Kaaka Muttai: An outstanding debut

It is so entertaining that it’s easy to forget how sad the undercurrents are. CM and PM no longer go to school because there’s no money.

Updated - December 05, 2021 09:09 am IST

Published - June 05, 2015 06:27 pm IST

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. Just watch her 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. 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.

Genre: Drama Director: M. Manikandan Cast: Ramesh, Vignesh, Iyshwarya Rajesh Storyline: Two slum kids want nothing more than a slice of pizza

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 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?

Kaaka Muttai is so entertaining 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.

As long as the focus is on PM and CM, Kaaka Muttai can do no wrong. Apart from the twinkly score (by GV Prakash, who seems to be under the impression that this is a Disney fairy tale), 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.

A version of this review can be read at >http://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com

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