Kaakka Muttai: This National Award-winning, charming film about 2 slum kids is a must-watch
Kaaka Muttai is one of the rare films in which the boys don't seem to be makebelieve.
What would you do for a slice of pizza from a chain restaurant that's essentially an Indian rip-off of Pizza Hut? Two characters, Periya Kaakka Muttai and Chinna Kaakka Muttai, or Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg, haul everything from coal to drunk men for a month to put together the money they need for a slice.
That's how seductive pizza can be, with its stringy cheese stretching tantalisingly in television advertisements and home delivery menus.
Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg are two brothers who live in a slum. They earn Rs 10 for one five-kilo sack of coal. Their mother works in a factory. Their father is in jail. They live in a tiny room with their mother and grandmother, and the boys have been taken out of school because their mother can't afford the fees. So they spend their days collecting coal and playing in abandoned lots and garbage dumps. For these two kids, that slice of pizza is a portkey.
There's something heartbreaking about the fact that we never find out Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg's real names. These are nicknames that the two brothers give themselves. The names that their parents gave them, the names others call them — none of this is important because in Kaakka Muttai, we see the world mostly through these two boys' eyes. And because of the good cheer in their little hearts, the harsh and ugly cityscape of Chennai's ignored, garbage-stuffed corners turns into a playground. There's laughter and mischief here, as well as hope — all because of two adorable little boys who just happen to be wonderful actors. It makes perfect sense that this film won two National Awards (one of them for Best Children's Film and the other for acting) and has been doing the festival rounds.
Debutant director M. Manikandan came up with the idea of a film about two slum kids who want to taste pizza after his son asked him for a slice that Manikandan all because of a tempting advertisement. It made him think about globalisation, what objects like a chain-restaurant's pizza may symbolise and the way a hunger is created for things that are unfamiliar to us. The end result is Kaakka Muttai, one of the most charming films you'll see this year. It's beautifully shot, without making either slums or poverty look photogenic and exotic. GV Prakash Kumar's soundtrack will make your foot tap and the acting will leave you spellbound. Iyshwarya Rajesh plays the boys' mother. Beautiful, strong and unbroken by misfortune, she leaves you awe-struck. Like everyone else in Kaakka Muttai, Rajesh fits seamlessly into the little slum where the film is set. Not a single person betrays they're acting.
Although most of the film is spent following the two boys around, Kaakka Muttai isn't what would conventionally be called a kiddie film. It's fun, but it isn't lighthearted and it touches on a lot of serious, difficult ideas. The way poor people are exploited is a running theme in the film. From the politician who will only entertain the boys' mother when it suits him to the middle-class kid who finds nothing wrong in giving slum kids his half-eaten leftovers, there's callousness, insensitivity and prejudice riddling the world of Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg.
Yet, thanks to Manikandan's deft handling of the subject, at no point does Kaakka Muttai feel oppressive, preachy or depressing. The film is a little aimless initially and lopsided, with events piling up in the latter half. Still, despite its few flaws, Kaakka Muttai doesn't let your attention wander.
Some may describe Manikandan's decision to cast two slum kids as his leads to be risky, but those two boys are Kaakka Muttai's greatest strength. Vignesh and the luminously cute Ramesh are stellar as the two brothers who are determined to taste pizza. For the first part of the film, the younger kid is the apple of the camera's eye but the older one slowly but confidently becomes something of a hero. We've seen fictional stories of slum kids with hearts of gold and unshakeable determination countless times. Kaakka Muttai is one of the rare films in which the boys don't seem to be makebelieve.
There are numerous shots where we see the two boys walking around in Chennai and it's a punch in the gut to realise no one is bothering to give this duo a second glance. They're just two poor, barefoot kids in dirty clothing; almost invisible in a world that's hungry for the patina of money. Not that the brothers are bothered by the dismissal. They don't walk as much as swagger, claiming the city that can't be bothered by their existence, with every stride.
There's one fantastic episode in which Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg encounter two rich boys at a pani puri stand. The rich boys are desperate to taste the roadside snack that their father has forbidden them to have because it's unhygienic. Big Crow's Egg strikes a deal with them: he'll get them pani puri if they'll give him Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's egg the new, expensive clothes. The deal is struck gladly and so it is that we see Big Crow's Egg and Little Crow's Egg wearing jeans and hoodies and big, beaming grins as they walk around Chennai. It takes a moment to realise they're still walking barefoot. The illusion of equality goes only so far.
It's difficult to say whether or not you should take kids to see Kaakka Muttai. While the film is filled with innocent childish antics and children, it's also got many mature and serious ideas nestled within it. It is definitely not suitable for children below eight because in addition to being complex, the film is also wordy. Do you want your kids to know the reality of this society we've cultivated? Are you as parents ready for them to realise that being adorable and sweet will not get a kid everything they want and deserve? Will you survive the scrutiny that your kids may subject you to after seeing the double-standards that are laid bare in Kaakka Muttai?
These are difficult decisions for parents to make, but rest assured that if you are brave enough to take your young adult offspring to see this film, they will probably have a blast and come out just a little wiser. Just like the adults who have the good sense to watch Kaakka Muttai.
Don't miss this film. If not for anything else, then because Little Crow's Egg's cheeky grin is a treasure you'll store in your memories long after you've left the theatre.
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