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FEATURES HOME

WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
Freed Indian Movie Star is Mobbed by Loving Fans
Screen idol Rajkumar tells of his 108-day kidnapping ordeal
By MICHAEL FATHERS

November 17, 2000
Web posted at 10:45 p.m. Hong Kong time, 9:45 a.m. EDT


The celebration in Bangalore was enormous. Thousands of fans went on a daylong binge, dancing through the streets, while public transport came to a standstill, schools closed, and megaphones bombarded the public with the announcement that Annavaru (Elder Brother) was coming home.

Elder Brother is film star Rajkumar, a 72-year-old icon of South India's movie industry who is venerated in his home state of Karnataka as much as the Hindu gods he often portrayed on screen. "It is like Lord Rama returning from his 14- year vanavasa [sojourn in the forest]," said autorickshaw driver, Ramanjaneya, waiting among the thousands of fans for the helicopter that was bringing Rajkumar home on Thursday.

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The film star had been set free a day earlier after 108 days as a prisoner of India's most infamous criminal, the mustachioed bandit king Veerappan, whose hideaway lies deep in the jungle vastness of Karnataka and neighboring Tamil Nadu State.

Kidnapped with three relatives from his country retreat beside the jungle on July 30, Rajkumar was moved by Veerappan and his gang every few days to a new location. "Coming out of the forest and returning home is like stepping into a new world," Rajkumar told journalists when he arrived in Bangalore. "For endless days we didn't see people, we didn't get close to any villages. All we saw were trees, elephants, and bears. Life was difficult, but we had no choice." Fed on rice and dal [legumes] twice a day, Rajkumar came out of the jungle covered in insect bites, severely sunburned and weighing four kilograms lighter. He told TIME Asia: "Veerappan treated me very well. When I was leaving the forest, he presented me with a gift, a new shawl."

Despite public rejoicing at the star's safe return, there is concern. The details of his release have been shrouded in the sort of mystery that often marked his movies. For example, why would Veerappan, a bandit known for his greed and ruthlessness (he and his gang have killed 120 people and illegally killed more than 2,000 elephants for their tusks, according to police) set his most famous hostage free without any demands being met?

And how did a mysterious woman physician, known only as Bhanu, whose interests are now in mining granite in areas where Veerappan operates, become the guardian angel who secured Rajkumar's release? Bhanu, it was revealed, had instructed Rajkumar to feign illness and told him she was sure she could persuade Veerappan to let him go. Her colleagues had also visited Veerappan's jungle encampment. They were well-known Tamil extremists, leaders or members of separatist groups keen to establish by violence and revolution a separate homeland for Tamils that would include a large chunk of southern India and Sri Lanka. They were also known supporters of the Tamil Tigers, the ruthless guerrilla force fighting the Sri Lankan government for a separate homeland on the island.

While Veerappan now sits safely in his lair basking at the local goodwill generated by Rajkumar's safe return, India's politicians are up against the wall facing a sharply hostile reaction. Newspapers and commentators are deeply critical of their failure to capture Veerappan or wipe out his gang. They are also beginning to question the role of the two state governments involved in the kidnap drama, as its Chief Ministers vehemently deny that any ransom was paid or concessions made. [Early on, the ministers had agreed to bow to Veerappan's demands -- the release of 56 of his followers from jail -- but India's Supreme Court blocked the move.]

The former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu State, and now opposition leader, Jayalalitha Jayaram, said yesterday that Veerappan had to be caught at all cost. Without giving details, she charged that Veerappan had received a large ransom payment, weapons and explosives in exchange for Rajkumar.

For the moment no one knows why the movie star was released, except for the far- fetched tale of his fake illness. Rajkumar is no wiser either. "Whether Veerappan is pardoned for his crimes or not is for the government to decide," he says. "But he is a human being and has many humane qualities. He is also a good host."

Reported by Saritha Rai/Bangalore and R. Bhagwan Singh/Madras

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