Kaaka Muttai aka The Crow’s Egg – A Non-Preachy, Enlivening Film on Economic Divide

                                           An average Indian film-goer in often sees an art film with some kind of apprehension. Even a viewer expecting something different wants the ideas to perfectly fit within the confines of a commercial cinema. On the other hand, some of Indian films do try to convey the much-needed social messages. But, then most of the times these films turn out to be a loud, well-intentioned nonsense, where the characters are just painted in black-and-white, and they also find it hard to escape from the sing-and-dance or the melodramatic routine of our cinema. Director Manikandan’s debut feature-film “Kaaka Muttai” (2014) breaks the notion that award-winning films is always for the critics. It also shows how a charming little film could be made within stark surroundings without ever being sentimental. “Kaaka Muttai” is a brilliant, rare crowd-pleasing art-house film that blends harsh realism with captivating fiction.

                                         The film revolves around a pair of mischievous young brothers, living in Chennai’s shantytown with their hard-working mother and a caring grandmother (the boys’ father is serving time in prison). The boy’s addresses themselves with weird nicknames: Periya (big) Kaaka Muttai (Vignesh) and Chinna (small) Kaaka Muttai (Ramesh), which refers to their favorite pastime of eating crow’s egg (for nutrition), straight from the bird’s nest. The boys pretty much spend their time on salvaging coal (they earn 3 rupees for picking up 1 kilo) from the nearby railway tracks. In the leisure time, they imagine themselves attaining a better life. Like all children, the boys beg their mother for things they couldn’t afford to buy. Meanwhile, the boys’ favorite hang-out spot is overtaken (the tree with the crow’s nest is cut-down) by pizza franchise owner with the help of shady MLA & real-estate developers.

                                         The fashionable ‘Pizza Spot’ is opened by a star actor and the boys are obsessed with the pizza that is served to him. The TV advertisements make them crave for the oleaginous dish, which is priced at Rs. 299. The boys whose daily wages amount to Rs. 10, engage in various little chicaneries to reach their distant dream (one hilarious shenanigan involves ferrying neighborhood drunkards, who are way too drunkard to reach home). But, earning three-hundred rupees doesn’t seem to be enough as the pizzeria’s watchman doesn’t even allow the boys to enter the premise, citing their slum background. From this point onwards, the film not only becomes an allegorical representation of the vast class differences, but also reveals how a section of people prey off a system that literally and figuratively leaves little room for the slum dwellers.

Spoilers Ahead

                                      For the most part, director Manikandan with his depiction of urban poverty doesn’t try to manipulate our emotions. He goes for hope rather than despair, but at the same time he does it without taking the easy cinematic route. Manikandan has also written the script, evoked sensible performances from the cast & fulfilled the role of cinematographer. Unlike many other Tamil directors, Manikandan doesn’t stamp his message with overcooked plot elements. He employs certain characters and uses few situations for comic relief, but then it doesn’t look extraneous. Manikandan’s camera & writing remains as a mere observer rather than trying to be an imposer. May be that’s why all the opportunists we come across in the movie’s second-half looks like well established characters, who reminisces someone we have encountered in the society, rather than caricature.

                                         There are many small moments that try to capture the beauty inside sordid surroundings: Chinna Kakka Muttai holds up a torn 10 rupee note and the sun shines through it; the slow motion imagery of a pizza commercial and boys’ look, who view it like a dish prepared in heaven; the grandmother’s preparation of a make-believe pizza; and the final reaction of the boys when they got over their euphoria. Such vignettes along with subtle characterizations make it breath of fresh air. Indian films that usually deal with slum-dwellers would often comprise dialogues that speak volumes on the poor people’s dignity & self-respect. However, Manikandan showcases that the central characters are dignified ones without including it on lines spoken: the mother avoids the money she could get by participating in a false protest; she refuses the opportunistic MLA’s offer for tea; she’s peeved when her boys are humiliated; the elder boy chucks out the pizza dream only when his dignity was preyed upon, in front of other slum-kids (also note that the elder boy also backs out in his attempt to steal a cellphone).  

                                     Lack or loss of identity & desire seems to be the main theme of “Kaaka Muttai”. We never know the boys by their real name and their cramped houses don’t have any door no. or address. The quest for identity is kindled more when desire kicks in. They learn not only money is important to buy your object of desire, but also a new identity. When the boys come up with a new identity (through fresh clothes) they are still singled out, and ironically by a man, who belongs to their own class. However, this inclination to achieve things doesn’t just occupy the minds of the protagonists. A finely clothed upper-middle class boy desires for roadside panipuri. A small-time thug as well as a local politician desire for easy money; media desire to create ruckus over a cellphone video. Although, the latter desires by adults is what makes the society, dangerous opportunistic. A TV isn’t just a machine that brings entertainment; it tunes our minds to desire for things we don’t need. The ironies just keep on coming in ‘Kaaka Muttai’. Look how the media cameraman shoos away the kids, whose story the channel is covering on and remember chinna Kaaka Muttai’s final words after tasting his first pizza.

                                    “Kaaka Muttai” (99 minutes) isn’t a glossy children flick that confirms to the standards of Bollywood or Kollywood. It is a lesson for Tamil/Indian film-makers on how social issue movies could be made without vociferously preaching messages. 


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