Days and Nights in the Forest

Days and Nights in the Forest

An Indian Epic Awry

For much of the fall of 2000, a sensational crime dominated India’s news. At a time when resurgent Hindu chauvinism had already called into question the possibility of a secular pluralistic nation, this affair threatened to topple the governments of two South Indian states and set off a renewal of intercommunity conflict, exposing new cracks in the Indian federation’s increasingly fissiparous foundation. As V.S. Naipaul once said, India is a country of “a million little mutinies,” fueled by “twenty kinds of group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess” (in which Naipaul paradoxically foresaw a “liberation of spirit” and the “beginnings of self awareness”). The abduction of Rajkumar, a legendary idol of the Kannada screen, by a group of armed men who escaped with their captive into the South Indian jungle, was a radical instance of this phenomenon. For more than fifty years, the seventy-two-year-old actor and singer has been venerated by millions who filled theaters in Bangalore, as well as hundreds of cinema tents in small villages all over Karnataka, as the princely state of Mysore is known today. During the course of two hundred films, his roles had ranged from emperors and gods in historical and mythological extravaganzas to hard-bitten Bombay detectives or romantic heroes in more contemporary fare. Arrayed in a hairpiece, luxuriant false mustache, and eye shadow, a look of ferocity and determination animating his countenance, Rajkumar had rarely been less than convincing.

When Rajkumar had announced in 1999 that he had made his last film, the public outcry was so great that he had been forced to come out of retirement. Now, in midsummer 2000, visibly relishing the prospect of several weeks of uninterrupted leisure, the star had returned with his wife, grown children, and their families to what newspapers described as his “ancestral farmhouse.” Situated in a remote hamlet in the state of Tamil Nadu, not far from the Karnataka border, the modest, tin-roofed bungalow stood at the edge of South India’s vast Satyamangalam forest.

July 30 had been a particularly auspicious date for Rajkumar, the night of the new moon, which the actor’s astrologer had determined to be a propitious time for a housewarming party for his recently completed mansion. Following the afternoon celebration, the actor and some remaining guests spent most of the evening in the old house, across the clearing from his as-yet-unoccupied new residence. Dinner had been served earlier, and the actor had stripped to a sarong and shirt, fixed himself some betel leaf, and was settling in to watch the television news. Suddenly a group of men, wearing military fatigues and armed with Kalishnikovs, came through the door. No one needed to ask who the tall wiry figure with the enormous mustache was. The face of Veerappan, India’s most notorious dacoit-R...