerappan’s killings but short on his motive. Good fiction-writers and film-makers know that a strong motive makes a strong villain. For instance, the bad guys in James Bond movies, based on both Fleming’s original books and the franchised works that came later, have quirky and outlandish motives.

Sandeep Bharadwaj as Veerappan in Ram Gopal Varma's film on the smuggler

Sandeep Bharadwaj as Veerappan in Ram Gopal Varma’s film. Youtube screen grab.

The Veerappan movie is not based on fiction, and Varma didn’t need to invent a motive. It was all there in his real life and all you needed was a little digging. The bandit was not driven just by money. And it wasn’t political power—though he did have a political ambition for a while. And it wasn’t some sort of hero-worship for LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran either. What kept him going was a barbaric, animal-like instinct for survival.

Veerappan began by killing elephants and selling their tusks, before he branched off into sandalwood smuggling. There was nothing else he was capable of doing to make a living in the jungle. But when poaching and smuggling became less profitable he took to kidnappings and extortions to survive. He killed people including forest and police department officials, even when he had the slightest suspicion that they threatened his survival. Or, in some cases, he killed for revenge—and he killed brutally.

He craved for money for his continued survival, but didn’t seem obsessed with it. I found that he sold the elephant tusks and sandalwood cheap. From poaching, smuggling, kidnappings and extortions he did make a lot of money—estimates range between Rs 20 crore and Rs 50 crore—during the nearly three decades of his career. But he gave a good part of it to villagers and local officials who helped him as well as other friends and relatives.

He kept the rest of the money in plastic covers and buried them in different parts of the jungle—nobody knows where.

And Veerappan didn’t go after LTTE for friendship. It was a small Tamil nationalist group supporting LTTE, and another Naxalite group that befriended him. They promised him weapons in return for the security of forest cover. They needed Veerappan more than he did. It was they who made him talk of Tamil issues. Veerappan couldn’t care less about the Tamil cause. All he wanted was to survive—to stay alive.

Veerappan was evil, yes. But he was also something else. He was, at times, timid to the point of being cowardly. He was scared of death. He was terrified that either the police or his own men would decimate him.

And he was also helpful to villagers.

This is not to suggest that Varma should have glorified the criminal by turning him into a Robin Hood. This is to suggest that most real-life people are not one-dimensional and flat, and Veerappan too wasn’t. That’s the very reason why fiction writers create three-dimensional characters to make them seem like real people and to make them believabe. Varma has missed a chance.

I remember finding poverty-ridden villagers in the deepest parts of the jungle in sudden possession of new, mint-fresh Rs 500 notes. They wouldn’t admit to getting the money from Veerappan. But they had several stories to tell. Their common theme was that Veerappan was a good man and the police were the bad guys. Grateful to their mentor, they would feign complete ignorance to the police about his movements.

And many others didn’t talk to the police for fear that Veerappan would kill them if they did. They feared the police because of the beatings the villagers got, but they feared the outlaw more. This carrot-and-stick strategy of Veerappan’s led to an information famine for the police, it was one of the chief reasons why he held out so long in the forest. If Varma was trying to tell viewers “why Veerappan was allowed to happen”—in media interviews, he said that’s what his intention was—he should have had more of this.

Among the other reasons why Veerappan survived for so long were:

–He knew the forest so well that he could, when needed, escape from one place to another in a matter of hours, while the police would take a day or more.

–He picked vantage points from where he could watch the movements of his enemies, and ambush them when he chose to.

–The police were never really serious in wanting to catch him. Top echelons of the police had sidestepped the forest department officers who knew the terrain better. Most of the lower police echelons posted in the area were physically unfit and mortally afraid of Veerappan.

Varma’s masterstroke was his choice of Sandeep Bharadwaj for Veerappan’s role. The right makeup transformed Bharadwaj into a near-lookalike of the brigand, but this advantage was more than overshadowed by the uni-dimensional nature of the role. Bharadwaj worked hard, a bit too hard, to look murderous but occasionally ended up looking ridiculous.

Two women take too much time in the middle part of the movie. Shreya (the wife of a police officer killed by Veerappan, played by Lisa Ray) tries to use the bandit’s wife Muthulakshmi (Usha Jadhav) to trap him. It served as a necessary subplot but could have been shorter. One gets the impression that Varma had this part only to add the feminine presence. And it’s also marred by the fact that Muthulakshmi, who had once said she married Veerappan because of his moustache and notoriety, is more mellowed in the film than she really is.

The police operation to trick Veerappan into coming out of his den and then kill him ended the film reasonably well. But at one point what was meant to be a profound scene turned out to be ludicrous. The officer who leads the operations climbs up an elevated place and rotates his head apparently to look for the brigand. A policeman in real-life Veerappan’s jungle would stand on open ground in that fashion only if he wanted a bullet in his head. The killer could be perched on a tree nearby.

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