Anyone who wants to understand India or Indian cinema can learn everything – Ok, almost everything – about the different Indias within by just sampling the two releases of the week.
One that defies the notion of India as a poor country by mounting a dysfunctional family drama bigger than the biggest of Hollywood indies in that space. One that shows that no matter how rich, these characters are poor little souls needing our empathy. Oh, yes, we are talking about Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do.
And the other that shows us the spirited world before the poorest of poor by crafting a bittersweet adventure with an all new cast of raw young actors.
One that shows us that no matter how poor these characters are, they have led a life richer and larger than any of us can even imagine.
Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai is the single most relevant film of our times since The World Before Her and Court last year. It ranks up there with the best movie experiences of my life. One I will cherish for a long time to come.
While it’s brutally unfair (to Zoya, of course) to compare the two, we must only to see what these two films made at the opposite end of the spectrum are trying to tell us.
In Zoya’s luxuriously shot indulgent showcase of self-pity, every character on a luxury cruise that costs 8000 euros a head is so full of angst of not getting what he/she wants from life. Ranging from a favourite plane (rich son’s motivation) to a 49 per cent share investor (rich father’s plan) to a figure that would ensure her husband doesn’t dump her (rich mother’s fear) to a desire to dump her chauvinist husband the minute the ex shows up (the rich daughter’s desire).
And it’s all narrated by a pompous dog voiced by one of the biggest actors in showbiz. How much snooty expensive wine can you pack into one bottle? Watch DDD to get a taste of what money can buy. A proxy vacation for the price of a movie ticket in the middle of your sad miserable dysfunctional lives. If Zoya took us to Spain and made us live vicariously through the boys who jumped off a plane, scuba-dived and ran with the bulls in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, here she takes us on a cruise with a dysfunctional family that has waited 30 years to start talking to each other about their true feelings.
This could be any Indian family irrespective of class if you replace cruise with a bus journey across a village because irrespective of class, Zoya’s characters are as regressive as any Indian family – north or south, rural or urban. And this regressive dysfunctional family needs to finally open up, talk across the table and embrace progressive choices without worrying about the rest of the world.
If not for the all-knowing fly on the wall dog that has no bearing on the plot or was around during most of the proceedings, this would have been a fairly likeable film but the storytelling gimmick is so terribly out of character for a dog that you are not sure what’s worse – the gimmick bit of it, the actor behind the voice or the lines themselves. This disinterested bullmastiff is a mascot of rich people’s love (often kept in a cage when it’s not time to show off) and also the voice of disconnect (at least with our middle class existence) in an otherwise universal, relatable film. A film your folks would lap up irrespective of what us snobbish critics say because… who doesn’t want a vacation with the stars?
It’s interesting that Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg), the other release of the film, features a trophy dog too – a pug that costs Rs. 25,000. One that’s used to gently take a dig at this culture of materialism and high breed consumerism. The scene where the kids try to sell their stray mongrel for 25,000 without the slightest clue about why a pug is more saleable is a riot.
In M. Manikandan’s naturalistic document of spirit and innocence, the two little heroes (who have earned their titular nick-name by stealing crow’s eggs because they cannot afford chicken eggs for protein) are so full of spirit when they set out to buy their first pizza that costs Rs.299… that’s more than what their entire family can earn in a month. Can money alone get them access to the junk food of the rich? While this is a film that could have become one of those melodrama-ridden manipulative depictions of poor-as-innocent and rich-as-evil-poverty porn narratives Tamil cinema used to churn out as a formula after the success of the Madurai films, Kaaka Muttai is refreshingly restrained, as it chooses to focus on the spirit rather than the odds that the children are faced with.
The plot is just an excuse to show us the changing socio-economic dynamics between the haves and the have-nots in a consumerist world. What happens to class politics when the power is transferred from politicians to capitalists in a media-monitored voyeuristic networked world? The ripple effect of Kaaka Muttai’s narrative needs to be seen than described to do it full justice.
The brilliance of this narrative lies in its layers.
At a basic micro level, it’s a story of a family living at the very edge of civilization trying to get a taste of the modern world. The father is in the lock-up, the mother tries to make ends meet and get her husband out of jail while the granny wants to be of some use to the household (that she looks at the picture of a pizza and tries to recreate it using her cooking skills to satisfy the kids) and the kids themselves are happy picking up coal from the railway tracks as long as they get three rupees a kilo. And life will never be the same for this family when the kids begin to dream of pizza.
At a macro level, it’s the story of a slum and its inhabitants. Every character is a delightfully detailed nuance contributing to the larger story. They are flavours influencing the kids in the neighbourhood. There are times when you fear that the characters would cross over into the world of crime, given how close good and evil reside in a slum but fortunately, Kaaka Muttai is the handiwork of a filmmaker who has his heart in the right place. It’s responsible, mature and so well balanced. I smiled when an affluent kid who is friends with these children saves them a slice of half-eaten pizza in his tiffin box early on in the film.
In one of the finest scenes in the film, the brothers in their quest for pizza find two rich kids who are not allowed to eat the street side Paani Puri. The plate is always yummier on the other side of the class. This is the kind of balance that puts Kaaka Muttai right on top of the year list. With half a year to go, I can bet there’s nothing in sight that can take the place of this most relevant, entertainer that makes you alternate between feel-good and feel-bad all through. It’s an incredibly shot slow-burn that shines bright, thanks to the filmmaker’s gaze (Manikandan has also shot the film) that fondly finds beauty even in the dirtiest sewer running across Chennai (the Couum river). And it’s playing with English subtitles here in Bombay, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go.
And at a completely meta-level, this is a film that inspires goodness. When I thought of the 450 bucks I had spent on the ticket to watch this movie from the comfort of a recliner, I thought of the noodle-sponsored campaign where Ranveer Singh tells us it costs only 750 rupees to feed a child for a whole year at a time when instant noodles in the country are nearing extinction.
And then, I thought of Zoya’s world where 750 rupees is less than what you would tip the waiter for the right bottle… no, glass of wine (how can you tip less than 10 Euros on a cruise, ya?!)
And here we are, caught right in the middle of two Indias… among many. On a Friday. Going to the movies for escape and enlightenment. Until another Friday gives us something to talk about.