Cast: Sarath Appani, Arjun Chidambaram, Rajesh Dev
Auto Shankar, the new ZEE5 web series directed by Ranga, begins with a stretch of pure cinema. Outside the Salem Central Prison, a faceless man awaits his entry as he stands clutching a long piece of rope. As he enters, through the POV of this coiled rope, we see the world inside the prison and its inmates. This is the rope that’s going to be used in the hanging of Auto Shankar. As Shankar waits for his turn at the gallows, his face is framed through the circle of this rope, as though it’s the rule of law finally catching up with one of its biggest criminals. But the rope represents one more thing…when framed within it, the show asks its viewer to take a call; does he deserve the rope or does he not? Do we look at him merely through the prism of the wrong he has done or does his story deserve a listen? As the executioner pulls the lever, in one of the best match cuts in recent Tamil cinema, we move to Shankar pulling the lever to start his auto rickshaw, transporting us to his story. Auto Shankar tries to humanise a demon…and it even succeeds to an extent.
It’s this unique visual quality that sets it apart from other web series in this genre. Painstakingly shot (by Manoj Paramahamsa, Manikandan S and KG Venkatesh), the show triumphs in taking us to the Madras of the 80s, where Vijaykanth posters line the walls and the Contessa is the dream car for any up-and-coming hustler. Hooch liquor, flesh trade and drugs, that’s the path Auto Shankar (a stunning Appani Sarath) chooses for his upward mobility. Quoting Lucifer, this show isn’t about good versus evil. It’s about the vying for the lesser evil and we notice this when we subconsciously start rooting for Shankar, though it’s hard to justify his actions. His activities are those that belong in the underworld but there’s a surprising amount of openness to how they’re staged. The most shocking moments of the show doesn’t take place in the darkness of an isolated warehouse. It’s very much in open air, in the beaches, on the roads and the roofs of buildings. It makes sense why Auto Shankar wasn’t a gangster that was feared by criminals alone…he was feared by everyone.
Which is why you don’t really mind the strong (and I don’t mean it lightly) language. It takes a little getting used to it but it doesn’t deserve the online outrage for its choice of words and depiction of sex. If you expected to listen to poetic sen Tamizh in a series about a mass-murdering, brothel-running, corpse-hiding sociopath, then that’s your problem.
But the same support cannot be afforded to the show’s pacing. It’s indulgent and sluggish to suit its shots-over-dialogues staging but it gets a bit tiring after a while, especially so because of the music. Outrageously loud for the tone of the show, it resorts to spoon-feeding to speed up the pace of the proceedings on screen. This is especially noticeable in a prison break scene; it’s meant to be nail-bitingly thrilling, but it feels like it’s taking forever. At times, you even wonder if they stretched the show a little too much. A sub story about an actress is developed, only for it to be abandoned after an episode. It’s much the same with a police officer. Too much time has been spent on him for his character to finally be of little consequence. And that’s why one wishes all the characters had been written with the effort that has gone into the writing of Auto Shankar. He gets a backstory, he gets a tragic past but the show never absolves him of the crimes he has committed. Despite an overreaching theme about Christian morality and it’s exploration of guilt, it never tries to make us sympathise with Shankar. Would another person have committed these crimes if he was in Shankar’s place? That’s the question the show keeps asking of us.
A large part of why the show succeeds is in the way Appani Sarath has performed. Rage is something the Angamaly Diaries star can play in his sleep but notice how well he emotes in scenes of deep regret and sadness. Despite a badly-chosen wig, it’s almost miraculous when we understand the appeal Auto Shankar creates among the many women who would do anything to be with him. He manages to take us along in the journey of a mass murderer who played the system before it starts to play with him. Aided by great production design and acting, it might not be as good as Sacred Games but it’s certainly the beginning of something promising. The gloves are off, and the future of Tamil web shows can only get better.