10/02/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The plot has the makings of a wicked Hollywood satire: An aging but beloved movie megastar is kidnapped by a colorful but ruthless bandit who lives in the woods. Fans riot and burn cars in the street while demanding the safe return of their idol. Star and brigand hide out, living on hunted wild animals, while frustrated authorities hope for the best.
This implausible scenario is in fact a real-life drama convulsing the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (pop. 105 million). On the rainy evening of July 30, at his rustic farm in his home village of Doddagajanur around 140 miles southwest of the Karnataka capital of Bangalore, Indian movie idol Rajkumar, 72, was watching a local movie on TV with his valet Channa, 40, and his wife of 48 years, Parvathamma, 62, a film producer who doubles as his business manager. Suddenly, nine olive-drab-clad figures brandishing AK-47 assault rifles slipped undetected into the room. "Do you know who I am?" asked their leader, a tall figure with an impressive black mustache. Everyone nodded. There was no mistaking the fear-inspiring Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, 53, India's most notorious villain. A wanted ivory smuggler, kidnapper and murderer allegedly responsible for approximately 121 deaths, Veerappan has for four decades haunted the region's 7,000 sq. mi. of uninhabited forest and jungle, rarely staying in the same place more than one night and living on wild game he shoots and on buried caches of rice.
With the efficiency of veterans—Veerappan is charged with 40 snatches of government officials and civilians—the bandits bound their victim's hands behind his back. "The whole thing only took a few minutes," recalls valet Channa. "Everyone had a gun to their head." Like the screen characters he portrays, Rajkumar rose to the moment. "If you want me to come with you, I will," he told Veerappan, "but don' harm anyone here."
Rajkumar's concern was understandable. In his heyday in the 1980s, Veerappan employed 250 or more people allegedly to poach elephants and sandalwood—a government-protected resource. Veerappan often gives money to the poor who live on the jungle's edge but is ruthless toward government agents who try to stop his criminal activities. He once reportedly immersed two forest rangers in a vat of home brew and boiled them to death. He has been captured only twice, and both times he escaped. "People are either afraid of him or obliged to him," says Srinivasulu, former head of the Karnataka state police. "When authorities do get information, it is usually too little and too late."
His latest quarry is his biggest yet. Rajkumar, star of 205 pictures, is so lionized that his millions of followers shower the screen with flowers and coins when he appears. A lifetime playing gods, kings and everyman heroes and promoting the local Kannada language, as well as his charity and his refusal—unlike many Indian celebrities—to meddle in politics, has won him adoration. His fans in Bangalore (pop. 5.5 million) regularly offer up Hindu prayers to him, and some even bathe cardboard cutouts of him in milk and honey.
Such awe is not unusual in India. Rajkumar, says author and former Bangalore University professor Thalanayar Gopalier Vaidyanathan, "is the John "Wayne of Indian cinema. He's immortal in everyone's mind, including that of his captor."
Just what Veerappan wants in return for the star has proved hard to fathom. In previous abductions he insisted that all criminal charges against him be dropped. But this time communiqués have become political, reflecting a host of grievances by Veerappan and other ethnic Tamils against the Karnataka majority.
The niceties of the political debate, however, were lost on Rajkumar fans in Bangalore, where thousands went on a rampage of random violence, peppering public buildings with rocks and setting cars on fire, demanding that authorities get their star back. For weeks Hindu temples held poojas—prayer sessions—and drivers plastered their cars with pictures of Rajkumar. Public transportation ground to a halt, and schools were closed. Even the modest Karnataka film industry, which cranks out over 50 dramas, musicals and religious pictures in the local language each year, was stilled. (India's main film industry, Bombay's "Bollywood," turns out five times that many movies annually and reaches a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions of Hindi speakers.) "Some heroes have no time for their fans," says taxi driver Ramesh, explaining the disturbances. "Rajkumar is not like that. That is why his fans are so devoted."
Along with the rest of Karnataka, Rajkumar's family hopes for his release as they wait at their sprawling, white-walled compound in Bangalore, where a stream of friends, officials and well-wishers have passed through the gates. Rajkumar's children (sons Shivrajkumar, 38, Raghavendra, 35, both actors, son Puneeth, 25, a film-industry worker, and homemaker daughters Lakshmi, 36, and Poornima, 31) visit constantly. "Some call him a superstar," says Raghavendra. "But he's a simple man who doesn't even know our telephone number." Adds Puneeth: "I worry about how he is being looked after and how he is eating."
Probably just fine, if he has a taste for primates. In 1997 Veerappan abducted wildlife photographers Senani and Krupakar and held them for 12 days before ransom was paid. They were treated well, though neither feels particularly kindly toward their captor. "Veerappan is almost a predator with a human brain," says Senani, who was fed langur monkey and wild deer that the bandit had shot. "He has a big ego." The photographer thinks Veerappan's image-consciousness will keep Rajkumar safe. "He wants people to think good of him," says Senani. "Killing Rajkumar would spoil his name."
As the standoff drags on, authorities have struggled to deal with the kidnapper's demands. Tamil journalist R.R. Gopal, who has served as go-between in previous kidnappings, has met with Veerappan and the star several times to negotiate terms. On Sept. 1 the state government, under pressure from ordinary Karnataka citizens, pushed for the release of 51 Veerappan associates, jailed for eight years. But that move was blocked by India's Supreme Court. (The high court is expected to hear an appeal of the decision in October.) Meanwhile, the uneasy wait for Rajkumar's release was continuing. And if the worst should happen? "The entire state would be depressed if Rajkumar is harmed," says Lakshmana, a Bangalore taxi driver. "If he is released, we all will rejoice." Rajkumar's wife confidently expects a cinematic ending, with her husband returning unscathed. "He went as a hero," says Parvathamma, "and he'll come back as a hero."
Pete Norman and B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Doddagajanur