Keerthy Suresh's Penguin is up for release on June 19. Directed by Eashvar Karthic and produced by Karthik Subbaraj's Stone Bench Films, the promos so far have suggested a disturbing thriller about a serial killer. Within thrillers, serial killers have not been a popular sub-genre in Tamil cinema.
It could be that these films -- which are likely to be violent and gory -- were thought to be unsuitable for the family audience, and would therefore not attract enough footfalls in theatres. In recent times, however, quite a few of these films have been made.
The 1967 film Athey Kangal is often credited to be the first serial killer film in Tamil cinema. However, though the film revolves around multiple murders, the motive is revealed to be revenge. Not everyone who kills several times is a serial killer. According to experts, a person is considered to fit the profile if they have committed a series of murders without a motive that is apparent to others but has special meaning for them. Serial killers also follow a behavioural pattern in their crimes. The victims are often people with whom they have no personal connections.
Going by this definition, here's a list of serial killer films that have made a splash in Tamil cinema:
Sigappu Rojakkal: Bharatiraja's 1978 film starring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, is about a young boy who is sexually abused and grows up to become a misogynist. Kamal Haasan played the depraved serial killer who has sex with young women and brutally murders them. Sridevi played the innocent wife who discovers his dark secret and yet hopes for their marriage to survive (it was the '70s!) even after he's caught by the police. The film is available on YouTube.
Moodu Pani: Two years later, in 1980, came this Balu Mahendra film, which also had a woman-hating serial killer. Prathap Pothen played Chandru, who hates sex workers and murders them because of his father who used to frequent brothels and beat up his mother. N Vishwanathan played the investigating officer who happens to be Chandru's friend but does not realise what his friend really is. Shoba played a young woman with whom Chandru becomes obsessed. The film had shades of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The film is available on YouTube.
Kalaignan: This 1993 film, directed by GB Vijay, had Kamal in the lead, playing Indeerjeeth, a swashbuckling pop singer. However, when women who are seen with the singer end up getting murdered, he's suspected of being a serial killer. It's later revealed that the real killer was his manager, who'd grown jealous of the singer, after being rejected by a woman. Though jealousy can be considered a 'rational' motive, the killer in the film is characterised with psychopathic tendencies. The film is available on YouTube.
Aalavandhan: In 2001 came Aalavandhan, starring Kamal Haasan in dual roles. The film was directed by Suresh Krissna and is about two brothers -- one a military officer and Black Cat while the other is a killer with psychiatric issues. The brothers have an abusive childhood, but Vijay Kumar is rescued by his uncle and Nanda Kumar is left to grow up in a traumatic environment. The latter becomes convinced that he must save Vijay Kumar from his girlfriend (Raveena Tandon), who he confuses with their stepmother. Manisha Koirala also played a cameo in the film. The film is available on YouTube.
Manmadhan: AJ Murugan's 2004 film had Silambarasan in dual roles. Again, this was about two brothers and involved a good deal of misogyny. Madhan takes on the identity of Manmadhan to kill "immoral" women because his brother died by suicide due to one such woman. Jyotika played the female lead who is in love with Madhan. Atul Kulkarni played the investigating officer. The film is available on YouTube.
Anniyan: Shankar is known for his vigilante films. In 2005, he made this Vikram-starrer, which is about a meek lawyer with multiple personality disorder. Ambi is fed up of the corruption he sees around him and takes on two additional personalities -- Remo, a stylish model, and Anniyan, the avenging killer. He murders the corrupt according to punishments prescribed in the ancient text Garuda Puranam. Sadha played the female lead Nandini, who sticks by Ambi even after knowing the truth (when it came to women's roles, 2005 wasn't much different from the '70s). The film is available on MX Player.
Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu: After the success of his cop thriller Kaakha Kaakha, Gautham Menon made Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu in 2006. The film was about a pair of killers who torture women, brutally rape them and kill them. Kamal Haasan played the investigating officer who captures them. The film also starred Jyotika as the female lead. It was criticised for hinting that the two criminals were gay. The film is available on MX Player.
Nadunisi Naaygal: In 2011 came yet another serial killer from Gautham Menon. Veera played a young boy who is sexually abused by his father. The boy then rapes his older female neighbour who rescues him. Problematically, however, she's shown to at first resist the assault and then enjoy it. The duo turn into a murderous pair involved in a number of rapes and killings. Sameera Reddy played the female lead in the gory film. The film is available on Disney Hotstar.
Spyder: AR Murugadoss's 2017 thriller was supposed to be Mahesh Babu's big debut in Tamil cinema. The film had SJ Suryah playing a psychopath who grows up in a graveyard and therefore enjoys the sight of watching people grieve. Though the film opened to high anticipation, it flopped due to the unrealistic plot. SJ Suryah's portrayal, however, was praised by the audience and critics. The film is available on Netflix.
Nibunan: This 2017 film directed by Arun Vaidyanathan was about a serial killer who hands out clues to the police force, challenging them to catch him. Arjun Sarja, Prasanna, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar and Sruthi Hariharan were part of the cast. The film appeared to be heavily inspired by the conspiracy theories surrounding the double murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj. Though revenge is revealed to be the motive in the film, the killer's elaborate procedures and habit of luring in the cops make it suitable for the genre. The film is available on Netflix.
Imaikaa Nodigal: This 2018 film directed by Ajay Gnanamuthu is about a person who uses the profile of a serial killer as a smokescreen for a revenge crime. The film had Nayanthara, Atharvaa and Anurag Kashyap in important roles. Vijay Sethupathi played a cameo. Although it had an interesting premise and a woman in the lead, the execution was quite disappointing. The film is available on YouTube.
Ratsasan: Ram Kumar's 2018 film was a surprise hit. Starring Vishnu Vishal who is hunting a serial killer who abducts girls and kills them, the film had nail-biting tension and convincing red herrings. It was hailed as true to the genre and a rarity in Tamil cinema. The killer in the film becomes a misogynist after a girl rejects him. The film also had Amala Paul playing a school teacher. Ratsasan, which also reminds one of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in parts, was an enormous success and was remade in Telugu as Rakshasadu. The film is available on Disney Hotstar.
Game Over: Ashwin Saravanan's 2019 film was a pleasant departure from the misogyny that is common in serial killer films. Starring Taapsee Pannu and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan in the lead, the film is about a rape survivor who is battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The film blends multiple genres, leaving it to the audience to draw their inferences. It at first looks like a serial killer film and then transforms into a game that's unfolding in the protagonist Sapna's mind. The film is available on Netflix.
Psycho: Mysskin's 2020 film is based on the Buddhist tale about Angulimala. The film is about a young man who's abused in his childhood by his teacher and grows into a psychopath who abducts women and kills them. Udhayanidhi Stalin played a blind musician while Nithya Menen played a foul-mouthed ex-cop. The two of them hunt the serial killer who has abducted a young woman (Aditi Rao Hydari) in whom the musician's interested. The film opened to good reviews and went on to become a big hit. The film is available on Netflix.
Watch the trailer of Penguin here: