Perhaps the greatest advantage of watching a film on a streaming site (in this case Amazon Prime Video) is the possibility of revisiting a scene. You can go back to a particular shot and take in all the details, even take a screenshot, and let the iridescent image settle in your memory.
Eashvar Karthic’s Penguin (marketed as a Tamil-Telugu bilingual) offers several such spellbinding frames in the first hour. The marvellous introductory scene has a masked killer (serial killer, for the sake of the genre) in a black attire, armed with an axe. And his victim, a kid of no more than three years of age, is an easy prey. As though, the act of killing itself isn’t chilling enough, the killer walks into a lake with his bright yellow umbrella and and sinks into the freezing waters with the minced body parts.
Eashvar, who’s making his debut with this film, seems to be saying, “Look what I’ve got here,” in the opening minutes. It’s a cool setup; there’s no doubt about it. And when you realize that the protagonist is a pregnant woman (named Rhythm, played by Keerthy Suresh), you find an added bit of tension in the plot.
The Hindi film Kahaani (2012), directed by Sujoy Ghosh, is obviously an inspiration for this bilingual thriller.
There are pregnant women in both the films and there’s a constant search for an answer. While Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) makes the rounds of Kolkata to look for her missing husband in Kahaani, Rhythm takes a similar plunge to look for her missing child in Penguin.
Penguin’s story moves back and forth between the present day and what happened six years ago. Rhythm, who dotes on her son Ajay, loses him in the woods one day and spends almost half a decade worrying about the incident. The cops can only find his clothes in the forest and their investigation stops there. As far as the kid’s whereabouts are concerned, they do not find any clues. This naturally takes a toll on the married couple. But Raghu (Lingaa), Rhythm’s husband, wastes no time in blaming her entirely for the mishap. He comes across as a mean-spirited fellow who doesn’t take any responsibility. His thick beard accentuates this particular quality of his and it portrays him as an untrustworthy husband and father.
In contrast, the person who Rhythm relies on is Gautham (Madhampatty Rangaraj), a guy with a moustache and trimmed beard – think of a software engineer in formals, in Tamil cinema, and that’s your man.
Raghu and Gautham are half-fleshed out supporting characters who do not back Rhythm in any manner. I understand this is a thriller in which the adventures are undertaken by a woman mainly, but that doesn’t mean the people surrounding her have to be so pale and couched in one-note servility.
In fact, Cyrus, a black dog (the end credits say that his actual name is Maddy), does a better job at being a companion and a Dr. Watson to Rhythm’s Sherlock more than the others. There are no scenes dedicated to establishing the bonding between Rhythm and Cyrus, but you get a feeling that Cyrus has been with her for a long time. He always listens to her and stands by her through thick and thin.
Yet, the big problem with Penguin is simple: the perpetrator is revealed too early. When a whodunit turns into a whydunit, the killer’s motivations have to travel far beyond your imagination. And the filmmaker cannot stop at the very first reason and make his villain offer a part-eerie, part-bleak explanation to tie the knots. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the revelation takes place only in the final segment and that’s why millions of people hail it as a classic. Of course, there are a hundred other reasons, but till you get a glimpse of the decaying corpse of the mother in the cellar, you never really know why women get murdered in that movie.
Similarly, Mysskin’s Psycho, which was released earlier this year, had a strong backstory for the antagonist that helped you understand his journey. You get an idea about his evil mind to some extent. It’s totally left to you as to how you accept his anger and frustration. You may even reject Mysskin’s method of empathising with the serial killer. But you can’t deny that he’s built a unique world for his villain.
When it comes to Penguin, that area is a disappointment. Why do all these villains do what they do? These questions are important, for they paint a larger picture than the initial chases and the Easter eggs. If they’re not answered with vigour and newness every time, the actors’ efforts go in vain.
That’s what happens to Keerthy Suresh here. Her brilliant performance shakily roams around these shallow corners in the third act. Despite these uneven layers, Penguin manages to float, and that’s because of the setting (hill station), the background score (by Santhosh Narayanan), and the unpredictable little boy Advaith (who plays Ajay).
It’s not a matter of exaggeration when I say Keerthy carries the film on her shoulders (and her pregnant belly), but I wish it had something extra and, probably, something chewier in the overall scheme of things.
Plus, it could have also done away with the dialogue related to mothers in the end – it’s too pulpy and preachy.
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