Serial Chiller: Web series Auto Shankar, although engaging in parts, ultimately disappoints

Ranjani Krishnakumar

May 01, 2019 09:59:30 IST

Serial Chiller is Ranjani Krishnakumar’s monthly column about all things Tamil television. Read more from the series here.

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Auto Shankar, the new Tamil web series streaming on Zee5, begins and ends with the noose. On the day of his hanging, we meet the eponymous Auto Shankar in his prison cell, half resigned, half hopeful. We see his camaraderie with the guards, the sympathy of the cops and his struggle with guilt and faith. He is preparing to die, yet he is writing letters and scratching on walls in a desperate bid to leave behind a legacy.

What could he possibly have done to deserve this is the question we begin with.

While it has now become commonplace in Tamil filmmaking to begin at the end and tell the story in a series of flashbacks, the series doesn’t take this lightly. Acquaintance with present-day Shankar is key to understanding the story that is about to be told. The series unravels itself as a story told in hindsight across multiple timelines.

 Serial Chiller: Web series Auto Shankar, although engaging in parts, ultimately disappoints

A still from web series Auto Shankar

As Shankar is brought to the gallows and the executioner pulls the lever, the story begins with a fantastic match cut of him pulling the lever in his auto rickshaw. In the next nine episodes, the series traces the journey of Auto Shankar, the man and the murderer. We get to understand a little more of him with each episode.

The writing is layered in some of these parts. There is a scene in episode two where Shankar jokes that when he was a young boy his life was “a running race”, that his mother ran away first and his father soon after. So early in the series, a judgmental viewer would have thought of this as a justification for his waywardly life and criminal pursuits. Yet, when we see the flashback of these exact incidents a few episodes later, we realise that Shankar wasn’t a powerless victim in that situation either. He made what he could of the options presented to him.

That is the story of Shankar — neither the hero, nor the villain, just someone who made the most of what he was given. The series doesn’t paint him as the saviour of the oppressed, even though we hear him say, “janathukku edhaavadhu pannanum” (I want to do good for the people) more than once. In fact, in one scene, just after he says he wants to get land deeds for his people, he gets distracted about being invincible. It doesn’t present him as a victim and peddle tearful sympathy. Most of all, it doesn’t demonise him in isolation either. In this lies the series’ success.

It presents before us the life and times of Shankar that made him who he was — the failure of law and order, the casualness of crime, and the complicity of the powerful. In a way, Auto Shankar is a mere pawn in a corrupt system, albeit one who perhaps punched above his weight.

This is why, when we return to the present day, and watch him being hanged, the question is no more “What could he possibly have done to deserve this?”

But, “how could we hold him alone responsible for what he did?”

In theory, Auto Shankar could have been a fantastic work of cinema. The thematic treatment is omnipresent without ever being preachy. And the imagination of the city of the 1990s — ‘once upon a time in Madras’ — is considerate without being nostalgic. Sarath Appani is perfectly cast, in that he is not-so-imposing yet has a strong presence. But, in his acting, he is tad hit-and-miss. For instance, in episode four, we see him interrogating someone by the beach. He suddenly breaks into a fit of laughter, which looks so fake it hurts.

But in execution, Auto Shankar falls significantly short. Outside the milieu that the series is set in, we see little of the impact of Shankar’s crimes on the city of Chennai. Apart from the news clips at the beginning of each episode, there is little to show that anyone feared him. In fact, apart from the wails of widowed women, there is little to show that his murders caused any ripples at all.

No one else in the series is half as well-sketched as Shankar’s character is, making most characters flat, almost undifferentiated from one another. Perhaps with the exception of Chandrika, whose character arc from being a bar dancer to Shankar’s domestic partner to a minister’s concubine to a politician herself serves as an excellent parallel to Shankar’s life. In the hierarchy of power, she is the pawn in Shankar’s game, who punched above her weight.

Otherwise, characters are introduced and abandoned with haste — like the cinema actress who has a fling with Shankar. Some sequences are boringly long. The music swings between distractingly funny and loud. There is ubiquitous strong language — nearly everyone speaks the exact same way — that demands disproportionate patience to endure. There are songs that stand out like sore thumbs.

There is no doubt that in the world of original web series in Tamil, Auto Shankar ups the ante. But for a form that one watches at home without the darkness of the cinema to suspend disbelief, Auto Shankar gives us a lot of time to fiddle with the phone or step away to make tea.

Updated Date: May 30, 2019 16:01:35 IST