Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Green Oscar Winners Were Veerappan’s Hostages

Krupakar and Senani, who won a Green Oscar last week for their film on wild dogs, have lived mostly in the forests. Actually, they are city folks, but they love the wilderness so much they can’t live in a city any more.

The friends spent over a decade making the film, and the award is a big milestone in a lifetime of exploration and adventure. But if you run into them, they won’t waste any time talking about their awards, and you shouldn’t either. They have more exciting stories to tell.

One of their most exciting stories is about Veerappan. The bandit, then India’s most wanted, landed at their door one night in 1997. They were then busy photographing birds, and researching the lives of wild dogs, which they describe as the most mysterious among the predators. One of Verrappan’s informants (unreliable in this case) had told him they were government officials, and he thought he could hold them hostage and wrest his demands from the government. What he wanted: clemency, and a lot of money.

Krupakar and Senai, already famous as wildlife photographers, had ended up in the hands of a ruthless killer. Veerappan had trapped and murdered scores of policemen and government officials, poached hundreds of elephants for ivory, and smuggled out tons of sandalwood. No self-respecting government would give in to his demands easily.

Veerappan tied them up and herded them out into the forest. The next morning, he stopped a tourist bus and a forest department jeep, and kidnapped an agricultural scientist and two forest guards. Over the next 14 days, he took them to enchantingly beautiful hide-outs. The police search teams could do little. Veerappan knew the terrain so well he had outsmarted the police and the army for years.

Veerappan and his men kept the hostages on the move. Their only source of news was the bandit’s beat-up transistor radio, and as the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments grappled with the problem, Veerappan worked out his counter-strategies. At various points in the drama, he was angry, hopeful, mad, despairing, and funny, and his hostages lived through their own gamut of emotions.

Krupakar and Senani have written about their hostage experiences in a Kannada book. As you might expect, it is a thrilling caper, and comes to a happy end when Veerappan decides to release them without harm. The narrative also reveals in its sweep the animal and plant treasures hidden deep inside the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu forests. Veerappan’s thuggery gets a close-up look, and we also get to see his less cruel face.

Krupakar and Senani are so inseparable that you couldn’t have heard of one and not the other. To friends, wildlife enthusiasts, and the media, they are always Krupakar Senani, without as much as an ‘and’ separating their names. But their individual traits come through in their narrative. Senani studied to be a civil engineer, and Krupakar is a business management graduate. Senani is athletic, good at strategy, and can be impatient. Krupakar loves gags, cigarettes and, when inside the city, pastries. Together, the friends keep pulling Veerappan’s leg through what would have been, for the less daring, a terrifying drama. Their gallows humour helps them strike a friendship with Veerappan. (They’ll dismiss you as crazy if you talk about the Stolkholm syndrome and things like that). They bring back, at the end of 14 days, a tape on which he has recorded his demands, but their attempts to get him to surrender fail.

By winning the Green Oscar against such formidable contenders as Richard Attenborough, Krupakar and Senani have done India proud.