Monday 23 November 2015

"The Crow's Egg" (Guardian 22/11/15)

The Crow’s Egg ***
Dir: M. Manikandan. With: V Ramesh, J Vignesh, Iyshwarya Rajesh, Ramesh Thilak. 91 mins. Cert: PG

After the none-more-lavish escapism of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the UK release of Tamil festival favourite The Crow’s Egg (Kaaka Muttai) returns us to reality with a bump. The debut of erstwhile wedding photographer M. Manikandan plays out around the margins of Chennai – its dumps, slums and wastelands – among a cast of thugs, drunks, urchins and goats who have neither the time, nor really the joy in them, to make a song and dance of things. No fairytale, then – but this committed latter-day parable mines both laughter and tears from the struggles of India’s poorest to put food on the table.

Our heroes are two young brothers whose shared nickname derives from an unusual dining ritual. Little Crow’s Egg (Ramesh) tempts birds from their nests with handfuls of his mother’s rice; while they’re otherwise engaged, Big Crow’s Egg (Vignesh) swipes the eggs that provide the pair with a rare source of protein. They’re quickly outmuscled by bigger boys: property developers who appropriate the lads’ preferred hunting ground before chopping down its trees. At this lowly level of the food chain, everybody’s preying on somebody: you’d call it dog-eat-slumdog, were there anything as luxurious as meat about the place.

Suddenly, however, there is. One flash-forward later, and a pizza parlour appears on the spot where the brothers once gleaned, serving 300-rupee pies that are some distance beyond their budget. Manikandan gently rubs their (and, by extension, our) noses in this disparity. The Ferrari-red moped of a misdirected delivery driver putters into view as though it were some alien craft; a sobering cut removes us from the mouthwatering toppings of a TV promo to the very small potatoes the brothers are peeling for their own supper. Stomachs rumbling, brains whirring, the Crow’s Eggs hatch a plot – to secure themselves a slice of the action.

Every subsequent obstacle encountered offers a reality check to any viewer blessed with the Domino’s app. Hidden coal deposits have to be located to cobble together a disposable income; even then, the boys’ tattered clothes stand between them and the pepperoni. Such hard knocks might have conferred a grimness on Manikandan’s film, but instead it proceeds with an optimism you’d call misplaced were it not so infectious, and so clearly what these kids rely upon to get through the day. We’re on their side from the early tracking shot that first follows them on egg-scrumping manoeuvres – swinging their arms in fraternal solidarity, like Ozu’s schoolkids.

Manikandan leans a touch heavily on montages to smooth the film’s passage, and throws in one heartstring-tugging contrivance as the boys approach their lowest ebb. Yet whenever he’s left to roam this scrappy patch, he spots a good deal of interest: the unintended knock-on effects of gentrification, the centrality of food among those whose fate in life is to do the heavy lifting (the film provides a blue-collar bookend to 2013’s crossover hit The Lunchbox) and, at the last, the many and varied ways social justice can now be engineered, even after all expectation and appetite for it has dwindled.

Wherever he places his camera, he registers people who really do seem to belong to this milieu: no slumming is tolerated, and young Ramesh and Vignesh in particular have a giggly, us-against-the-world bond you surely couldn’t direct into them. (Their eyes visibly widen upon witnessing the discarded crust one contemporary has enshrined in Tupperware, as though it were a holy relic.) Sandwiched between starrier Hindi releases, it’d be a shame if The Crow’s Egg slipped through the cracks: here’s a film that doesn’t merely observe India’s economic divide from the outside, but inhabits it absolutely.

The Crow's Egg is now playing in selected cinemas.

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