On 15 May, Nirmala Periya Swamy, anchor of the popular Tamil reality show Solvathellam Unmai, found a young couple keen to meet her at her studio in T Nagar, Chennai. They looked fatigued and scared and wanted Nirmala to help them get married. The girl’s name was Bhargavi M. She was 17 years old. The boy, K Satheesh Kumar, was 22. Both were from Villupuram, a village 150 km from Chennai.
Nirmala claims she told them they couldn’t get married since Bhargavi was not yet 18 and tried to persuade them to return home. “But Bhargavi was adamant,” says Nirmala, “she refused to go back.” The would-be bride was sure her parents were not willing to let them marry because Satheesh was of another caste. She also dropped hints of sexual harassment by her father.
Zee Tamil, the channel that broadcasts Solvathellam Unmai, decided to put the couple on air and asked parents on both sides to turn up the next day. It is a show where the anchor plays the role of a judge, settling any issue at hand on the spot. Here, an issue related to the couple’s desire to marry was how Bhargavi had been abused by her father, and she was cajoled into talking about it. “After her disclosure of this torture,” says Nirmala, “I tried to convince her of the need to retain family ties.” But suddenly, Bhargavi blurted out that she was afraid of being killed. Nirmala asked for an explanation. “He will kill me,” the 17-year-old said, “I am sure because he has done it [before].”
The entire television crew was stunned. For a minute, Nirmala couldn’t make out what was happening. She asked Bhargavi to repeat herself. She did. “I know that he is a killer,” she said, “He has killed three people.” The three victims, she added, had been her father’s friend Sekhar, his daughter and his son-in-law.
Bhargavi’s father Murugan intervened loudly, saying that Bhargavi was lying. Bhargavi’s mother Rajeswari also said she didn’t know what the girl was talking about. The show ended with Murugan, who had been objecting to the marriage all through the episode, changing his mind about it. He got up, extended Satheesh a handshake, hugged him, and made a quick exit. Bhargavi’s mother looked on the verge of tears. Later, she begged Nirmala not to air the show. “I still can’t forget the plea in her eyes when she fell at my feet,” says Nirmala, “Murugan also tried to do the same, but I did not allow him to.”
For the channel, it was a sensational story, if true. They sent a crew to Nallar Pillai Petral, a village 30-35 km from Bhargavi’s place, from where Sekhar was. They confirmed that Sekhar, his daughter Lavanya and her husband Silambarasan had been missing for four years. Some villagers also told them that Lavanya and Silambarasan had eloped and sought shelter at a friend of Sekhar’s. The information corroborated Bhargavi’s story. Though they could not verify the murder, the show’s producers were convinced that something sinister might have happened.
The episode was aired on 28 May, and in the interim, Bhargavi, Satheesh, his father C Kumar and mother K Saroja were put up at a hotel in Chennai.
Bhargavi has just completed her 12th standard, scoring 1,016 out of 1,200. She wants to study engineering. It is unusual that she would want to get married at such a young age, but to her it’s an escape from years of sexual abuse by her father. “He used to misbehave with me from a very young age,” she says, “Initially, I was scared and did not disclose it to anyone. Later, I started resisting him and revealed everything to my mother. My mother told me not to speak about it. I couldn’t accept that. Then she told me that he would kill me and that he had sufficient experience in eliminating whoever came in his way.”
One day, when she was in ninth standard, her father again tried to abuse Bhargavi and she resisted. Her mother intervened and told her not to quarrel with him. When he went out, Rajeswari told her that Murugan had murdered three people—in 2008—and buried them right in front of their house. After she heard that, Bhargavi too stopped raising her voice against him. “I got terribly scared and decided to be silent as my mother advised,” says Bhargavi, “It came to an end when he got to know about my relationship with Satheesh.” Furious, Murugan beat her up badly that day. He tried to strangle her, even held a knife to her neck, threatening to kill her just as he had killed the others. “He told me to quit my relationship with Satheesh,” says Bhargavi.
That was when she decided to run away with Satheesh and reached the TV studio with him. She says she didn’t go to the police because she was scared of them. “Once, a girl who eloped with her boyfriend in our school had to face public humiliation,” she says, “The police came to the school in search of her and everybody came to know that she had eloped.”
K Shanmughavel, DIG of Police of Villupuram range, is not impressed with what the channel did. “There was a gap of 11 days between the shooting and telecast,” he says, “They should have passed the information on to the police on the same day that the girl revealed the crime. The accused got sufficient time to tamper with evidence. Who would be responsible if the accused had escaped or committed suicide? Who is responsible for the safety of that girl? The media is not supposed to handle law and order in this way.”
The television channel had its own reasons for holding the information back from the police until the telecast. “The viewership of our show is important to us,” says Nirmala. She also did not want to invite ‘unnecessary trouble’ by informing the police.
Anyhow, after the show was aired, the police immediately went in search of Murugan, but they could not find either him or his wife in the village.
The next day, Sekhar’s wife Jeeva turned up with a complaint. The police then made Bhargavi show the spot where the three were buried, and the skeletons were dug up.
Bhargavi’s parents, who had been missing since the day of the telecast, were finally arrested with the help of a creative ploy. A policeman made a call to Murugan on his mobile and asked for a meeting, saying he was from Zee Tamil. He assured them security. The cops showed up in a private vehicle with a ‘Press’ sticker and cameras on their shoulders, and nabbed the parents.
The details of the triple murder revealed by Murugan in his confession are as bizarre as the rest of this case. As DIG Shanmughavel put it, “Sekhar’s daughter Lavanya and her boyfriend Silambarasan had eloped against the will of their community. They belonged to different castes. Sekhar was the only person in the family who supported their affair. He requested Murugan to give them shelter in his house. Murugan soon developed a physical relationship with Lavanya. He also wanted to rob her jewellery. He killed Sekhar first by strangling him with a rope after making him drunk. After a few days, he and Silambarasan killed Lavanya the same way. Silambarasan helped Murugan because he had fallen out of love and wanted to move on. Murugan did not want to take a chance by leaving an eyewitness alive. So Silambarasan was also killed. All three were buried in the frontyard of the house.”
Bhargavi now lives with Satheesh and his parents in their home. For someone who has gone through so much, she doesn’t appear too distraught. She looks happy and energetic, as if she has shrugged off her memories of evil. She is not bothered about what happens to her father, though she hopes he gets a life term. Kumar, Satheesh’s father, a plumber by profession, is trying to get admission for Bhargavi to an engineering college. “She should complete her education. That is more important than marriage,” says Saroja, Satheesh’s mother. At the end of a sordid stranger-than-fiction drama, that offers some semblance of a happy ending after all.