Tamil with English Subtitles
Dir.: M Manikandan
I have a vivid memory of when I had my first taste of the famous Maggi noodles which now sit beside banned narcotics in India. Television had just arrived in my 20 member strong joint family riding on India’s 1983 Cricket World Cup triumph and so had instant noodles ads during the soaps. My mother followed the simple recipe at the back of yellow wrapper one muggy afternoon, while my grandmother napped, oblivious to the foreign invasion in her sacred fiefdom. I did not warm to the taste of the noodles immediately but of course taste buds can be trained to love alien tastes, as Sushi takeaways in India’s metros amply testify.This same lure of foreign food is at the heart of this endearing first film from M Manikandan, only this time we are talking pizza, pronounced of course without the invisible T throughout.
Little Crows Egg and Big Crows Egg are two plucky Chennai slum kids who live with a slightly bewildered granny and an improbably pretty mother while their father serves a jail sentence.The boys have been pulled out of school and pick pieces of coal that falls off railway wagons, which can be sold for a few coins to supplement their meagre family income. In their free time they steal and consume eggs from crows nests in a small plot opposite their slum and wear their nicknames like badges of honour.It is the only protein they can afford.
They are not Slumdog Millionares.They live in what I call India’s Scandinavia – where a perverse kind of social security has been provided which includes free television sets, free rice and two sets of clothes, just enough to keep you alive and entertained, providing little incentive to work for the lazy and keeping the vote bank intact. It is important to note this detail since this family receives one day, not one but two television sets from the “fiscal deficit afflicted” government.
The arrival of the TVs coincides with the opening of a Pizza diner nearby. A film-star inaugurates the restaurant and they glimpse him savouring a loaded slice. They discover pizza through a flyer and more detail emerge with the TV ad which presents it as the most delicious food in the world complete with a mysterious stringy ingredient.The hook has been set.This sets in motion the quest for the children to taste this exotic dish.We have a fair inkling of what this journey would lead to and what the pit stops would be, but the joy of the film is in its details, its quiet humour, its gentle pace and its sharp commentary. Manikandan stays close to the children for the most part and crafts a film that keeps you constantly engaged.
My favourite scene is the one where the grandmother tries to reverse engineer a pizza from what she sees on the pamphlet. She assembles the toppings which are a collection of veggies cut in the circular fashion and for the base she uses a thick base of dosa batter, much like a uttapam on a pan.Its a pan pizza after all! The kids watch enthralled as a dish which costs 300 rupees is being made for 10 rupees. When they finally taste it they walk away disgusted at being duped. To me the quest of the children to eat an authentic slice of Italian pizza was totally plausible, after all is that not what modern consumerism is all about, that an iPhone is worth selling your kidney for?
The subtext of wanton consumerism, income inequality and the resulting exclusion of billions of people from a pizza munching elite, and the juxtaposition of Bharat and India within the urban sprawl of Chennai gives the film solid layers of commentary skilfully mixed in the pizza dough.This is a film to be enjoyed with children who demand a visit to Pizza Hut more often than is good for them.I saw it with my seven year old daughter at a Tamil film only multiplex next to my condominium in Singapore and her verdict on the film is two enthusiastic little thumbs way up in the air.I was secretly glad about the all the subtitle reading that she did in the process!
Kaakka Mutthai is like a deep pan cheese burst slice of modern Indian urban life but with carefully chosen healthy toppings. And don’t forget to swing by for a masala dosa after the film, which in the words of countless expats living in India are ”Way better than French crepes!”
We need to start selling 50 Dollar masala dosas in the Gangnam district of Seoul soon.
Categories: Indian Gems