The National Award for Kaaka Muttai doesn’t make any sense. Best Children’s Film. What does that even mean? Best film that has good parts for children or good performances by children? Or best film for children? Either way, the award is an insult. Kaaka Muttai isn’t just for children — actually, some of the humour apart, it’s not for children at all. And it features stunning performances from everyone, the kids certainly (Ramesh and Vignesh, playing siblings in a slum), but also the grown-ups — especially Iyshwarya Rajesh, who plays the kids’ mother with a world-weariness that belies her years, registering amusement, annoyance, love, exasperation and about a dozen other things you rarely get from a Tamil-film heroine. Watching Nithya Menen in O Kadhal Kanmani, I felt there couldn’t be a better lead performance this year. Now, I’m not so sure. Just watch Iyshwarya’s small, tired smile at the end, when she hears that her younger son has stopped wetting himself. She doesn’t oversell the moment. It’s a triumph, all right, but it’s a small triumph. That small smile is enough.
What a relief to find a real person on the Tamil screen. But part of the performance, I am sure, has to do with the sensibilities of the director M Manikandan. This is one of the most assured debuts I’ve seen — one deserving of more than just that consolation-prize-of-a-National-Award. He wrote and photographed and directed this film — but this isn’t one of those ego trips we are often subjected to, with filmmakers multitasking just so that they can slap their names on all aspects of the film. There is a voice, and an eye not just for scenes but moments… exquisite little vignettes. Look at the scene where the younger kid — called Chinna Kaaka Muttai; the older one is Periya Kaaka Muttai; henceforth CM and PM — finds out that a ten-rupee note is full of holes. The usual Tamil-cinema director would consider his job done by just giving us this information. But Manikandan stages this small moment. CM holds the note up against the sky. The sun shines through the holes. Even amidst the squalor, there’s beauty.
There’s more beauty in the writing, where even a casual reference to raahu kalam at the beginning returns in an echo at the end. And I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie so populated with small-but-memorable characters. Take Pazharasam, the kids’ grown-up friend. As with the kids, we know him only by his alias. There’s a beautiful moment when PM realises that’s not the older man’s real name, and the scene informs both characters — PM is puzzled, a kid who thought he knew this grown-up and is now realising maybe he didn’t, and an enigmatic layer is added to Pazharasam. (Who is he really? The film won’t tell us.) Or take the kids’ father, who’s in jail. We hardly see him, and yet, we get a sense of him. He’s in the TB ward. And through his wife, we get to know how he looks at her — pleadingly. He wants to get out, but who’s got money for bail? Or take the kids’ grandmother, who sighs to her daughter-in-law that she is not able to contribute to the running of the household. How much greater her pain must be when her pint-sized grandson points out the same thing!
Kaaka Muttai is so entertaining — it’s either a crowd-pleasing art film or an arty crowd-pleaser; maybe both — that it’s easy to forget how sad the undercurrents are. CM and PM no longer go to school because there’s no money. They sell coal they pick up from railway tracks — “oru kilo, three rupees.” The houses are cramped, and there’s no address. The ground they play in is sold to a developer, who builds on it a pizza parlour. In other words, it isn’t just globalisation. It’s globalisation at the doorstep of the underprivileged, whose lives remain unchanged by all this… progress, if that’s the word for it. It’s not like they’re getting jobs in that pizza parlour.
Heck, they’re not even allowed inside. The story is about CM and PM’s desire to taste a pizza, which they see in a mouth-watering television commercial. No, scratch that. The story is about desire, period. It’s about the kids’ desire for a cell phone. It’s about the mother’s desire to bring her husband back home. It’s about a low-rent thug’s desire for easy money. It’s about the desire of upper-class kids for the ‘lowly’ and unhygienic pani puri that’s sold on streets. It’s about the desires invoked by television, which teaches us to salivate over things we never knew existed. Even the pizza isn’t just pizza. After a point, it comes to represent the desire of these kids to get access to a better world — an entry ticket to an exclusive club. Rarely has the divide between haves and have-nots been laid out with such devastating understatement, without the moralistic gavel-banging our filmmakers are so fond of.
Sometimes, there’s a literal divide. CM and PM are pals with a rich kid, who’s always seen on the other side of a fence. Crossing over isn’t so easy. PM and CM think they can enter that pizza parlour if they dress like this rich kid, and they even manage to get the clothes, but the doorman knows they’re impostors. They may be wearing clothes that resemble the ones worn by pizza-eating kids, but they don’t look like pizza-eating kids — and look at the irony, the doorman himself is one of them. The scene is brilliant. PM is slapped and he smarts from the humiliation — not just because someone has hit him and denied him entry to this club he so badly wants to belong to, but because his friends from the slums are watching. And then we see where he gets this streak from, this independence, this pride. His mother refuses an MLA’s offer of tea/coffee, and when her neighbours talk of participating in a protest for free biriyani, they know she won’t join them. PM, too, isn’t looking for handouts. He wants to buy the pizza, even if the money is obtained through means not exactly legal.
How, with all these story threads, did Manikandan think up so much humour? Or maybe the question should really be addressed to other filmmakers. Why do they get so wrapped up in their dour mission to educate that they forget to entertain? If there was a National Award for Best Non-Sequiturs (or Best Use of a TASMAC Bar in a Tamil Movie), Kaaka Muttai would have walked away with it. The impotency flier. The grandmother’s attempt at making a pizza. The revelation of what a sidekick did when his pal tried to milk money from the people who own the pizza parlour. About the latter, there’s a sense that this thread is extraneous — but after the film, I felt it was very much part of the weave. These guys are opportunists, but so are the kids. The guys, in other words, might be what these education-less, opportunity-less kids will grow into in the company of their cell-phone-stealing friends — though the frustratingly twinkly music (by GV Prakash, who seems to be under the impression that this is a Disney fairy tale) keeps instructing us to think otherwise. The kids are cute enough. There’s no need for the music to be cute as well.
But as long as the focus is on PM and CM, Kaaka Muttai can do no wrong. Apart from the score, there are hardly any missteps. A few scenes with the media come off as too-pointy, especially given how muted the rest of the movie is. There’s a bit about a drunk who begins to talk about lower castes, and the mood quickly (though not abruptly) becomes more light-hearted — the whiff of a lecture lingers. But this is like a topping (pineapple, in my case) that you pick out and set aside, because the rest of the pizza is so lip-smackingly good. The moment when the kids enter the pizza parlour, I had gooseflesh. But the euphoria doesn’t last. Even as they sit down to finally consume the object of their desire, CM tells PM that it’s cold. They’ve never experienced air-conditioning. At least a few people are going to feel a twinge the next time they call up Domino’s.
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