6 June 2015

Picture This: Up Close and Real

My BL Ink column this month:
Kaakka Muttai and Kuttram Kadithal, two award-winning films releasing this month, show how fissures in Tamil society are amplified by the media.
A still from M. Manikandan's Kaakka Muttai (The Crow's Egg)
A still from Bramma G.'s Kuttram Kadithal (The Punishment)
Summer is film festival season in Delhi. When the city showers award-winning Indian cinema on you, it’s possible to forget that the skies are raining fire outside. The International Film Festival of India may have jilted us for milder climes, and Osian’s Cinefan left us to our own devices after whetting our appetite for Asian and Arab cinema. But the National Film Festival, organised every summer, screens all the previous year’s national award-winning films at Siri Fort, and the Habitat Centre’s annual film festival, which just completed a decade under the indefatigable U Radhakrishnan, offers the pick of recent regional cinema as well as a retrospective. And the entry is free.
This May, it was Tamil films I found really interesting. One of my favourites was Kaakka Muttai (The Crow’s Egg), written and directed by M Manikandan, and produced by two of Tamil cinema’s current big names: Dhanush, the actor and Vetrimaaran, the critically-acclaimed director of Aadukalam. It is billed as a children’s film and won the national award in that category, as well as earned its two child stars, Ramesh and Vignesh, a thoroughly deserved National Award for Best Child Artiste. But Kaakka Muttai, which released in theatres yesterday, is by no means a film only for children. Yes, it is an uncomplicated story, sensitively told, and not boring for a minute; so children will enjoy it. But the simplicity is deceptive. The premise — that of two little boys from a Chennai slum becoming fascinated by the idea of tasting a pizza — is the basis for a subtle, affecting film about the inequalities we’ve come to take for granted.
Manikandan’s achievement is to show up the grotesqueness of the world we’ve built without ever saying it in words. The pizza parlour that opens across the road from the children’s home, serves pretty ordinary mass-produced pizza. But to the children who’ve never eaten it, the stringy melted cheese surface studded with unfamiliar vegetables looks as exotic as the moon’s. And though they have no idea what a pizza tastes like, the whole world seems to conspire to make it seem they’re missing out on something marvellous. The actor who inaugurates the restaurant and is filmed eating the first slice, the advertisement that makes the cheese look more melty, the astounding price tag of ₹300 — all intend to suggest that pizza must be truly scrumptious. We laugh as the children are taken in by these things. But, in fact, we are also laughing at ourselves, because we are taken in too: the nexus of consumption, advertising and media has us in its grip much more than these children.
The film’s turning point comes when the boys, having finally saved up enough money, arrive proudly to get their pizza. But the manager emerges and gives one of them a resounding slap, knocking him to the ground. Defeated, the boys pick themselves up and go home. But it so happens that another slum child has recorded the whole thing on his phone, setting off a media circus in which politicians and businessmen and local toughs are all vying to mould the narrative to their purpose. The media is inescapable in this arc, but perhaps it comes out looking a little better than in the first half — without the media’s amplification, there would have been no event at all.
A few days later, I watched another Tamil film. Fascinatingly, Kuttram Kadithal (The Punishment), which won the National Award for Best Tamil Film and releases on June 19, also centres on a slum child being slapped. A young female teacher called Merlin, taken aback by a bratty pre-adolescent boy who says he’d kiss her if it were her birthday, slaps him. By some quirk of fate, the boy has a pre-existing medical condition; he falls unconscious, and then into a coma. Sure enough, the media gets involved. However, this time we see its impact not just on the one slapped but also the one who did the slapping.
This is Kaakka Muttai seen from the other side: the middle-class person who slaps the child in Kuttram Kadithal is a frazzled young woman doling out what she thinks is necessary discipline. The film claims to show everyone’s point of view, but Bramma G’s direction tilts us clearly away from the slum child’s uncle, a street thug who walks around with the aura of the power he can marshal.
Kuttram Kadithal is exceptionally well-cast, and the actors bring each and every character to life: from the teacher in favour of sex education to the principal’s wife. The slum child’s mother, who drives an auto, is much more convincing as a working-class person than Kaakka Muttai’s too-urbane mother (Iyshwarya Rajesh). But a loud, distracting background score and a series of soppy songs turn a potentially taut slice-of-life narrative into an indulgent, high-pitched drama.
I preferred the understated neorealism of Kaakka Muttai. But both films offer a startlingly similar view of contemporary Tamil Nadu, as a society so fractured by class (and caste) that it takes only a tiny media spark to start a full-fledged fire.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.


The Jamist said...

Interesting that you say that. I for one personally felt that in Kaaka Muttai, there is a mild hypocrisy in showing the privileged class as a bunch of opportunists/jerks while the downtrodden remain virtuous and ethical despite harsh living conditions. On the contrary, Kuttram Kadithal is loud and more dramatic because the stakes are considerably high (i.e. the life of the kid) and there is very minimal satire or comedy. While in Kaaka Muttai every dialogue/situation has a tinge of comedy or satire & there is never really much danger for the kids other than a failed attempt to eat Pizza. But yeah, both are wonderful pieces of work. Good that being in Delhi you were able to see these gems from my down south!

Trisha Gupta said...

The Jamist: thanks very much for your comment. You're right about the humour in Kaaka Muttai keeping things light; I experienced that as an artful and deliberate choice, but can certainly see that it involves keeping the stakes low -- and perhaps even letting middle class audiences off the hook in some ways. But I didn't feel the poor were necessarily virtuous: the main example being the guy who decides to milk the pizza parlour management for money. As for Kuttram Kadithal, I felt it would have really been a fine film if it had a better sound designer! (Being simplistic, but the loudness really grated on my ears.)