Penguin movie review: Keerthy Suresh shoulders thrilling, though unconvincing, search for a lost child

Penguin draws a clear line — this is a story about a mother. Rhythm is only that. For her, and for the film, that is enough.

Ranjani Krishnakumar June 19, 2020 10:13:13 IST

3/5

If the title Penguin brought cute visuals of Happy Feet (2006) to mind, the trailer firmly put that to rest. Eashvar Karthic’s Tamil film Penguin is about a metaphoric seabird who dares to face hell or highwater to protect her child from danger. In the film, Rhythm — played by an in-control Keerthy Suresh — is the Mama Penguin. Her adamant, yet decelerated, pursuit to find her son, Ajay, is the rest of the film.

Penguin movie review Keerthy Suresh shoulders thrilling though unconvincing search for a lost child

Keerthy Suresh in a still from Penguin. YouTube

What works for Penguin is its unwavering focus on Ajay’s kidnapping and Rhythm’s search. Writer-director Eashvar Karthik resists the temptation to show a happy family montage song, the child’s twinkling eyes, a toy that he left behind, father and son playing mock-boxing etc. There is no contrast of a saccharine happiness against chest-beating loss. Neither is there a romance-gone-awry angle. Therefore, there is very little melodrama, just soul-crushing melancholy.

Cinematographer Kharthik Palani makes this perceptible through his visuals. The vertigo-inducing landscapes of the opening credits; the scene where Rhythm finds Ajay in the din of the forest lit by the headlights of her car; or the eerie low-angles of her recurring dreams — frames are skillfully drawn.

Suresh also does an arresting job of conveying the melancholy. Through most of the film, she looks rather blank, her stoicism swaying between unfounded hope and the temptation to mourn. In the scene where she is being physically dragged to see what is possibly her son’s body, Keerthy brings fear, anxiety, despair, disbelief, and even reluctant resistance to fill Rhythm’s character with a wholeness we had not seen thus far. 

But the writers of the film do not seem to have put as much into the character as Keerthy did. In a film about the courage of a woman, we see none of it outside her role as a mother. In fact, for the most part until Ajay is found, she is meek. She marries a man who claims to 'accept' her as she is. When her friends talk of her enviable academic excellence, we wonder where that has gone. Rhythm is so beaten and ordinary, what is there to envy?

Penguin draws a clear line — this is a story about a mother. Rhythm is only that. For her, and for the film, that is enough.

As the film progresses, it gets darker. An almost unpalatable level of psychopathy, involving children, one wonders how the film would have fared in the theatres, that too in Tamil. It hooks you in disgust: you cannot look at it, you cannot look away from it!

For a film that trusts the audience to understand this darkness, it also spoon-feeds unnecessarily. “Six years later” and “present day” are called out on screen even as the flashback is bookended with fade-to-white transitions. After a scene where a doctor advices Rhythm not to go to the lake, we see her stop at a Y-junction, and deliberately take a left turn. Instinctively, we know what she is about to do, but the filmmaker thinks it essential to pan to a board that says 'lake' on it.

What the film builds up in mystery, it unravels clumsily. There is no cleverness in the reveal, the delightful sleuthhound, Cyrus, the family’s dog, does most of the work. The film does not make any claims about any of the humans’ investigation skills — including the police — so, this is not criticism, as much as a statement of fact.

But as resolutions come about, the film moves away from its characteristic stoicism into being gimmicky. While the twists land in the right place, and catch us by surprise, the reasons are laughable. The mind games played to arrive at the resolution are uncharacteristically philosophical. The answer to “why the hell would someone do something so cruel to a child?” can never be convincing. But Penguin does not even try. 

The last nail on the coffin is the moral of the story in the end. In addition to a punch-dialogue about being a mother, there is a postscript written in text on the screen telling us about mothers’ stories. A more mainstream film might have said, “dedicated to all ammas of Tamil Nadu”. This one espouses a similar sentiment in a derivative way.

In stark contrast to anything she has played so far, Penguin is a landmark film Suresh’s career — the one film that announces her arrival. Nadigaiyar Thilagam (2018) might have established her as a performer to watch out for, but Penguin seals her place as a star worth betting on. Apart from her, there is hardly any other recognisable face — not even a kind police constable or a watchful flower-seller. This film is Suresh’s and hers alone. And she gives it her everything to hold it upright.

Penguin is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

Rating: ***

(Also read: Karthik Subbaraj and Keerthi Suresh on Penguin, its digital release, and bringing challenging characters to life)

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