A delightful film like Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg) must be seen for what it is—a delightful anecdotal narrative about two brothers living in a slum with aspirations that exceed their circumstance. To read too much into it, to be reflexive about it, trying to read the sociological aspects of deprivation in slum life in it, wondering whether this isn’t some kind of ethnographic voyeurism, or to see it as a crusade against globalisation and commodity fetish may be loading it with a gravitas it can’t handle and under whose weight the film collapses in our minds even before we have seen it.
The film gets just about everything just right. The two boys and their friends in the slum are disarmingly, unselfconsciously, real. They are not shamming it. They are not even slumming it, or if they are, they are slumming it in style. They are not seeking our sympathy, although we may find poignancy in their smiles, or when they are hurt and feeling low, in their dodgy ways to get what they want, or in their un-understanding of why they are where they are. Since their mother cannot afford to send them to school—the father is in prison—and since she needs them to supplement the family income, they gather bits and pieces of coal scattered along the railway track from passing coal wagons and sell them for a pittance. Since they cannot afford poultry eggs they have hit upon a cost-free substitute—crow’s eggs. Indeed, crow’s eggs have become their identity, the younger boy is chinna kaaka muttai (small crow’s egg) and his elder sibling periya kaaka muttai (big crow’s egg).
They go about their acquisition of crow eggs with a tried and tested casualness. During their sparse morning meal, the younger boy thrusts a handful of cooked rice into his pocket. The two of them then go to the open ground where their friends are also playing and where there is a tree with a crow’s nest. The boy removes the rice from his pocket, places it on a slab of stone and draws the crows to it with the hortatory “Kaa… Kaa…” Using this distraction the elder brother quickly climbs the tree and on to the branch where the nest nestles, removes two of the crow’s eggs from it and descends. He then gingerly nips the eggs open at the narrower oval end and, tilting them from above, the two of them empty their liquefied contents into their mouths.
Their straitened circumstance and modest appetite are challenged by the arrival of the buccaneering multinational branded pizza into their lives. A new pizza shop, opened with fanfare near the slum, sets the contrast of the consumption pattern between the slum part and the affluent part of the city living cheek by jowl with one another. The state’s approach to the plight of slum dwellers is summed up in the distribution of free television sets. If you can’t give them bread, give them TV, where they can find vicarious fulfilment of their wants. But it is the appetising advertisement of pizza on television that gets the two boys going and the plot moving.
This centrality of consumption as a decisive factor may itself be indicative of a paradigm shift in the way the urban poor are perceived and characterised in the liberalised and globalised market economy—as the sociologist Zygmont Bauman argues, they are seen not as unemployed or unproductive, but rather as “flawed consumers”. Flawed consumers, as he puts it, are “unable to respond to the enticements of the consumer market because they lack the required resources… to be seduced by the infinite possibility and constant renewal promoted by the consumer market, of rejoicing in the chance of putting on and taking off identities, of spending one’s life in the never ending chase after ever more intense sensations and even more exhilarating experiences”. When the boys aspire to pizza-hood, that flaw is sought to be smoothed over. It’s the pizza culture taunting those outside its charmed circle.
The brothers go to great lengths to qualify to be in that circle of pizza consumers. They decide to save up enough to go to the pizza shop and eat a pizza. From picking coal lying on the rail track they take to stealing it from where it is stored. They do other odd (some really odd) jobs to get quickly to the Rs.300 the pizza costs. They hide their earnings from their mother, saying there had been no coal on the tracks to be gathered and sold for a few days. In a weak moment of pent-up frustration, the elder brother even lashes out at their grandmother, with whom they have a special bonding, saying she is a parasite on the household because she is not productive and only consumes. But even money, they soon realise, is not enough. Pizza shops do not open to their lowly class, even if they can muster up the money. They need an identity makeover. They then set about trying to accomplish that. They strike a bhel puri bargain and snitch new clothes from two rich kids at a shopping mall. And so it goes on. It is no longer just the pizza. It becomes the false sense of pride of the slum kid trying to match the false value load the pizza comes with. This is why the elder brother refuses a piece of pizza the rich kid across the fence that separates the slum from adjacent apartments offers them, much to the more naïve younger sibling’s dismay. But to the director M. Manikandan’s credit, and happily for the film, when they do finally gain access—in fact get a red carpet welcome, by a quirky turn of events—to the pizza shop, and try their first pizza, they can’t stand its taste or its sticky messiness. There is an inverse rejection here by the boys of what they so doggedly struggled to get to; not their cooption by the hegemonising and homogenising food culture of the market with the capital M. Not that this politics of food is writ large on the film; it may not even be consciously factored into it; but it does count and score a point.
Apart from the two boys who are a casting coup, Manikandan introduces into this small and intimate work some atypical characters who stay with you by being uniquely indefinite. There is the chubby linesman, a chronic juice drinker with whom the boys strike up a warm friendship. He is himself awkwardly childlike in his ways and they get along wonderfully well; so much so that it is he who leads the boys to their coal cache, and pays for it with his job, but without snitching on them. Then there is the pizza chain owner’s friend, from their school days together, whose advice and intercession only complicate and compound his every move and decision, but for whom he has an extended threshold of tolerance.
The squalor and the crammed look and feel, and even the stench, of the sprawling slum are convincingly evoked. The characters inhabiting this filmic slum are, mercifully, an amoral bunch. They are all on the prowl for opportunities to make a quick buck. Goodness does not unduly weigh on their minds or inform their deeds. Yet, you can’t help warming up to each of them. There are no underscoring punches here, only light digs, including at the news media which are, true to form, all over the place, in place and out of place; including, perhaps, at those of us who don’t live in slums and, on the rebound, aspire sanctimoniously to have our liberal hearts bleed for them.