Two decades later, the basic facts of the Purulia arms drop still beggar belief. On December 17, 1995, a Russian plane with a Latvian crew and passengers that included a British arms dealer and a Danish smuggler flew over West Bengal, dropped 2,500 AK-47 weapons and 1,500,000 rounds of ammunition over five villages in the Purulia district and took off for Thailand.

The five Latvians and the Briton were arrested when they landed back in India and they spent many years in a Kolkata prison. The Dane evaded arrest and disappeared, resurfaced in Denmark and eventually defeated Indian attempts to extradite him. Meanwhile, it is still not clear whether the arms were meant for the Ananda Marga religious cult, as is the popular theory, or whether they were actually supposed to be routed to Kachin rebels in neighbouring Myanmar.

Since then, reams of newsprint have been expended trying to solve the riddle, as have a handful of television documentaries. The latest cinematic exploration of the subject is Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s documentary The Arms Drop. The 94-minute film will be shown at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto between April 13 and May 3. The prestigious festival represents the North American premiere for the 2014 production, which has been screened widely across Europe and has also been broadcast on television. (An hour-long version was shown in January on the Indian channel Times Now.)

The Arms Drop presents a diet version of an over-stacked mystery. The turn of events is described by journalist Chandan Nandy in his account The Night It Rained Guns Unravelling the Purulia Arms Drop Conspiracy as an “immensely vexing, extraordinarily complex and tangled, but absorbing and enjoyable case”. The book is an exhaustive investigation into the attempts of Indian intelligence agencies to hack through the many layers of secrecy that surround the case. The Arms Drop, perhaps wisely, sticks with a spare and simple narrative: it contrasts the two principal players. The film includes a lengthy interview with the British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, but of maximum interest to Indian viewers is the conversations with the elusive Danish national Kim Davy, whose real name is Neils Christian Nielsen and who now goes by the name Neils Holck.

Both men plead their innocence -- Bleach because he alerted British intelligence about the arms deal before it happened and spilled the beans to Indian agencies as soon as he was caught, and Holck because he claims that he is a victim of a high-level conspiracy in which the Indian government sought to overthrow the ruling Left Front in West Bengal at the time.

Lots of drama

Koefoed met Holck in 2010 when the smuggler and Ananda Marga devotee was contesting his possible extradition to India. (To the dismay of Indian officials, Holck won his case.) “Holck had written a book, De kalder mig Terrorist [They call me Terrorist], which told his version of the story, and I found it to be fascinating,” Koefoed said in a telephone interview from Copenhagen. “I started filming Kim Davy through his trial. I found out that the story was very complicated, and realised that I would need some other method of telling it. The main event took place way back in 1995, and I had to bring it back to life in an interesting way.”

Peter Bleach in The Arms Drop.

Koefoed fell back on the time-tested technique of dramatic reconstruction. The patching together of the deal, the arms drop itself, and its consequences are depicted through actors. The Arms Drop opens with a familiar, haranguing voice. Times Now channel head Arnab Goswami interviewed Holck in 2011 when the extradition trial was underway, and berated him for revealing only “half the story” even as he was in the process of wearing his earpiece. Holck claimed that he was a mere cog in a joint operation between the Indian Research & Analysis Wing and the British Mi5 and blessed by the ruling Congress Party to unseat the West Bengal government by arming the Ananda Margis.

The film then cuts to Bleach at his home in Scarborough in England. The Arms Drop alternates between these two men, whose fates were linked when they met over the purchase of weapons and an aircraft in mid-1995. The Arms Drop sacrifices several complicated details and excises hundreds of characters in the interests of a human interest story. A scroll at the end of the documentary lists all the agencies that refused participation, including the Indian embassy in Denmark and the Danish intelligence service.

Koefoed also met Christer Brannerud, the Swedish Interpol investigator who filed what is possibly a conclusive but classified report on the case. The investigator appears on camera, but nobody is any wiser after his interview. He admits that the case was “slowed down” because of its sensitive nature, and that “the secretive nature of the report” indicates that there are powerful interests at work, both then and now.

