Penguin Movie Review: Keerthy Suresh is good, the film is not
Penguin is a film whose fleeting intrigue never truly builds into something bigger
The one person to truly emerge unscathed from Penguin is the one whose character suffers the most within it: Keerthy Suresh. I bought her anguish, her frustration, her tears, and around the time the film begins, the melancholia on her face almost successfully masks that this is a film that’s set to hurtle downhill soon. There’s no hint of this in the beginning though. I particularly enjoyed how the titles begin rolling, right after Keerthy Suresh’s character, Rhythm, encounters a flashback episode of her trauma. Rhythm—Ritu as her husband calls her—is a vulnerable, pregnant woman, the kind such thrillers usually have at their centre. Her pregnancy is primarily a tool to cause you discomfort—like when she falls down, or howls in agony, or in an enjoyably disturbing scene, when she sleeps with her pregnant belly exposed, as a child with a glass shard takes aim. Rhythm wouldn’t enjoy this commentary of mine, because as she sees herself, “I’m just pregnant, not brain-damaged.” This though feels simply like a cursory empowerment line, in a film that quite simply cannot seem to make up its mind on whether Rhythm is a daredevil or a frightened victim. One minute, she’s hiding in mortal fear, barely able to come face to face with the person who’s caused her years of misery. The other minute, she’s putting herself—and her kid—in harm’s way, showing, for instance, little urgency in getting out of a killer’s lair. This lair, meanwhile, is so decorated by blood splatter that I imagined the killer walking around with a bucket of blood, carefully making sure to cover every corner of the wall with blood drops.
Director: Eashvar Karthic
Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Lingaa, Rangaraj
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
It’s a film whose fleeting intrigue never truly builds into something bigger. Perhaps composer Santhosh Narayanan spotted this and realised the consequent futility of attempting to build on the shallow horror in the material. Perhaps that’s why in scenes featuring a mother bawling over a lost baby, his music remains curiously detached and blithe—like it were simply killing time by itself. The title, Penguin, is apparently because penguins are supposed to be fiercely protective mothers, but some of Rhythm’s behavior is frustrating to behold. She’s a woman who puts herself—and her child, again—in harm’s way, but who lacks the survival instinct to pick up one of about two dozen weapons placed strategically near her. Penguin, as I said, cannot seem to make up its mind on whether Rhythm is a clever, brave mother, or a scared, witless idiot.
The story attempts to sketch the trauma of a mother. It’s also about a lost child who’s trying to fit in. It’s a whodunit too, and as with such stories, the writing looks to sow suspicion about the many characters in it. These stretches fail to be compelling though, and part of the reason is the mediocre performances from almost everyone except Keerthy. I liked the theory—of a woman who separates from an abusive partner, after the loss of their child, of how she later goes on to be in union with another man and is now having her child. It’s progressive in a way a few of our films can claim to be. But in execution, you barely feel the complexity of these relationships.
The idea of casting fairly anonymous actors is to mask the identity of the perpetrator, unlike in some films where the popularity of a certain supporting actor means that you are already convinced of their importance to the story—like, say, Jayaram in Saroja. The supporting characters in Penguin, however, feel like cardboard cutouts, who walk in and out like automatons regurgitating pre-programmed lines that barely seem to cause any emotion in them.
The dialogues don’t help either. Cinematographer Kharthik Palani can attempt to create as much atmosphere as he wants with all the haziness of a hill station, and the occasional burst of colour, but if characters sit around and exchange bad dialogue without emotion, no slo-mo aerial shot of a hill station is going to help. Take the scene where Rhythm is toying with the idea of killing herself, and her friends try to talk her out of it. One of the friends observes that everyone has problems. She goes on to share that she’s been childless for years. The other talks about how her boyfriend dumped her and moved on with another woman. Upon hearing these selfish women drone on about their own problems—or most likely because of it—Rhythm breaks down into tears. I felt for her. Her situation is bad enough without their friends having to make it all about themselves.
The killer in this film, as you must have seen from the promo videos, wears a Chaplin mask, a suit, and carries around an umbrella. The killer talks about needing a different identity, but why this Chaplin mask, you never understand. Or perhaps the character is inspired by the Batman villain, Penguin, who too is possessed with evil intent and walks around in a suit, carrying a weaponised umbrella? Talking of Batman villains, towards the end, there’s another evil character who seems inspired by the Riddler, who believes more in offering puzzles than answers. It serves only to create frustration in you, not gratification. Yes, this film has nothing to do with Batman, but given how swiftly the film sinks from its decent beginnings, such fanciful comparisons are all that keep you going. If you will bear with me, there’s one another Batman idea—when Rhythm climbs out of a dungeon and stands surrounded by thousands of bees. I almost expected her to open her eyes, spread her arms, fight her fear, and turn into… Bee Woman. Now, that probably may have been a more interesting film.