Cast: Appani Sarath, Arjun Chidambaram, Swayam, Saranya
What is the need for an Auto Shankar biopic 25 years since his death? Why should people care to consume the story of a man who’s at once a pimp, a bootlegger, and a murderer? We first got newspaper stories. It turned into films and TV shows, and now, a web-series. Why do we love to showcase the life and times of a criminal? Well, it’s a question we didn’t ask of Mani Ratnam, Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap. So perhaps it’s unfair to ask it of debutant director Ranga, who brings to life the story of auto driver Gowri Shankar, who turned into the dreaded criminal, Auto Shankar.
In the unholy nexus between politicians, police, and criminals, the fate of one party is decided in the beginning. Nothing usually happens to the power-hungry politicians or the corrupt policemen. It is the auto driver, who goes to the gallows. And it is here that Auto Shankar begins.
An oft-repeated criticism of work like Auto Shankar is that they tend to add the “kaththi eduthavanukku kaththi la dhaan saavu” message too late into the narrative. However, by beginning the series with how things ultimately ended for Shankar, Ranga’s narration of incidents that happened ‘Once upon a time in Madras’ begins promisingly. “Close pannalaam nu mudivu panniteenga la,” says Shankar to the policemen in his first dialogue of the series. His wife, Sumathi (an effective Saranya Ravi) calls his hanging an apt punishment, despite submitting a mercy petition on his behalf. But six documented murders, attempting a prison break, going against the influential hands that fed him, among other misdemeanours, ensures there is no such last-minute reprieve for the gangster who operated out of the-then relatively crime-free Thiruvanmiyur, a welcome break from the usual gangster stories based out of North Madras.
By the end of the second episode, we see the rise of Shankar from an anonymous henchman to de facto leader of the bootlegging industry and brothels in the area. However, these scenes feel rushed as we are not sold by the raw intensity of Shankar… yet. Although the supporting characters, including the manipulative police officer Kathiravan (an impressive Arjun Chidambaram) and bar dancer-turned-sex worker-turned Shankar’s love interest, Chandrika (a stunning Swayam) are introduced in a hurry, these characters do stay in your mind due to the solid performances that get better with each episode. Much credit to the casting choices. You buy all the surrounding characters too, which helps you get acquainted with Shankar’s world a lot easier.
Shankar’s world is filled with profanity, violence, sex, and excesses. Bribery runs rife, power centres blatantly misuse the law, and no one is incorruptible. Murders are committed on a whim, and bodies are hidden using ideas appropriated from films like Mohan’s Nooravathu Naal. A classic case of society reflecting cinema. It is clear that the makers have taken advantage of the absence of censorship. They have not just pushed the envelope, but torn it to shreds, burnt it to crisp, and buried it inside a cement wall.
For the first time since his breakout role in Angamaly Diaries, Sarath (with the menacing voice of Vada Chennai-fame Paval Navageethan) plays a character that allows him to showcase the talent powerhouse that he is. As Shankar, he towers over proceedings, but many of his impulsive decisions seem less like character descriptions and more like plot devices. Also, the superior work of the technical crew, mainly cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa, gives this fundamentally raw show a glossy texture. Arrol Correli’s music alternates between giving the show a Latin-American, and a Western feel.
I was impressed with the ominous Shankar theme music, which underscores his enduring menacing presence.
While there isn’t blatant glorification of the titular character, there are certain sequences that do hint otherwise. Is he a cold-blooded killer or a victim of circumstance? Would he have been a different person if he wasn’t born to an alcoholic father? Does humanising him by showing how he repents after finding God or even deifying him (a poster of Malayoor Mambattiyan is found in a scene where he is protected from the police by people of his area) not make him a Velu Nayaganesque protagonist?
Retired IPS officer Vijay Kumar, in a speech, once said that it was important that media defines crime properly. What is a crime today, might not be one tomorrow, he said. Citing Auto Shankar’s example, the former Director General of CRPF said that criminals rejected society because they were rejected by it. You can’t help but think about the various what-ifs in the life of a person like Shankar. But you are left with an even more ominous thought: What about the various cops and politicians that got away? Where are they now? And... have they found their next Gowri Shankar?
Auto Shakar streams now on Zee5