“I decided to tell the story through the testimonies of Kim Davy and Peter Bleach, and the film became about these two men on the airplane,” Koefoed said. “I met Neils in October 2010 and completed the film in the spring of 2014 – the first two years went just in filming and conducting research.” Koefoed ran into several closed doors, and had to rely greatly on newspaper sources since many of the people involved refused to speak on camera.

The Arms Drop has been shot in Denmark and the United Kingdom, since shooting in India was deemed to be next to impossible. Veteran journalist Udayan Namboodiri contributed some insights and interviews, but they didn’t make it to the final cut.

“I did want to include the Indian side more, but it proved to be difficult,” Koefoed explained. He did manage to track down Deepak Manikan, an Ananda Marga follower also known as Daya M Ananda and an associate of Holck who was on the plane. Deepak’s interview is included in a longer version of the documentary that was shown on television. “Deepak gave us his side of the story, and he confirms Bleach’s version, but even he does not say whom the consignment was meant for,” Koefoed said.

International man of mystery

Perhaps the biggest enigma that lingers after The Arms Drop has ended is Neils Holck himself. Nandy digs up a series of facts about the fugitive from Indian justice, including his criminal past, his involvement with gold smuggling (which he explains in the documentary as a means of raising funds for the Ananda Marga), his links with the cult, his multiple identities (Holck may have used at least 36 aliases and 15 passports over a ten-year period, according to Nandy), and his baffling rescue by the Danish government, which Nandy feels is because of unexplored connections with powerful Western powers (read the United States of America and the Central Intelligence Agency).

Holck’s self-regard and survival skills are on ample display in The Arms Drop. He paints a picture of himself as a victim of Indian intransigence, insists that he is a misguided revolutionary who was troubled by the West Bengal government’s crackdown on the Ananda Marga, and keeps harping on a lone unnamed Indian Member of Parliament who apparently had high-level clearance to authorise the drop and destabilise the West Bengal government. (This theory is discredited by several intelligence officials interviewed by Nandy.)

Indians might bristle at Holck’s air of innocence. “I can understand the feelings of Indian viewers, since he broke the Indian laws and we will probably never know the outcome,” Koefoed said. “I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of Davy and Bleach, and the idea was not to create a defence for him. People get sides of the character. Kim Davy has managed to run away from all the things he has done in his life, and he is a slippery type, but this is not a black and white case. His ideas about wanting to create a better world are pretty genuine, and perhaps his ways of reaching his goals are criminal to a large extent. I found it difficult to put him in a category, which is why I kept it open.”

Bleach the real victim?

It is easier to feel sympathy for Bleach, who faced a death sentence in India before being freed by the British government’s intervention in 2004, and who suffered from tuberculosis in prison. (The Latvians were freed in 2000 on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence.) Bleach claims that he is not a British double agent, as has been alleged, and that he still hasn’t understood why his minders nearly washed their hands of him despite his co-operation. “You know you are in trouble when there are at least two governments trying to keep you in jail,” he wryly says in the film.

“Bleach was nearly destroyed by his experiences in jail, but he was large enough to give testimony at Kim Davy’s extradition trial,” Koefoed said. “That gave the story another twist that you would not expect from a spy film.” Bleach and Holck are cordial when they finally confront each other on camera, but Bleach’s sense of loss and betrayal is palpable. “I can’t forget that someone liked to see me hanged in India,” he says.

Bleach spoke of the miserable conditions in Indian prisons at the trial, which was one of the ostensible reasons the Danish judges ruled against Holck’s extradition. Were greater forces at work behind the Dane’s great escape? Both Nandy’s book and The Arms Drop raise more questions than answers. Nandy provides a more complicated, and therefore clearer, picture of the plot and the plotters. The journalist theorises that while some Ananda Marga members were involved in helping Holck, the idea behind the intended drop was definitely not to unseat the West Bengal government. Were the arms intended for rebels in Myanmar, and was Holck a CIA agent? This line of questioning is still open for scrutiny.

Koefoed says he still doesn’t have a clear explanation. “If I could have proven something, the film would have had a greater impact,” he admitted. “I was pushing the Swedish police officer to give me details about the Interpol report, but he couldn’t since it is classified. The film would have looked the same, but the ending would have been different.”

Andreas Koefoed.