Streaming platform Zee5’s upcoming Tamil series Auto Shankar resurrects one of Chennai’s most notorious criminals: Gowri Shankar, an auto driver from the Thiruvanmiyur neighbourhood who ran illicit arrack and prostitution rackets and was hanged for murdering six people in the 1980s.

“The script details his journey right from 1984,” Manoj Paramahamsa, the show’s producer and cinematographer, told Scroll.in. “The story is completely new for young audiences, and will also give the chills to people who grew up in Chennai in the 1980s.”

Sarath Appani (Angamaly Diaries, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Odiyan) plays Shankar. The cast includes Selvapandian, Rajesh Dev and Vasudha. Produced by Paramahamsa’s Baby Shoe Productions, the series will be available on Zee5 from April 23.

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Auto Shankar (2019).

The serial killer’s life has inspired television shows and the Tamil movie Pulan Visaranai (1990). The web series will focus on Shankar’s life in a non-linear fashion, Paramahamsa said. “The series starts with the thoughts that flash in Shankar’s mind minutes before he is hanged,” the producer added. “We did not want to tell the story with a voiceover or from the point of view of the police.” Shankar was arrested after a manhunt and hanged in 1995.

The idea for the web series came during a brainstorming session between Paramahamsa and Suriya Narayanan, the South Head of original content at Zee5. “Auto Shankar is the first name that pops up when you think about crime in Chennai,” Paramahamsa said. “A year back, Suriya and I were thinking of ideas and came up with this.”

The series has been directed by Ranga and written by Maniji, a blogger who has closely followed Shankar’s life. As part of the research, the production team obtained a no-objection certificate from Shankar’s family and spoke to Shankar’s friends and neighbours.

“A few people were still in jail, so we spoke to them while they were out on parole,” Paramahamsa said. “Some of them still had his photo framed in their houses as a mark of respect. That’s another side to the story. He did a few good deeds for his network of people.” The team, however, took conscious efforts to not glorify Shankar’s acts.

“The series is all about the growth and changes in Shankar’s life while exploring what prompted him to commit crimes,” Paramahamsa explained. “He is a situational victim, more than a serial killer. But we do not know for sure. He might have committed so many more unrecorded crimes. He used to run a lot of businesses with the help of the police. It’s a basic gangster’s story.”

Auto Shankar. Courtesy Zee5.
Auto Shankar. Courtesy Zee5.

Shankar was also one of the most notorious criminals to come out of Thiruvanmiyur in South Chennai in the ’80s, the producer added: “News of crimes often emerged from North Chennai, but Shankar operated from Thiruvanmiyur, which was considered to be a relatively crime-free place.”

However, the show has been shot on the outskirts of Chennai. “We could not shoot in Thiruvanmiyur because the locality has completely changed,” Paramahamsa said. “So we had to go around the city to shoot a few kilometers away from Tambaram and East Coast Road. We have tried to recreate the ’80s as much as possible.”

The streaming format allowed Paramahamsa to experiment with shooting methods. The cinematographer has lensed several well-known Tamil films, including Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya (2010), Nanban (2012) and Eeram (2009).

“None of the mainstream professionals from Tamil cinema are coming into the medium,” he observed. “I wanted to change that. I used the same equipment that I would for a film, including an 8K large-format camera. Usually in films, we take a lot of nice shots, but most of the scenes get trimmed in the final edit due to time restrictions. But in this medium, we took time as an advantage and lensed the series with a lot of detail. We created breathing spaces for shots and sub-plots to maintain a rhythm without a rush. We have tried to match an international standard with this show.”

Auto Shankar. Courtesy Zee5.
Auto Shankar. Courtesy Zee5.