Even 19 years after his death, forest brigand Veerappan continues to inspire writers and filmmakers in India. Though infamous for sandalwood and ivory smuggling, his presence lingers in conversations concerning the Cauvery water dispute or Tamil Nadu politics of the 1990s. The recent docuseries, Koose Munisamy Veerappan, which dropped on Zee5 on December 14, reveals a multifaceted perspective on the notorious criminal’s life and personality.
Crafted using the exclusive footage of Veerappan from journalist Nakkheeran Gopal’s archives, the show has a writer-creator team of Jeyachandra Hashmi, Sharath Jothi, and Vasanth Balakrishnan, with Sharath Jothi being the director. Each of the six 40-45 minute episodes builds upon Nakkheeran’s material, further enriched by social commentary and dramatised elements.
Lending voices to the docuseries are Veerappan’s gang members, Nakkheeran journalists Jeeva Thangavel and Jayaprakash, former Editor-in-chief of The Hindu N. Ram, social activists, and police officials, while the innocent people caught in the crossfire between Veerappan and the police serve as its heart and soul. One of the writer-creators, Jeyachandra Hashmi, sat down for an interview with Frontline about Koose Munisamy Veerappan. Edited excerpts:
Following the releases of Hunt for Veerappan on Netflix in August 2023 and Jigarthanda Double X (featuring a fictional Veerappan-like character) in theatres in November 2023, Koose Munisamy Veerappan arrived on Zee5 in December. This recent flurry of Veerappan-themed content in Kollywood raises the question: why is there a renewed interest in this figure?
The fact that the three works are consecutive is merely a coincidence. However, in general, there has always been interest in Veerappan in Tamil Nadu and other regions. He was a character like Robin Hood, surrounded by mystery in his life, which naturally piques the curiosity of the audience. This fascination extends beyond Veerappan to include other individuals who fought against the system. The project commenced in 2018-19, with prior films and serials on Veerappan in both Tamil and Hindi. In this instance, we had exclusive 9-hour footage of Veerappan’s interview, held by Nakkheeran Gopal. Wanting to utilise it effectively, we opted for the docuseries format. The idea was conceived by Gopal’s daughter, Prabbhavathi, (who produced the series). Vasanth, Prabbhavathi, and I collaborated on bringing the project to fruition.
Compared to the collaborative writing practices seen in other Indian film industries, collaborative screenwriting projects remain a relatively rare occurrence in Tamil cinema. Can you share the story behind how the three of you came together for this unique project? How did you divide the responsibilities?
It starts with research, where we identify relevant individuals to be interviewed. We then compile a set of questions and present them to the respondents during the shooting and editing process. The various tasks involved are highly integrated and overlapping. Director Sharath Jothi joined the project in August 2022, at which point Vasanth and I had already completed the basic writing of the 6 episodes for Season 1.
We initially approached Zee5 with our pitch draft in 2020. Vasanth took charge of the research work, and based on the document he prepared, I crafted the writing for all the episodes. Subsequently, Sharath, Vasanth, Prabbhavathi, and I collectively reviewed the material, making necessary corrections. Sharath would periodically indicate the need for specific elements.
In collaboration with Vasanth, I wrote questions to be posed to the victims. We engaged in a roleplay-like setup, where we drafted a series of questions and asked each other to assess the pace and sensitivity. We prepared 50-80 questions for each individual and interviewed them. Sharath then proceeded with the shoot for recreated portions, while I sat at the editing desk alongside editor Ram Pandian.
One of the earliest decisions we made was not to show Veerappan’s face in the dramatised scenes that run parallel to the original footage of Veerappan. Because when real videos of a person exist, convincing the audience with another actor portraying them in drama becomes challenging. Our intention was to avoid dramatising the torture suffered by the victims, and as a result, we opted to show only the beginning and the end of the violence sequences.
Also Read | The Veerappan phenomenon
Naam Tamilar Katchi party leader Seeman is the only politician from Tamil Nadu who is featured in the docuseries. Why?
In the third episode, we discuss the issues between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and in the fourth episode, we focus on the “Workshop” torture. Seeman is someone who continuously talks about these issues. We didn’t call him because he is a politician. The docuseries required two kinds of speakers: those who travelled closely with Veerappan and those from outside who commented on the issue without playing favourites. Under that category, we reached out to N. Ram, actor and activist Rohini, and Seeman.
“People come in to watch the series for Veerappan. But when they finish watching it, Veerappan should not be their only takeaway. We wanted to bring in a lot of dimensions to the narrative.”
Apart from the video archives of Nakkheeran, what other sources of reference did you have? How long did the entire process take to complete?
We referred to many articles from Frontline, The Hindu, Tamil dailies, and magazines from that time. The research went on for 6-8 months. The interviews with victims and Veerappan gang members took place over 15-20 days. We conducted studio interviews with journalists, activists, and ex-police officers for 15 days and filmed the fictionalised parts in 25 days.
Publicly, Veerappan is often portrayed as a villain, but the docuseries sheds light on his complex life and the social issues that might have shaped his actions. How does this help people understand Veerappan better?
People come in to watch the series for Veerappan. But when they finish watching it, Veerappan should not be their only takeaway. We wanted to bring in a lot of dimensions to the narrative. The Veerappan story, right from his rise to his end, was always told through the “Veerappan vs Police” lens by all stakeholders. The attack and retaliation between Veerappan and the police were going on like a neck-to-neck game. The media and the government kept it alive that way. But we saw this as a “Veerappan and Police vs People” story.
Metaphorically, when we view through a camera with a zoom-out lens, Veerappan is a hero for everyone. But as we zoom in, opinions keep changing. When we get closer to the people of Sengappadi, his native village, we understand that the people of the village have suffered damage from both sides. They are as unhappy with Veerappan as they are resentful of the STF. They have a fair evaluation of Veerappan. At the same time, despite suffering police excesses, they still have not received any relief. Neither have the police authorities who unleashed brutality on these people been punished by the court.
A segment of viewers new to the Veerappan narrative has been introduced to him through this docuseries. What ethical, moral or even political considerations should filmmakers weigh when presenting potentially controversial figures like Veerappan?
Those working in the visual medium, in general, should exercise greater responsibility. It plays a significant role in shaping perceptions and reinforcing stereotypes, particularly among children. Various political entities, spanning the entire spectrum, often employ cinema as a tool for their propaganda. In our docuseries, Veerappan expressed numerous thoughts. However, we selectively included only those portions that could be verified through 2-3 reliable sources. Presenting only his perspective to the audience without thorough verification would create a one-sided narrative that fails to reflect the truth.
Also Read | The end of Veerappan
The victims narrated gut-wrenching stories of human rights violations and police excesses they suffered. Did it have any kind of impact on you and your crew during the process?
What happened to the people caught between Veerappan and the police can happen to anyone. Nothing has changed in 30 years. Power continues to treat voiceless people the same way. When I was interviewing the “Workshop” victims—Nallammal, Ponnuraji, and Pazhanisamy—the violence inflicted on them and the trauma they carried kept breaking me from the inside. When we compare ourselves to these people, as filmmakers, our struggles are nothing.
When asked if they would approach the police for any issue now, they said, “No, why would we? We would simply walk away in the other direction.” When someone who is so physically and psychologically violated by the system is sitting in front of us, for us to say hearing them speak is haunting or painful itself is wrong.