Zee5's web series on Auto Shankar, a gangster who terrorised Madras in the '80s, is a sordid story of lust, deceit, betrayal and revenge. Directed by Ranga, Auto Shankar is part fiction inspired by legends about the man and part based on facts collected from the investigation which led to his capture. The result is a discomfiting cocktail that at times glorifies a ruthless criminal and yet draws one into his sleazy world.
The series is divided into 10 episodes which are each around 30 minutes long and carry titles which trace the trajectory of Shankar's rise and fall. The first episode begins with his end - Shankar is about to be hanged for his crimes. We then go back in time, to see his journey thus far. An auto driver who lived in poverty with his wife Sumathi (Saranya Ravi) and their baby, Shankar becomes a goon thanks to a policeman Kathiravan (Arjun Chidambaram) who decides to use his violent tendencies for his own benefit. Shankar is quick to exploit the opportunities that present themselves and in no time, he controls the illicit liquor and then brothel businesses.
It's tempting to draw comparisons between Auto Shankar and Sacred Games, Netflix's first Indian original series. Both are about an amoral man who falls into the world of crime and thrives in it. Like Ganesh Gaitonde, Shankar too enjoys the good things in life, including sex. But where Sacred Games really scored was in giving us several rounded characters, not just Ganesh Gaitonde. Auto Shankar, however, hinges solely on the performance of the lead man, Sarath Appani of Angamaly Diaries fame, who shoulders the entire series bravely.
The other characters have very limited story arcs. Of the lot, it is Chandrika (Swayam) who leaves an impression. As a sex worker who becomes Shankar's favourite, Chandrika is believably seductive. Her uninhibited performance is one of the highlights of the series and one wishes that the director had given her more to do. In an interview to TNM, Ranga had said that the character was created to show Shankar's lustful side. Known to be a womaniser, Shankar slept with several women, including the sex workers who worked in his brothel. He's also said to have kidnapped women, including young girls, for the sex work trade.
The series, however, strays towards providing a sympathetic whitewashing of his crimes - there's no abduction involved and he's shown to be kind (well, as kind as possible) to the women who worked for him. If we just go by the series, supposedly built on the stories told about him by people who lived in the same area in those times, Auto Shankar's brothel was a place of joy and laughter and not at all exploitative. His apparently insatiable libido is also glorified unnecessarily. There's not a single voice of dissent against him from the women he sold, which is a disappointing choice the writer has made, considering he was convicted for murdering at least one of them. Though we are witness to his violent acts, the backstory of what led him to it is always in the picture. The other characters don't get this humanising treatment. The women are almost always under the male gaze.
That said, the series is still intriguing if only for Sarath's performance and Swayam's wily charms. The first few episodes take some time getting used to - the background score is often jarring and the colourful language looks forced into the dialogues just to give a touch of "authenticity". Not that the profanity itself should draw criticism, but not all the actors look equally comfortable rattling off cuss words. The '80s time period has been recreated with appropriate hairstyles and clothes, advertisements (Goldspot, Nirma...remember those days?), film posters and newspaper clippings from the time which tell us about what's happening in the state as well as Shankar's case. The series appears to have been made on a tight budget, depending largely on these signposts and filters to create the illusion of shifting time periods.
Once you are sufficiently settled into the world of Auto Shankar, however, your curiosity is kindled to binge-watch the rest of it. Surprisingly, the murders and the subsequent discovery of the bodies (Shankar was inspired by the Mohan film Nooravathu Naal to hide bodies behind walls) are peripheral to our interest. What really drives the plot ahead is the complicated tangle of equations that Shankar has with the various people in his life. With better writing, Auto Shankar could have truly been a mature series. As it stands, it's a good addition to adult Tamil web series content but falls short of hitting the mark.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.