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The Bandit King and the Movie Star - Page 3
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While I was still in Bangalore, Gopal went to Thimbam, where he was forced to cool his heels for two days before Veerappan's associates finally made contact with him and took him to the hideout. He emerged a few days later with the story. Photographs he brought back showed Rajkumar seemingly in good spirits and looking well. "Whatever his desire, please fulfill it,'' the actor said on tape, using the honorific "Sir" to refer to his captor. "He is looking after us with love and affection. He fully trusts us, and we have confidence in him.'' Rajkumar, Gopal said, was enjoying nature and the outdoors and having long dialogues with his kidnappers. This was an unexpected twist, I thought. If, as Hindu tradition has it, there are four stages to a man's life (youth, family life, retirement, and renunciation), then Rajkumar had involuntarily entered the sanyasa phase: renouncing worldly duties and retreating to the forest to devote himself to meditation and spirituality.

Meanwhile, Veerappan, according to Gopal, was quoting Che Guevara and showing other signs of a transformation from robber to revolutionary. Perhaps he was also getting tips from the veteran actor on having a film made of his life. Veerappan was well aware of the precedent set by Phoolan Devi, a revolutionary who, after she surrendered and served time in jail, ran for and won a seat in Parliament. [See "India's Bandit Queen," by Mary Anne Weaver, November, 1996, Atlantic.] Her life story was made into the movie Bandit Queen by the director Shekhar Kapur, before he went on to make the Academy Award-winning Elizabeth. A diary of Veerappan's that was captured three years ago is said to have Shekhar Kapur's telephone number in it.

Gopal visited the forest several times over the next eight weeks. The governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were ready to give in to Veerappan's demands, because they knew the public would not forgive them should anything happen to Rajkumar. The stumbling block now was the elderly father of Shakeel Ahmed, one of the policemen killed by Veerappan's gang. The father obtained a stay from the Supreme Court to block the release of the fifty-one prisoners connected with the ambush in which his son died. Meanwhile, the central government in Delhi and a sizable portion of the journalistic community and the public, at least outside Karnataka, were also against releasing these prisoners on the bandit's say-so.

In Bangalore rumors were flying. The most persistent one had to do with one of Rajkumar's sons, who is involved in the granite business; some granite quarries lie in Veerappan territory. According to this story, Rajkumar's son failed to pay money he owed to granite dealers, and this is why his father was kidnapped. As the days passed, the rumors became more inventive and surreal: Gopal, the journalist, according to one, is Veerappan! According to another, Rajkumar was fed up with his wife and son, and engineered this whole thing to get a little forest R&R. "Definitely!"

t was the hundredth day of The Kidnapping. In the Indian movie business a hundred days is a significant milestone: when a film has a theatrical run that long, it is cause for celebration. But the story was no longer on the front pages of Indian papers. The crowds holding vigil outside Rajkumar's house had thinned considerably, and life in Bangalore was almost back to normal. The likelihood of a dramatic police or military operation à la Entebbe was remote, because the risk to Rajkumar would be unacceptable. Veerappan, too, was in an awkward situation: should he kill Rajkumar, he would unleash a backlash against ethnic Tamils. By all reports, Veerappan was tired of life on the run. He was bothered by asthma and chronic intestinal ailments. He wanted out of the forest.

N. Ram, the editor of Frontline, a respected fortnightly, arranged for me to get an interview with Gopal in his office at Nakkheeran, in Madras. It was a Friday evening, the 103rd day of The Kidnapping, and a surprise shower had left puddles on the streets and sidewalks which mirrored the gay lights strung over shop awnings. Colors seemed strangely brighter in the rain's aftermath: purple and orange saris in store windows, white jasmine strung through coconut-shined hair, yellow auto-rickshaws darting between lime-green Pallavan transport buses. I left my sandals on a porch and climbed the narrow stairs of a residential building to its second floor. I entered a largish room partitioned into cubicles and lit by fluorescent lights that didn't seem to reach the corners. The reporters and other employees were all men, all swarthy, and all sporting moustaches, but none wore a kattabomman like Gopal's. A shelf running around the room at head height displayed awards and trophies, most featuring a likeness of Gopal, or Gopal with Veerappan. There was a bust of Veerappan in a glass case: the inscription indicated that it was a gift to Gopal from a grateful kidnap victim. Larger trophies had the usual silver figurine replaced by cardboard-backed full-figure color cutouts of Veerappan and Gopal facing each other like stags about to lock antlers, their moustaches bristling. One could be forgiven for thinking that the office belonged to both men, so prominent was Veerappan's image. My escort whispered to me that some of these trophies were awards that Gopal gives to his best reporters, or his best distributors. His reporters are fiercely loyal to him; I sensed both a siege mentality and a strong esprit de corps at Nakkheeran.

An unsmiling Gopal came out and took me into his air-conditioned office, which has a window overlooking the newsroom where his staff works. Under the glass top of his desk were displayed photographs, including the first ones of Veerappan published in Nakkheeran, relating to some of Gopal's most important investigative coups. Speaking in Tamil liberally sprinkled with English, Gopal told me that his first foray into Veerappan territory had resulted from his frustration at having to reuse an old police photograph of Veerappan every time there was news of the bandit: "One time I changed the size, next time the tint. But I was fed up with having to use the same picture." He offered a cash reward to the first of his reporters who brought him a photo of Veerappan. In 1993 one of them bravely walked into the forest and came back with the prize. This was at a time when several hundred Special Task Force people were supposedly looking for Veerappan. "The first time I saw the negative, my hair was standing on end," Gopal told me. "I had to process the photo secretly. I had to pinch myself to see if it was real." He was cautious about discussing Veerappan or Rajkumar, because in the absence of any real news the only sport in town was to magnify or distort the least utterance or gesture of Gopal. New members had joined the team negotiating for Rajkumar's release, apparently without consulting Gopal. Much had been made of this in the press, but Gopal said it did not bother him. "I am the official government emissary. I have to see this through. My only goal is that Rajkumar should be released." I sensed that he was tired of Veerappan—as Ringo Starr must be tired of constantly being asked what Paul is really like.

I had walked into Gopal's office prepared to dislike him—envious, I suppose, of his closeness to the story. Instead I found myself quite taken with him. If, as his critics have said, he has greatly enriched himself on the Veerappan story, there was little evidence of it. He walked me downstairs to my car; he would remain in the office for an hour or two more, he said, and then head to the printing plant for a final okay of the next issue of Nakkheeran. Asked for one last thought about Rajkumar, he would say only "I am sure he will be released within the next few days."

ndeed, a few days later, when it seemed that no one other than Gopal really expected it, Rajkumar was released. On November 16 the thespian appeared in Bangalore, helicoptered in from the forest. The pilot of the helicopter made two landings in the city, as if unsure exactly where to take him. Finally Rajkumar was delivered to the Vidhana Saudha, the seat of government, where an unusual press conference was staged in the assembly building. Rajkumar, dressed in a simple white shirt and dhoti, appeared dazed and overwhelmed by the outpouring of joy from thousands of fans outside. But then, what should have been the clear denouement of this prolonged abduction instead became a source of further confusion. Referring to the negotiating team that had last visited the forest, Rajkumar gave credit for his release to one of its members, a woman who called herself Dr. Banu. Rajkumar said that she had coached him to act ill and then persuaded Veerappan to let him go. At the press conference, while she periodically whispered into his ear, Rajkumar described her as a goddess: "It was as if I saw Devi Shakti in her."

But the next day Banu turned out not to be a doctor at all. The rescuer of Rajkumar was, in fact, in the granite business. The Times of India uncovered court records showing that she had been accused in 1996 of cheating an Italian granite businessman to the tune of about $100,000. Her links, if any, to Rajkumar's son or to Veerappan are unclear. The goddess, without explanation, canceled a press conference she was to hold. Rajkumar, contradicting what he had said in front of millions of television viewers all over India, released a statement downplaying her role and giving credit to government emissaries. There were strong rumors of a big payout to Veerappan and his militant Tamil partners, and strong rumors that the whole kidnapping had come out of a granite deal gone sour. Among people I talked to in Bangalore there was growing resentment: if in fact The Kidnapping had little to do with Tamil nationalism, but instead arose from a private matter involving Rajkumar's son and some granite dealers, then the millions of dollars it had cost the state of Karnataka should be reimbursed. There was brave talk of night-vision goggles, heat sensors, and going into the jungle to capture Veerappan. There was equally brave talk of taking politicians and STF members to task for the atrocities committed against villagers and other detainees in the name of catching Veerappan. Rajkumar declined to be interviewed.

When I finally left Bangalore, I drove past the statue of Thiruvalluvar, which sits, still wrapped in gunny sacks, on a pedestal in the center of a traffic circle. I left with a sense that the story was even murkier than when I began. But this is the nature of things in India: the harder one scratches, the more complexity is revealed. I thought back to Ganesha Chathurthi, the festival celebrating Ganesha, the elephant-headed god (the most popular of Hindu deities, the god of wisdom and prudence), where clay images of Ganesha are always immersed in lakes and rivers and other bodies of water. In recent years the festival had become more and more elaborate, and a major element of entertainment had been thrown in: film screenings and dance performances were now common. Of late, too, intricate tableaux had been constructed around the statue of Ganesha. In 1999 the tableaux featured Indian soldiers, the heroes of the Kargil war with Pakistan over Kashmir. But last September in Bangalore one tableau had Ganesha leading Rajkumar out of the wilderness. And there, peeping through the trees like a Cheshire cat who can never leave his forest, was Veerappan.

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Illustration provided courtesy of R. R. Gopal.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2001; The Bandit King and the Movie Star - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 71-78.