There’s a new Ram Gopal Varma movie out, and it does not contain a single instance of the camera peering up a woman’s dress.
Also missing are other staples of the director’s recent self-parodying and cynical productions: a general assault on the senses, bizarre camera angles, a soliloquy on the all-pervasive “System” that predetermines the fate of characters, and the absence of a coherent plot. In his remake of his 2016 Kannada movie Killing VEERAPPAN, the once-brilliant Varma finally seems to be paying attention again.
However, this is not to suggest that VEERAPPAN is a return to form. Varma hasn’t abandoned his love for eardrum-shattering background music (it’s present in almost every scene), his fondness for meaningless close-ups, and his tendency to suddenly mute out the dialogue and let us play guessing games about what the characters are saying even as various musical instruments thunder in the background.
The deafening music would actually have been enough to shorten VEERAPPAN’s life span. In the movie, the notorious smuggler, who had reached mythic proportions by the time he was killed by a Special Task Force in 2004, meets his end after several futile attempts to smoke him out of the forest that is his home and kingdom.
VEERAPPAN begins on a high-minded note with a quote that was ostensibly uttered by French philosopher Voltaire, “Society gets the criminals it deserves”, before settling down for crowd-pleasing mayhem. The bandit (Sandeep Bhardwaj) is described in the opening credits as “the most dangerous man who ever lived”, a nifty tactic to justify the screenplay’s relentless grandstanding. An early montage explains VEERAPPAN’s rise to power and his hold over the local population. The Special Task Force launches the deceptively named Operation Cocoon, but its efforts are routinely stymied until the unnamed STF chief (Sachiin Joshi) hatches a plan to use the widow of his slain brother officer as bait to draw out VEERAPPAN’s wife, Muthulakshmi (Usha Jadhav).
Under the guise of renting out a house to Muthulakshmi, Shreya (Lisa Ray) passes on vital information to the STF. She becomes so deeply invested in the operation that she hangs around during custodial torture scenes, helpfully passing on a mug of water during a waterboarding session in an echo of Jessica Chastain’s character from the Hollywood thriller Zero Dark Thirty. Shreya is straight out of one of Varma’s schlock-horror productions, and she eyes Muthulakshmi as though she wants to possess her soul.
Muthulakshmi’s character is a fry cry from the fractious and litigious person she is in real life. Perhaps to avoid a repeat of previous instances where VEERAPPAN’s widow tried to stall the release of films and television serials about her husband, she is portrayed as an innocent bystander who is clueless about the STF’s schemes.
Other characters get a rewrite too. The STF operation was conducted by a bunch of officers but only one of them gets to be the mastermind in the movie. Sachiin Joshi, fully exploiting his privilege as producer, dominates the second half as he sends up meaningful smoke rings while plotting VEERAPPAN’s demise and casts hard glances at the camera, as if daring it to get him to act.
The most engaging scenes are the numerous shootouts and chases, especially one in which VEERAPPAN and his men escape yet another STF attack through a vast area of red hillocks that resemble ant-hills. Men, women and children perish like flies and there are gut-wrenching torture scenes, but the real violence is felt by the ear-drums.