‘Auto Shankar’ Has Raw Energy and Style, but No Horsepower

The trailer of Auto Shankar is an adrenaline shot of violence, sex and late ‘80s nostalgia. Like trailers of most biopics, which assume that the audience knows the story, it leaves nothing to imagination.

The entire story arc – the rise, greed, wanton cruelty, insatiable lust, one mistake too many, and the fall – is laid bare. For those familiar with the genre, it promises a solid tale, a stout regional competitor to the likes of Sacred Games. In that sense, Auto Shankar delivers.

It is directed by Ranga and stars the very talented ‘Appani’ Sarath (Angamaly Diaries and Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivanda Vaanam (CCV)). Manoj Paramahamsa is producer and cinematographer.

The images crackle with energy. Not a single frame is saggy or out of place. The supporting cast, though little known, is excellent, and bolsters the story beyond reasonable expectations. Some get the Chennai slang just right, while others wear their character’s skin without a wrinkle.

Arjun Chidambaram plays a morally flexible, highly efficient policeman/collection agent for his politician masters. Swayam Siddha plays his moll with the affectations that belong in that ‘Silk’ Smitha era, and manages to infuse her role with vulnerability. Sarath, in excellent form, brings the coiled violence he displayed in CCV to this role, and adds a bit of swagger to it. After all, he knows he’s going to make it big. Not just Sarath, Auto Shankar, too.

Gangster stories tend to lionize their protagonists. However improbable it may seem, an Escobar (a la Narcos) or a Ganesh Gaitonde ( Sacred Games) or even a Velu Nayakan ( Nayagan, one of TIME’s 100 best movies of all time), is always aware of his destiny. Not like Kokki Kumar in Pudhupettai.

Have you seen Pudhupettai? You must. It represents the grittiest and, in places pulpiest, of Tamil cinema. Written and directed by Selvaraghavan, it stars Dhanush in a career-defining role – of the rise and fall of a gangster in Madras. It isn’t a gangster story in a self-aware, gratuitous format we’re all familiar with.

Kokki Kumar is a nobody. A bug in a dog-eat-dog world, who loses his only anchor in the first act. He is clueless and, horrifically, remains clueless all through his ultra-violent life.

His ‘rise’ isn’t predictable, or the result of his ruthless smarts. It is simply the alchemy of a dysfunctional society, and the convergence of desperation, crime, and avarice. You don’t root for him, because you don’t know where he’s going. You simply marvel at his journey, and watch through your fingers as you cringe.

Pudhupettai is the definitive gangster story from Chennai. Auto Shankar is not. After all, even the genius of Vetrimaaran (maker of Visaranai, winner of the Amnesty International Italia Award) couldn’t take the gangster conversation ahead with his Vadachennai, also starring Dhanush.

Auto Shankar also suffers from lip sync issues. Sarath is an incredible actor, but you can still tell he’s not from around here. The tongue slips around the consonants and lightning-quick segues of ‘Madras Baashai’. Which is probably why the rip-roaring form he displayed in Angamaly Diaries is somewhat subdued here and feels less spontaneous.

Madras is a pungent meat. Like the Karuvaadu dried fish, which is a staple in the area, it needs strong flavours and harsh spices to balance the palate. The camerawork steps up really well. Arrol Corelli’s music is eccentric and a bit hit-and-miss at times. And despite the short episode lengths of under 40 minutes, the pacing can feel a bit sluggish in parts.

If you were to pit this ZEE5 web series against Sacred Games – which was a bit of a let-down, dependent entirely on Saif for nuance – it comes up strong.

What Sacred Games did with an accomplished actor at the peak of his prowess, Auto Shankar just about manages to do with an up-and-comer whose mother tongue is something else. It’s stylish, well put together and is b**ls deep in profanity. But it’s voice is still an auto's putter beside the monster roar of a Pudhupettai.

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