Koose Muniswamy Veerappan’s crimes include elephant poaching, sandalwood smuggling, murders and a series of abductions (including that of the Kannada movie star Rajkumar). The luxuriantly-whiskered brigand was arguably most notorious for his elusiveness. He was killed in 2004 by a Special Task Force after evading capture for over a decade.

After inspiring several books and films, the smuggler with a Robin Hood-level mythos is the subject of a new Netflix docuseries. The Hunt for Veerappan unfolds as a breathless thriller, in which the might of two state governments is pitted against a cunning mastermind and his ragtag band.

The four-episode series benefits from rigorous research that carves out a cogent account from a thicket of information. Director Selvamani Selvaraj’s focus is firmly on the titular hunt of the fugitive described as “a wild animal in human form”.

There are revealing interviews with Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi as well as with various officers in charge of Special Task Force units. Meticulously sourced photographs and television news footage revisit a pre-surveillance era in which Veerappan and his gang waged a guerrilla war against the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments.

Ominous music, stylised slow-motion montages, significant information ladled out in spoonfuls to ratchet up the suspense – The Hunt for Veerappan marshals the conventions of true crime documentary series to the hilt.

Veerapan and Rajkumar on November 15, 2000, the day the Kannada movie star was released after a 108-day abduction. Photo courtesy Reuters.

It’s never anything but riveting: handsomely produced, skilfully stitched together, always attuned to the hunger for a linear, behind-the-scenes account of an unwieldy story. The timeline makes clear the numerous missed opportunities as well as the perils of declaring that the “end is near” for Veerappan after yet another act of hubris – from inviting a photographer to his hideout and revealing the identities of his posse to kidnapping Rajkumar for 108 days.

Yet, the puzzle of whether this is a show about Veerappan that we need to watch at this point in time remains unsolved.

In Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm’s fascinating 1969 study of social banditry – in which dacoits and highway robbers came to be regarded as folk heroes because of the contexts in which they operated – the Marxist historian noted: “There is what remains when we strip away the local and social framework of brigandage: a permanent emotion and a permanent role. There is freedom, heroism and the quest for justice.”

Without glorifying Veerappan’s brutal deeds (including the beheading of Indian Forest Service officer P Srinivas), a show about him nearly two decades after his demise needs to answer the most basic questions. What were the economic factors that produced him? What explained his unerring ability to dodge arrest beyond his deep knowledge of remote forest terrain? And why is he still worshipped?

People crowd to see the body of Veerappan in Dharmapuri, a day after he was killed on October 18, 2004. Photo by Jagadeesh NV/Reuters.

The Hunt for Veerappan arrives at a moment when the public attitude towards government-led operations against armed rebellion has been complicated by a keener understanding of human rights. The simplistic binary of the old days, when law enforcement agencies triumphed over designated public enemies, doesn’t hold true anymore – borne out by such fictional films as Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan, Sukumar’s Pushpa: The Rise, and Vetri Maaran’s Viduthalai.

These movies, to varying degrees of efficacy, pose the question of who is really the enemy: the outlaw created by injustice, or the law-upholders who use unbridled powers against law-breakers. Viduthalai – the first of a two-part Tamil film that was released earlier this year provides the most cogent argument yet about stereotyped villainy. In Viduthalai, a revolutionary’s violent actions pale in comparison to the horrors unleashed by a police unit functioning without checks or balances.

The Hunt for Veerappan acknowledges the allegations of human rights abuses made during the search operations. Since the missions are largely detailed by a bunch of former Special Task Force members, the series occasionally commits the equivalent of inviting somebody as the chief guest for a commemoration and then putting him on the defensive.

Former Karnataka Special Task Force officer Ashok Kumar, when asked about the incident in Nallur village, where policeman torched the houses of suspected Veerappan aides, says: “Something went on, I think. I don’t remember much.”

Muthulakshmi says that she was tortured in custody, where electric shocks were given to her genitals and “where a baby drinks milk from”. There is no corresponding statement to confirm or deny Muthulakshmi’s allegations.

Muthulakshmi in The Hunt for Veerappan (2013). Courtesy Awedacious Originals/Netflix.

However, fingers are pointed at Shankar Bidri, the former Karnataka Director General of Police who reportedly presided over the euphemistically named “workshop”, where villagers suspected of aiding Veerappan were tortured. (Bidri was not interviewed by the show’s makers.)

We were no different from the dacoits we were meant to capture, an ex-policeman says. A former associate of Veerapan sums up the situation: “The police could not do anything to him. It was the people that suffered.”

Having muddied the overall picture of Singham-like heroism, the show puts these statements out in the open, letting viewers be the judge of the larger moral issues they raise. The debate over whether Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reacted too late to Veerappan or chose the wrong methods of pursuit for years is similarly left to viewers to unravel.

The lengthy interviews do yield tantalising details. Muthulakshmi reveals her admiration of Veerappan’s bravado and her loyalty towards his legacy. Here, we get the sliver of a sense of how Veerappan mesmerised a populace.

One of the operations hinged on clues parsed from faecal matter. The series enrichens our understanding of how Veerappan came to be finally conquered. The “why Veerappan” remains as elusive as the brigand was for much of his life.

The Hunt for Veerappan (2023).

Also read:

When Veerappan gave two wildlife filmmakers wisdom on cruelty towards elephants

How the police learnt to think like Veerappan before they could capture him