Delightful slumdogs

Meenakshi Shedde  A delightful Tamil film Kaakka Muttai (The Crow’s Egg) has released this weekend — and it is being screened with English sub-titles in Mumbai. The debut feature of M Manikandan, this Tamil film comes with impressive credentials. It has been presented by Hollywood’s Fox Star Studios, and produced by top Tamil star Dhanush and director-producer Vetri Maaran (who won six National Awards for Aadukalam). Manikandan, formerly a wedding photographer and cinematographer, had made two short films earlier. How many debut filmmakers can you think of in Bollywood, who were backed by Fox, a top Bollywood star and an award-winning director? The film won two national awards for best children’s film and best child artistes, and was shown at the Toronto, Rome, Dubai and Brisbane Asia Pacific film festivals. Moreover, when you consider that the protagonists of this regional language film are two actual slum children, and it is largely shot in a real Chennai slum, you have a sense of the tremendous achievements of the very modest Manikandan, operating outside the Bollywood system. Kakkaa Muttai is much more than a ‘children’s film’ — it is a sunny, glocal, subaltern counterpoint to Slumdog Millionaire.

Vignesh and Ramesh in Kaakka Muttai (The Crow’s Egg)
Vignesh and Ramesh in Kaakka Muttai (The Crow’s Egg)

The film is about two chirpy young brothers in a slum, nicknamed Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg, who are so dirt-poor, they end up eating eggs stolen from crows’ nests. Their father is in jail, their mother goes to work. One day, their playground is snapped up by developers, a pizza outlet called Pizza Spot comes up, and they dream of eating a pizza that they have seen on TV. They must cross many hurdles before they can taste a pizza, which costs R300. The boys come up with inventive ways to raise the money, from stealing coal off railway wagons, to carting drunkards home. They are repeatedly turned away from the pizza joint — even when they have the money to pay — for being low class slumdogs, and once even thrashed. Somebody films them being thrashed, and a farcical game of blackmail ensues, involving the pizza store owner, media and slum “rowdies” as Tamilians like to call their goons. When the children finally taste a pizza, well...we’re not telling.

Although it features slumdogs, the film is entertaining and poignant by turns, keeping a brisk pace. The children, played by Ramesh and Vignesh, are very charming and disarming, and their mother, played by Iyshwarya Rajesh, is superb. The screenplay explores the class divide, how poor children often take on adult responsibilities. It also critiques child labour, consumerism and globalisation — if not America, considering the Domino’s-style pizza outlet — while valourising the local.

Yet, for all that, the film skilfully keeps the tone light, capturing the children’s innocence and natural jauntiness, despite setbacks and tragedies. It etches each character well, including the mother, the grandmother — who tries to make them a pizza-like dosa at home — and a nutty pair of crooks. Manikandan is also the screenwriter and cinematographer, his images capturing slum life with empathy. Bollywood could study this film to see how naturally children can be directed, instead of the mainly TV ad-fed brats we see in Bollywood films with children.

Both Hollywood and Bollywood are expanding regional language collaborations to tap India’s 1.2 billion market. Fox Star Studios has collaborated with Tamil filmmakers, including AR Murugadoss, to make Engaeyum Eppothum, Vathikuchi and Raja Rani, as well as with CV Kumar and AG Amid. Disney UTV’s Tamil films include Vettai, Masala Café, Mugamoodi, Thaandavam, Settai, Purambokku and Yatchan, and Grandmaster and Husbands in Goa in Malayalam. Bollywood biggies Eros International is co-producing Tamil films Perai Thedia Natkal and Enkitta Mothathe, while Reliance Big Pictures had made Yaavarum Nalam (13B) in Tamil and Shaji Karun’s Kutty Srank (Malayalam).

Although The Crow’s Egg is up against Zoya Akhtar’s lavish Dil Dhadakne Do, according to Fox Star Studios, it is being screened in Mumbai with English subtitles at many theatres, including PVR, Cinemax, Inox, Fun, Cinepolis and Big Cinemas-R-City Mall. In fact, Mani Ratnam’s utterly delightful O Kadal Kanmani, in Tamil, was also shown with English sub-titles in Mumbai theatres recently. As Indian audiences watch Korean, Chinese, Iranian and French films with English subtitles, they are finally doing the same with Indian regional films. But the revelation of the week was Bookmyshow: Dil Dhadakne Do is releasing both in Hindi, and in Hindi with English subtitles at PVR Phoenix at the premium 8.45pm slot. Aha! Mighty Bollywood finally bows to an all-India, multi-lingual audience. Cheers to that!

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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