Tailor-made for Keerthy Suresh, the psychological horror film from debutant director Eashvar Karthic has good cinematography and an intriguing plot. But a work-in-progress screenplay spoils the show

Can you imagine a kidnapper with a Chaplin mask and an axe? Eashvar Karthic can. Penguin, the director’s debut and starring Keerthy Suresh, has an antagonist impersonating the histrionics of the legendary comedian to woo innocent children. Released last week on Amazon Prime, Penguin has Keerthy Suresh in the lead and aims to be an emotional crime thriller.

Pre-release, expectations were high for Penguin as it was compared to the popular neo-noir flick Ratsasan (2018). Penguin does have an interesting plot like Ratsasan: a pregnant lady, Rhythm (Suresh), braves eerie odds in mysterious surroundings in search of her missing child. Produced by Stone Bench Films of director Karthik Subbaraj and Passion Studios, the movie tracks a child trafficking/kidnapping plot, much similar to the central themes of recent releases Ponmagal Vandhal (Jyotika) and Forensic (Malayalam film starring Tovino Thomas). The plot of a pregnant woman beating heavy odds in search of her husband was dealt with in the 2018 Malayalam movie Lilli in which Samyuktha Menon played the lead.

But Penguin is set in the hilly town of Kodaikanal, beaming picturesque frames throughout. The first part of the film does offer some chilling moments, but the twists and turns in the second half make the plot unnecessarily complex and, expectedly, somewhere in between all that, the movie loses its raison d’être.

Keerthy all the way

Rhythm has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Six years ago, her son Ajay (Adwaidh) was kidnapped by an unknown individual who is still at-large. Several other children have gone missing during these six years, but the police haven’t done much to nab the culprit. Suresh renders Rhythm quite impressively, effortlessly delivering the broken mother’s grief, anxiety and despair.

Much like the story of the mother and baby penguins she used to read to her son, Rhythm is still on the search for her lost son. Nearly two months left for her second delivery, ignoring the warnings of her gynaecologist, she drives through a forest and reaches a lake where her son went missing. Rhythm has company: her dog Cyrus, who seems smarter than most humans in the movie.

Rhythm is tailor-made for Suresh. Her performance is arguably her career-best. During the promotion of Penguin, Suresh had said that she was waiting for a women-oriented role after her performance in Telugu movie Mahanati. The young actress who had mesmerised the audience with her role as ace actress Savitri in Mahanati has shouldered Penguin too, but even her stellar performance cannot save the movie.

A technically sound film, Penguin has elements of an emotional thriller and psycho-thriller. But the mystery which unravels after Rhythm’s individual investigation turns out to be a damp-squib. Unlike the critically acclaimed Tamil crime thrillers Psycho and Ratsasan, Penguin falters while explaining the motive of the culprit.

A face-to-face scene between Suresh and the culprit during a police interrogation reminds us of Vijay Setupati-Madhavan starrer Vikram Vedha. But the director Karthic, who is also the writer of the movie, seems to be more focused on infusing the movie with such elements and twists than building a solid narrative. The characters — neither the good nor the evil — are fleshed out and their motives and intentions remain far from convincing. That applies even to Suresh’s character. A brilliant student once, what happened to her later? Why is she alone in a mansion in the middle of a forest with nothing much to do other than tending to her son before he was kidnapped and searching for him after he was kidnapped? The movie offers no answers.

What works and what doesn’t

The cinematography by Karthik Palani has captured the beauty of Kodaikanal. The scene in which Rhythm intuitively runs into her son after losing him six years back is moving and brilliantly shot. But such fleeting moments of brilliance are let down by a weak script and cliches like a gory slaughterhouse strewn with corpses (or parts of it) and blood. The background music by Santosh Narayanan suits the genre.

The police investigation scenes in the movie come across as a major let down. The police seem to be in no mood to do the investigation and have outsourced their job to a pregnant lady. The male characters of the movie — Raghu and Goutham played by Linga and Madhampatty Rangaraj respectively — are not fleshed out.

Penguin is crafted for a theatrical experience, with its technical department having done a decent job. If you are someone whose travel plans have been ruined by Covid-19, you could watch Penguin for some breathtaking views of the hilly town. (Watch it on the biggest TV you can and don’t forget to grab your headphones.) Other than that, the movie doesn’t offer much.

Arjun Ramachandran, film critic and blogger

Leave A Reply