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In Penguin, Keerthy Suresh plays a mother who will go to any lengths for her child, but is not a doormat while doing so.
What comes to mind when I say the words, ‘mothers in cinema.’? If you’re like me, you think of Rakhee in Karan-Arjun. Ever suffering, ever waiting, passive and powerless, even in her rage. Or one may recall saccharine scenes, of mothers and children singing/dancing together, all rainbows and light.
One may even think of the vengeful mother, such as Sridevi in Mom, who even though the focus is on her role as a ‘mother,’ is shown to have an identity apart from that role.
Penguin too, is the story of a mother. As the screen states, before the end credits roll on the film, a slasher-thriller that released yesterday on Amazon Prime, “Behind all your stories, there’s always a mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.”
If this cloyingly sweet, greeting card-ish, proclamation had come right at the beginning, I might have decided not to watch the movie at all, because we really don’t need yet another movie glorifying Motherhood™.
Coming after the movie (available in three languages with subtitles –Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam), however, it feels strangely appropriate. It is still too reductive, but within the context of the film it fits, because the movie intentionally doesn’t allow its protagonist, Rhythm (Keerthy Suresh), any other identity, and yet somehow, manages to create a complex character.
In the opening scene, that shows a heavily pregnant Rhythm waking up in the morning, the camera pans a few times to her side-table, on which is a copy of a book she is currently reading. That book is Diary of a Crazy Woman: One Woman’s Fight to Help Her Son with Autism Find a Place in the World, by Mayra Ron. One may be forgiven for wondering at this point if she has an autistic child, but no. The book’s presence there is a symbol of the perseverance and strength of mothers. Mothers are strong and perseverant. Another book, a children’s book about a baby penguin and his mother, also provides foreshadowing, and really drives home the message that ‘mothers don’t give up.’ It is from this latter book that the film gets its title.
In, Penguin, Keerthy Suresh plays a mother whose son has been taken by a mysterious figure dressed as Charlie Chaplin, holding a bright yellow umbrella. While the world tells her that her son must be dead, she hold on to her conviction that he must be alive.
Six years later, when she is pregnant again, she watches the mysterious figure kill another person, and comes to know that another child has been taken. What happens next forms the crux of the story.
We know little else about Rhythm. From a stray line mentioned by her friend, we know that she was brilliant academically, and held up as an example to her friends by their parents. We know that she is an orphan. We know that she has been married twice –with the son that has been taken being her child from her first marriage. We know that her first husband was borderline abusive –he doesn’t hesitate to blame her for her loss, and goes so far as to say that women like her don’t have the right to bear children. We know that her second marriage seems to be a relatively happy one, though she still carries the scars of the past.
But the focus doesn’t shift from her identity as a mother. The movie situates Rhythm very firmly in her grief, and yet she doesn’t come across as a victim.
Instead in tiny, nuanced ways, the movie gives us an idea of who she is.
Does an academic topper, now a homemaker and mother, feel a sense of loss of herself? One gets the idea that, no. Being a homemaker and a mother feels like a choice she made happily without being pressured.
Is she a weakling, who feels subdued by her abusive ex-husband? The film never shows us how she feels about that, drowned as she is in the loss of her child, but the very fact that she has moved on in life, and that she doesn’t feel cowed by him when she sees him again six years later, shows that she is made of stronger stuff. Nor does she seem to be wallowing in guilt. She is broken by the loss, but also knows that it doesn’t mean that she has failed as a mother. It shows her contemplating suicide, but she doesn’t take the step, eventually. Does she think her second husband did her a ‘favour’ by marrying her? No. A blink and you miss it scene establishes that she has entered this marriage on her own terms.
She is a Mother, but she is not self-effacing. She is willing to give up her life for her children, but not unless that is the only choice remaining. How very unique, wouldn’t you say?
She is an independent woman who listens only to herself. This becomes clear in more than one scene, where she goes ahead and does exactly what she wants even when everyone around her is against it. She is brave –to the point that one may wonder if she has any sense of self-preservation at all, but like she says, “once you’ve decided to swim in the ocean, there is no point feeling fear at the sight of a receding shore.”
She does not suffocate her child; she is not a helicopter mom, even though she is a dedicated and caring one. She is intelligent, the way she unravels clues once she finds them. She is kind and empathetic. Most importantly, she believes she is strong. Even as everyone around her treats her extra carefully because she is pregnant, she herself doesn’t see it as a disability that should hinder her. In a line that reminds us of Vidya Balan in Kahaani, she says, “I’m pregnant, not brain damaged.”
For this performance alone, Penguin is worth watching. Keerthy Suresh is the only well-known face in the movie, and she shoulders the responsibility with easy grace.
The movie is also clever in how it builds the thrills. It is atmospheric, and an incongruously haunting melody for BGM at key moments adds to it. Some of the scenes are pretty scary! And while there is gore, the movie, thankfully doesn’t show women or children actively being tortured –there is only the suggestion, and that is enough.
Where it falls apart however, is because it tries to cram in one twist too many. In doing so it fails its own internal logic. The big reveals especially, seem underwhelming after all the other build up, and come across as unbelievable even after one suspends disbelief! There is also the sense that the director doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence at times, and some details are rammed in to the point that it starts to get annoying.
Watch it for Rhythm though. We don’t see enough moms like her on screen.
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