Packed with nuance and equal parts uplifting and thought-provoking Kaaka Muttai (The Crow's Egg) is a game-changer for Indian cinema. Released in June this year, the Tamil film tells the story of two slum children and their quest to eat a slice of pizza. It is a tale of globalisation, poverty and resilience told with the utmost purity and soulfulness.
I live in Switzerland and have two kids. My son, while watching the film, asked me, "Appa, can we live in this place (referring to the slum where the film's protagonists stay with their family)? They have everything -- a dog, goats and everything." I had no words. Here was a kid living in Switzerland aspiring to live a humbler life that contains not a trace of iPads or computer games. This is one half of the success of the film - it makes you question the consumerist ideals of society. The other success is that it makes you question your own choices and contributions to the world. I felt guilty as I thought about the fact that millions of children cannot afford simple pleasures such as pizza and that I never once thought of perhaps just getting them a slice.
"The film shows a world that looks dirty, yet is made beautiful by the people populating it."
The film shows a world that looks dirty, yet is made beautiful by the people populating it. A plastic toy watch in a waste collection shop gives so much happiness to the lead character; the kids use a polythene bag to fetch water so that their grandmother can take a bath; a coke pet bottle is cut and used as a lamp shade -- things that we take for granted are luxuries for these kids and their community.
Some truly magical scenes mark the journey of the kids as they go in search for their pizza. You should watch the film to truly appreciate these scenes, but here are a few that despite their subtlety speak volumes:
- The scene in which the grandmother tries to replicate a pizza for her grandsons using dosa mix; the kids happily support the process only to realise that the result doesn't look like the delicacy they have been aspiring for.
- The scene in which the gatekeeper of the pizza shop doesn't allow the kids to enter the premises. This is the moment in which the children realise that money isn't enough and that society is not equal.
- The scene in which Pazharasam, a railway worker, opens the coal warehouse so that the kids can take the coal and sell it to make money for the pizza. One child asks Pazharasam, "Are we stealing?" To this Pazharasam replies, "We are taking." We can call it corruption but we know where it stems from.
- The scenes in which the slum children meet a child who lives in an upscale locality. There is a fence between them, creating the impression that while the poor kids roam free the rich one is caged in.
- The scene in which two rich kids ask their father for pani puri and complain that they are getting shirts which they never wanted. In contrast, the young protagonists get so much love and affection from their grandma and mother - a priceless experience rather than a pricey gadget or treat.
- The kids finally manage to save enough money, get good clothes and go to the pizza shop but the manager of the shop slaps one of them and kicks him out. The kids leave puzzled, not understanding why they weren't let inside the shop. The story doesn't end there, of course, and the kids eventually get the pizza they so crave but to tell you how and to what effect would be too much of a spoiler!
Director N Manikandan is the real hero of this film and he ensures simplicity from the start to the end which is the most difficult thing to do. The two kids make the story so real for the audience through their effortless acting and Iyshwarya Rajesh, as the mother of the kids, delivers a stunning performance. Special credit needs to be given to the art director for showing the world of a slum with gritty realism, particularly in the mood he created in the scene where the dead grandmother is kept outside the house.
The film is a journey that helps us to question the world - to ask "why" - through the eyes of the kids. When I was a small child, I used to look at Western tourists and wonder what they'd done, other than being born in a different country, to deserve such a high standard of life. Inequality is the root of all conflicts and this movie shows us how it enters a child's world.
Big budget and good looks don't make a great film. Director Manikandan has elevated Tamil Cinema, hence Indian cinema, to a new level. See it and you'll understand why the film has been such a box office smash and has attracted so much international acclaim as well.