As soon as the end credits of Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Eggs) rolled on screen, I could not help but remember a story my father had told me around two decades ago. Around 1990, he had heard a lot about this little thing that conquered distances and brought people closer: a landline telephone. So he bought one for himself, but there was a small problem; he didn’t know anyone else who owned a phone. So he would randomly get up in the night, pick up the landline’s receiver just to hear the dial tone, and hoped that someone would soon call him. “Sometimes I used to simply stare at it.” Today, my father owns – for reasons only known to him – more than a couple of cellphones; a few years ago, he even taught himself how to surf the internet on them.
I don’t know what relationship Kaaka Muttai shares with this story. Or maybe, if I think about it harder, I do. Much like my father’s fascination with a landline telephone (which, in today’s times of hyper connectivity, sounds too outmoded to be believable), Kaaka Muttai is about small joys. In fact, we have forgotten their sight, smell and touch to the extent that they have become artifacts of a time that no longer exists. They have become a… “thing”; you may even confer them the title case – “Small Joys”. Consider the central conceit of Kaaka Muttai: it revolves around two kids bending their backs to procure Rs 300 that will allow them to buy pizza from an eatery that’s recently opened near their slum. That’s all that M Manikandan, the director, making his debut with the film (he used to be a wedding videographer before), needs to tell a story that is so beautiful and tender that had it been an object, it would have come tagged with the label, “Fragile, handle with care”.
The leads of the film, two pre-teen brothers who go by the names Periya Kaaka Muttai (Vignesh) and Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Ramesh), are the kinds of characters we typically don’t come across in our films. Let’s look at, for instance, the things that fascinate them: crow’s eggs, a plastic watch (which the younger one thinks can be tweaked to show the correct time), a toy helicopter that can be airborne with the help of a remote. Manikandan stages and shoots these sequences with such endearing simplicity that they make you hope that these kids never grow up.
Now, the things that fascinate Manikandan: Chinna Kaaka Muttai’s shaky milk teeth; the boys waiting with bated breath as their mother and grandmother open cartons of second-hand televisions; the brothers clapping as the first images flash on the screen; the elevated shot of the slum as the rain beats on it implying that it is the same rainwater that will wet the more prosperous -inaccessible – parts of the city, too. But none of these scenes is romanticised or underlined for effect; they are presented to us as how they are – unfiltered, untouched, unadorned.
This wondrous cocoon, however, soon clashes head-on with a more unsparing and strange world: one where people wear clean clothes, buy a poodle for Rs 25,000, cheer for a film star biting into a pizza slice. The purported ethos of urban life is sharing – peeping into others’ lives, broadcasting our carefully edited moments, “networking” all the time – but the world of these brothers is so markedly different from nearly everything outside that you wish that they never step out, never understand what heartbreak means, never have to become who they are not.
That, of course, doesn’t happen. The brothers watch one of those slick commercials – one that showcases pizza as God’s gift to mankind (the cheese slowly trails from its crust, which holds pretty toppings sprawling atop) – and become fixated on buying a pizza. There’s a catch, though: the neighbouring food joint sells the cheapest pizza for Rs 300; these kids make Rs 10 per day. But they couldn’t care less; the damage’s already been done. How can you reason with someone who’s in love? And you, anyway, stop becoming poor the moment you aspire something that’s bigger than your limited means. One of the more wonderful scenes in the film has the boys imploring a delivery guy to show them what pizza looks like. When he opens the box, the kids peer inside it, fix their gaze on the prized possession, close their eyes and get swept away by its smell. This is it: the object of their obsession, anxiety and desire. Now there’s that small thing of procuring Rs 300 that will require selling stolen coal, distributing pamphlets that promise to cure impotency, and convincing people to buy a street puppy for Rs 25,000.
This pizza, as seen through Manikandan’s eyes, is not just something to be eaten and forgotten; here, it becomes a metaphor for aspiration, and how we often end up inflating the real meaning of ends in our lives. We are all wheeling towards our own purposes – our own “pizzas” – and these boys are no different. “Let there be a world where everyone is allowed to create their own definition of a meaningful life,” Kaaka Muttai repeatedly seems to suggest in its 110-minute run time. “Let there be a world where we are allowed to create our own pizzas,” Kaaka Muttai “shows” in a heart-stirring scene. When the grandmother can’t bear to see her kids unhappy, she resolves to make a pizza for them. It’s really not that difficult, she says, while looking at the picture of pizza in a leaflet, and asks Chinna Kaaka Muttai to get some tomatoes, onions and capsicums. She places these ingredients on the top of a dosa, tops it off with some ghee, and she’s done. Who would not want this world to exist? One where it takes so little to be happy, and hardships are negotiated with much heart and humour. In fact, Manikandan’s grip over moments of mirth is astonishing; Kaaka Muttai understands that there’s always humour to soothe heartbreaks. When the two brothers go to City Centre, an imposing Chennai mall, to buy new clothes so they are allowed entry into the pizza joint, the younger one admires its plush façade, and wryly goes, “They most definitely won’t let us in.”
These kids don’t need our sympathies; they will figure out a way.
The writing here is so clever and razor-sharp, the acting so assured that it’s possible to overlook Kaaka Muttai‘s other remarkable achievement: its usage of songs. Manikandan doesn’t simply use songs that advance the storyline (although even that would have been a laudable achievement) but also cleverly suffuses them withbits of dialogues; as a result, each song sequence is ingeniously sundered in two parts – the dialogues maintain the tension while the song keeps a lilting rhythm afloat.
Kaaka Muttai also achieves that rare feat, which regularly eludes a lot of Indian filmmakers: it manages to earn its happy climax, seamlessly tying all the loose threads in the movie without compromising its characters or plot points. And what a triumphant, heart-warming finish it turns out to be. After the film got over, I called up my father, and asked whether that “landline story” was indeed true or did I, moved by my love for the film, make that up in my head? It did happen, he said. “You know, I still remember the shape of that phone.” I don’t even remember the last time my father and I spoke about that episode. That’s what Kaaka Muttai made me do: unspool images and memories that were buried somewhere deep.
American filmmaker Howard Hawks once said that a great film has “three good scenes, no bad scenes”; it’s a rather wonky way to judge a movie, but given how famous this quote is, this needs to be said about Kaaka Muttai: this one not only has no bad scene but also contains around half a dozen great scenes (if not more). Great films help you come home; they liberate you, like the first drops of rain on a barren land that’s nearly given up hope. Kaaka Muttai is all that. And a bit more.
An edited version of this piece was first published at DailyO