The least that a passable investigative thriller could do is to make its antagonist interesting or make the protagonist’s pursuit to find him/her interesting. Penguin does neither. How bad is the film? Well, it’s the regional equivalent of the Netflix disaster Mrs. Serial Killer, where a psychotic doctor is on a murderous rampage, killing women who get pregnant prior to marriage owing to a blasphemous conservatism. Penguin, however, keeps its antagonist’s identity and its intent under wraps for long, though the wait isn’t worth it. The bilingual revolves around a pregnant woman Rhythm’s relentless quest to find her missing child and his abductor over a six-year span.
Contributing to Rhythm’s psychological turmoil is her turbulent past – an abusive marriage with a man with anxiety issues and one who clearly doesn’t know how to treat a woman. While she moves on with life and finds love again, the ghosts of her missing child continue to haunt her. Pregnancy keeps her on the edge but Rhythm remains hopeful of finding light at the end of the tunnel and always keeps an eye on her son’s possible return. The only thing she knows about the abductor is that he/she wore a Charlie Chaplin mask, donned a hat and held an umbrella at the time of her son’s kidnap. However, the world around her doesn’t exactly believe in her.
The director Eeshvar Karthic does a terrific job in exploring Rhythm on a psychological level and visualising her concerns and anxiety in intricate detail. It’s one of those rare films where a woman’s pregnancy isn’t a reason for undermining her strength. Whistle-worthy lines like ‘I’m only pregnant, not brain-damaged’ show the effort that the director and writer have taken in crafting Rhythm as a strong character. Beyond her part though, none of the characters in Penguin make any impact. The pre-climax portion has a riveting twist, there is a superbly weaved tense sequence involving Rhythm’s pet. The follow-up sequence between Rhythm and the potential accused in the jail has terrific cinematic flourish, but such moments are far few and between.
The initial hour, more often than not, is a clincher to keep you glued to a thriller and Penguin’s backdrop is extremely vague to begin with. You get a sense of what Rhythm is going through, there are screenshot-worthy frames (that however lack larger meaning), the background score is excellent in reflecting the pivotal character’s anxiety. This becomes an excuse for the filmmaker to turn indulgent and the screenplay is too distracting, redundant to win an audience’s attention. Everything beyond Rhythm in Penguin is a recipe for disaster (sorry, the dog is good). The emotional depth in the story is completely absent despite the best of efforts from Keerthy Suresh to salvage this lazily written thriller.
It’s understandable that Keerthy Suresh took this up after Mahanati for the quest of doing varied subjects. However, she looks frail and pale in terms of her appearance and body language, though her performance is top notch. Penguin ends up being a mere paper tiger and it’s hard to imagine if it would have been even half watchable without the actress’ presence. There’s no atmospheric tension at all. The second hour almost feels redundant, the proceedings take a turn for the worse as the protagonist’s missing child returns.
The biggest takeaway from the film for aspirant filmmakers is to understand how a good film can’t be made with one strong character alone. The supposed lines about motherhood expected to evoke sentiment towards the climax fall flat and are unintentionally humourous. The supporting cast with the likes of Lingaa, Madhampatty Rangaraj and master Advaith feels extremely weak and their half-baked characterisation deserves to take a significant blame for it. They have nothing concrete to offer beyond words of solace for the protagonist and a few weird stares. Another silver lining beyond Keerthy for the film is composer Santosh Narayanan, who strikes great form in the thriller space many years after the Pizza series. Given the unconventional narrative of Penguin, its makers have made a sensible decision by opting for an OTT release