Bite of reality

National Award-winning Tamil movie Kaakkaa Muttai delivers a slice of Chennai slum life

M Manikandan’s heart-tugging debut will be screened at the upcoming Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in April and will be released in Indian cinemas in May.

Tamil filmmaker M Manikandan’s Kaakkaa Muttai is about aspiration, the food chain and a kind of hunger that is unique to the process of globalisation.

Pizza is to Manikandan’s debut feature what the two-wheeled machine is to the father-son pair in The Bicycle Thief and the pair of shoes is to the siblings from Children of Heaven: an object of desire that seems to be tantalisingly within reach but actually isn't.

Premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Kaakkaa Muttai will be screened next at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles between April 8 and 12. The low-budget co-production between filmmaker Vetri Maaran and actor Dhanush will be released in cinemas by distributor Fox Star Studios on May 8.

Directed, written and shot by Manikandan, who trained in cinematography at the Mindscreen Film Institute run by Rajiv Menon in Chennai, the 99-minute movie follows two brothers who make their living stealing coal from the railways. The urchins first encounter the wonders of pizza in a television commercial and then celebrate as a new pizza parlour is inaugurated on the street from across their slum. The fact that Tamil actor Silambarasan, playing himself, bites into the first cheese-laden slice served at the restaurant only serves to whet the appetite of the boys, who remain nameless and are known only as Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg.

The movie title derives from the eggs that the boys regularly snatch from a crow’s nest at the playground where other boys from the slum play cricket. It is suggested that the egg is a source of vital nutrition for the children, whose father is in prison and who live with their mother and grandmother. The ground is taken over by a developer, the first of many signs of urban changes that bring the slum cluster along the garbage-choked Cooum river maddeningly close to the manifestations of global capital. The boys develop a hunger for a pizza meal, and come up with all kinds of tricks and odd jobs to save the money that will gain them entry into the parlour, including selling their pet pariah puppy and transporting drunken men to their homes on a toy scooter.

Must have pizza

Kaakkaa Muttai emerged partly out of a conversation between Manikandan and his son, in which the filmmaker realised the aspirational quality of pizza consumption. “My son thinks that you go to a higher level simply by eating pizza,” Manikandan said in a phone interview from Chennai. “But what do kids who can’t buy pizza do, especially in rural areas and slums?”

His film unstintingly explores the realities of shanty life, but Manikandan was mindful to avoid making an exploitation picture. “I was clear that Kaakkaa Muttai shouldn’t be a dark movie and it shouldn’t sell poverty,” said the filmmaker. “It should not show the kids struggling, and there should no negative characters.” Even the pizza parlour owner, who initially debars the kids from entering the restaurant, is no textbook villain – he has his reasons for his behaviour.

The biggest culprit, Manikandan suggests, is the prevailing economic order that forces young kids to drop out of school and work for a living by unlawful means. Kaakkaa Muttai has its heart-tugging moments, mostly due to the moving and convincing performances of its little heroes, but it is largely free of the sentimentality that marks such projects. Comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire are inevitable, but unlike that British production, there is no pot of gold and no rainbow for the boys. They are born into inequality and deprivation, and they deal with their rough circumstances with the kind of adult wisdom that only poverty can engender.

J Vignesh who plays the Big Crow’s Egg  and Ramesh, who plays the Little one recently won the National Award for their performance in the movie. Kaaka Muttai also shared the National Award for the Best Children’s Film along with the Marathi production Elizabeth Ekadashi. Both kids are, in a sense, playing themselves: they live in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. “They have never acted before, and they have never even been photographed before,” Manikandan said.

A slice of real life

The director spotted the children during a recce for locations. He wanted kids who would behave naturally before the camera, especially since the movie was being shot on a combination of sets and the streets. “The other kids we auditioned were too mannered and stylised,” Manikandan said. “I needed kids who were energetic and wild.” The child actors were taught to retain their effervescence and ignore the camera, which was often placed amidst crowds. The crew used a shooting trick borrowed from documentary filmmaking and photojournalism to achieve a sense of realism while shooting on real locations. The cameras would be placed on the streets, and they would start rolling only after the curious onlookers had dispersed.

Tamil films featuring hardscrabble lives and impoverished settings are hardly new. One of the best-known Tamil dramas is Durai’s Pasi, made in 1979, which featured the celebrated actor Shobha as a ragpicker. The drive to portray authenticity on the screen has resulted in several Tamil films set in rural Tamil Nadu, especially the Madurai district, featuring characters from the fringes of society.

Like many of these movies, Kaakkaa Muttai presents a bottom-up view of globalisation, but it wears its critique lightly. Its knee-high heroes at the lower rungs of the food chain, and are attempting to work their way up by scrounging for a few rupees that will bring them closer to their dreams. Their first exposure to the Italian dish popularised by American corporations is through the television sets their mother and grandmother receive on their ration cards. Poverty brings television home, but pizza remains a pie in the sky.

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