There was a film in 1988 called Salaam Bombay! and the protagonist of that one was a street kid named Chaipau. In 2015 comes M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai with two kids as protagonists and here too they are curiously referred to by a less than straightforward edible item – Kaaka Muttai – the elder being Periya Kaaka Muttai (Vignesh) and the younger one Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Ramesh). That’s a reference to their daily workout routine – distract the crows from the nests using rice stolen in trouser pockets and steal their eggs to drink them up raw. One of their fellow slum dwellers (and we see more of him and his thala Naina played by the ever sincere Ramesh Thilak) looks at that and remarks how that’s the only way to build some strength as they grow.
But that’s where the similarity between Mira Nair’s film and this glorious debut from Manikandan ends. Nair’s was set in an older and more cynical world while Manikandan situates it around flawed but lovable characters. The cynicism still exists but it is of a different kind where every character is only trying to achieve his ends in a world that has grown smaller but people farther thereby our protagonists remaining largely unaffected allowing us to root for them no matter what happens. And this growth and change is even drawn on screen when the tree with all the crow nests is brought down and a restaurant serving pizza comes in its place continuing to fascinate the two brothers. Manikandan wants you to remain positive at all times even when he shows you that there is darkness lurking in the corners of this world ever ready to raise its ugly head. The kids don’t go to school because getting their jailed father out on bail becomes priority. We see the kids trying to sell more coal to get that elusive pizza and we also see Naina and his associate sell stuff but only for some whiskey and we think – well that’s the kids’ future too isn’t it? But Manikandan has more aces up his sleeve. Kaaka Muttai is easily the most unpredictable film I’ve seen in 2015 so far. It surprises you at every turn, keeps you smiling, makes you shed tears happy and sad and yet has so much in terms of commentary. There are many parallels – the big brother with oodles of self-respect always admonishing the adorable younger brother who is tactless like most younger brothers are. Naina with his nincompoop of an associate always berating him. The restaurant owner with his “school friend” associate who is a bit of a big mouth but at times also says the right things much like the younger brother (the rahu-kaalam joke is a cracker!). The mother (Iyshwarya Rajesh in excellent form again – hope this run continues) with a policy against hitting the boys and how the latter half of this story rests with such a policy. It’s scarily good how Manikandan shows that in this globalized world the people in the center of the issue recede to the background and those not even associated with them take over the reins. It’s quite telling that in one film you got to show all of Sun TV, Kalaignar TV, Pudhiya Thalaimurai and Jaya TV when the Tamil media comes into the plot.
Above all the irreverence on display is a sight to behold. Imagine the gall to sell a stray dog to a Chennai auto driver and ask for 25000 bucks (because that’s how much their middle class acquaintance paid to get a pug)? This one deserves at least 100 bucks over the meter.