In the last two decades, Tamil cinema has witnessed a great surge in stories that are firmly rooted in ground realities, especially with regards to class politics and its role in the everyday life. Some films keep it gritty, while others navigate around the subject while ensuring a relatively palatable template. M. Manikanandan's brilliant directorial debut Kaaka Muttai is one such film that keeps it real while choosing the lens of satire. One quote by Oscar Wilde feels particularly relevant here – "If you want to tell the truth, make them laugh otherwise they will kill you." Kaaka Muttai runs and thrives on this principle.
Kaaka Muttai tells the story of two young slum-dwelling boys who are living difficult lives but are content in their preadolescent bubble. Until one day, when they are amazed to see a pizza joint being constructed in their locality. This triggers something major in the two kids' lives – desire. What that desire leads them to do, and the repercussions that ensue is what comprises the rest of the narrative.
Though majorly following these two kids on their secret quest, Kaaka Muttai shows great smartness in its storytelling. The narrative tackles several themes at once, without losing coherence or sight of its main arc. There is an impoverished family at the centre, drawn very empathetically in its inter-personal dynamics, who we stay focused on. Then there are these passer-by characters on the sidelines who work as effective components of the narrative's satirical subplots. As a whole, the universe seems real and lived-in.
We share the viewpoint of the two kids, who playfully call themselves Senior Kaaka Muttai and Junior Kaaka Muttai, named after their favourite edible item – the crow's eggs. They are too young to realise it, but it's telling of their life and social status, giving them an identity that is not particularly well-coveted. At one point, their grandma says matter-of-factly what's the harm in eating crow eggs when they obviously can not afford to have chicken eggs every day. It makes complete sense to see later that the tree from which our two boys had been stealing crow-eggs is suddenly razored down to make space for the aforesaid pizza joint. We don't see the two boys grieving their little loss for a second though, because their imagination is hijacked by the arrival of a big film star who cuts the ribbon and tastes a slice through the window glass. They remember him earlier from a massy scene where Simba roughs up a lawyer character using risqué lingo and near-obscene gestures. He's a larger-than-life hero and everything he does is cool and aspirational to them.
The film never lets us forget that these are young impressionable minds, whose joy depends on the superficial symbols of affluence and coolness. The little brother is enamoured by the shiny green watch he finds in the dump yard and happily gloats around wearing it – until the rich kid informs him it's a toy-watch and can never tell time. Their joy also comes from watching television, which adds to their craving for pizza through the slick commercial that attributes such irresistible beauty to it that the kids begin to believe their lives are incomplete if they don't get to eat pizza. At one point, the elder brother, freshly enamoured by the commercial, says he doesn't want his father (who is in jail) to return anymore, he just wants pizza.
The film while helping us keep company with the boys never loses sight of the grim realities it's steeped in – the father figure is in jail, and we are never given a reason for it. The mother is always seen working or providing for her family, struggling to save money for a lawyer. There are several moments where every rupee is counted, and yet they don't reach a three-figure most days. Very often, we see the boys toiling under the sun picking coal pieces near the railway tracks, albeit with a smile on their faces. When they venture on a little quest of their own, we are swayed by their naive ambition, instead of sniggering at them for reaching for the impossible. It's a herculean task, we know, and yet we stay with them, thrilled about every rupee they make and yet feeling saddened by the knowledge of what they aim to spend it on. We never take the kids' self-absorption to heart because all of us are capable of losing sight of the big picture and focusing on our selfish goals.
Kaaka Muttai follows the themes of class-divide and the perils of consumerism, with just the right amount of irony, without coming off as preachy. The tone is light, yet we remain tied to the grim reality of the protagonists and their world which is riddled with poverty and hardships. The film earns most of its brownie points from the jarring conceit itself – two kids, who barely make ten rupees a day, venture out to earn 300 bucks, for half a pound of good-looking dough. When they begin their quest, they are unaware of the adversary world. However, it's only when they come within a 10-feet radius of their destination that they realise what a big journey that last stretch is, built of class-divide that the privileged used to keep themselves above and apart.
That invisible glass is also present in our protagonists' moments of interaction with Lokesh, a well-meaning rich kid who always talks to them through a grilled partition. At one point, Lokesh excitedly brings them a half-eaten pizza slice, hoping to quench their desperation for a shot at a presumably better life. Lokesh is clearly oblivious of why the gesture could offend the older brother, who walks away feeling further determined to earn his pizza slice rather than be fed it.
We still live in a society that finds it hard to fathom why the underprivileged occasionally display their anger and sense of loathing towards the rich. We do not realise that we constantly create these pools of exclusivity and oppression that lead the less-privileged to their internalised hostility and anger. Kaaka Muttai's protagonists, especially the older brother, are glaring examples of this. The film keeps having these bouts of anger, lest we forget what it intends to say – and then we keep coming back to the lighter parts – the goofy sidekicks, the caricaturish politician. Kaaka Muttai walks the thin line between pathos and satire with great expertise.
It's also fascinating how when we enter the narrative, the two brothers seem like equals, always visible together in all spaces, reacting alike to what they observe. Both are initially shown naive enough to believe they will be allowed to enter the joint if they wear good clothes. They even carry their little stray dog around at traffic signals, hoping to sell it off in thousands, not realising that like humans, dogs too are judged on the basis of their breeds.
However, as the plot progresses, we notice a definitive sense of awareness about their reality that hits the older brother first, who clearly undergoes his share of internal angst in the process.
In a story about class divide, Kaaka Muttai also makes endearing points about community. The one friend that the two kids have outside of their slum is referred to as "Pazharasam" (rice and stew). His real name is never mentioned, and yet they share a delicate bond, tied by their slang names. Later we learn that Pazharasam was caught on account of a theft he committed to secretly help the two kids. We are surprised by neither this act of solidarity nor the moment when the two brothers elope after being overwhelmed by the media attention, the next time we see them is by a pond-side hanging out calmly with Pazharasam, who is telling them about the culinary delights of a frog.
Like any conventional children's film where children gain wisdom through a wise old character, here too it is the grandmother who fills that void. Initially puzzled by her grandsons' desire for a pizza, she carefully looks at the pizza menu once and then makes an attempt to make it herself. She never admonishes the kids for aiming too high, nor does she remind them of their dire situation. She simply calls for 2 kgs of all vegetables, for she knows if one tries well enough, the happiness of a tasty Pizza is right at home. It only takes the two kids several weeks and getting everyone involved from the local politician to the pizza joint owner tangled in a major media scoop to figure that out.
The joy is in the little things, like a sense of community and that homemade pizza – and Kaaka Muttai drives that point home well, amongst many of its accomplishments.