A still from Penguin, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video
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Any parent will tell you that the thought of losing their child is their worst nightmare. The uncertainty, the worry, the anguish — it’s often described as the worst kind of hell. This fear is what director and writer Eashvar Karthic explores as the focal point of his mystery thriller Penguin, released on Amazon Prime Video in Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam with subtitles.

Keerthy Suresh, who became a household name for her National Award-winning performance in Mahanati in 2018, stars as Rhythm, a pregnant mother in Kodaikanal whose first child, Ajay, went missing during a school field trip several years ago. She was told that a mysterious man, who looked like Charlie Chaplin, holding an umbrella, abducted him in the forest area. Despite repeated searches by police and the family’s friends, Ajay is never found and is presumed dead. The loss also affects her marriage, leading to a divorce.

In the present day, Rhythm has remarried and is pregnant again, and while life seems peaceful, she has not forgotten Ajay, and keeps going back to the location of his disappearance. On one such visit, a series of shocking incidents turns her world upside down and puts her on the path to finding the person behind her child’s abduction.

A strong start, but a confused second half

Karthic gives us a fresh tale with the right mix of horror and intrigue, a balance many Indian filmmakers struggle to strike. The film starts off with a great hook, the intrigue reeling you in as the story unfolds, piece by piece. The structuring of the first half, when you discover Rhythm’s back story and her character arc, is rich in detail and surprises.

In many places, you are lulled into a sense of comfort punctuated by sudden surprises that keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat. The cinematography, by Karthik Phalani, supports the story well with long, sweeping shots of a hauntingly beautiful hill station, dotted with desolate locations.

The second half is where Karthic, confusingly, seems to drop the ball with the writing and direction. Just as the mystery is peaking, Karthic loses sight of the story in his eagerness to bring in more macabre elements, some gore, red herrings and a good dose of jump scares, many of which seem to be influenced by Hollywood movies and shows like Dexter, The Blair Witch Project, The Village and Saw.

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What it results in is a number of well-crafted, thrilling scenes of horror and mystery that have very little connection between them, turning what began as a smooth film into a staccato, haphazard collection of plot lines.

The winning element

In all this, though, the winning element of the film is Suresh’s performance. Playing a pregnant woman on a mission to discover the truth about her son’s disappearance is tricky business. Especially because it is a character that is prone to becoming a sorrowful, whiny stereotype. But Suresh’s Rhythm is smart, capable, and determined.

While the pregnancy makes you (and the supporting characters) wince with empathy and worry, Suresh constantly reminds you that her pregnancy is not a handicap in any way. Her portrayal of a mother haunted by the loss of her child, which is viewed as her failure, strikes at the heart of the film.

The music, composed by Santhosh Narayanan, also plays a major role in building tension and keeping viewers on edge. For the most part, it does the job perfectly — for instance, in an early scene, when Ajay goes missing at a funeral, the tension is built solely using the ambient music of drums. But a few scenes confuse, for example when Narayanan chooses almost upbeat music for a tragic moment, confusing the audience.

Overall, Penguin is a serviceable watch if you’re craving a thriller. However, the disappointment with the sloppy handling of the second, meatier part of the story stays with you like a niggling thorn in an otherwise fresh story.

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