'The Crow's Egg' ('Kaakkaa Muttai'): Toronto Review

Toronto International Film Festival
They're no millionaires, but these adorable slumdogs are entertaining enough

Director-cinematographer M. Manikandan's feature premiered in Toronto's Discovery sidebar

Not many children dream that they can one day taste a rather hideous looking, factory-made fast food pizza – and one that’s served with a bottle of ketchup! – but if you’ve grown up in the slums of Chennai (formerly Madras) and have never seen anything like it, that dream sort of makes sense. Such is the pitch behind The Crow’s Egg, an amusing, energetic, occasionally poignant and somewhat unwieldy debut feature from Indian director M. Manikandan that’s part kids movie, part social drama, part Bollywood-style musical montage and part third world farce. And while all the parts do not necessarily form a perfect pie, the film provides some vivid moments and a handful of strong performances, which should help give it a boost on the festival circuit while ensuring a decent local release for Fox Star Studios (who scored a hit with Slumdog Millionaire in 2009).

In a shantytown wedged between the highway and the river, a pair of mischievous young brothers (Ramesh, Ramesh Thilaganathan) are known only by their strange nicknames: Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg, which have nothing to do with The Great Gatsby, but refer to their pastime of eating actual crows' eggs straight from the nest. With their father in jail and their mother (Tamil actress Aishwarya Rajesh) holding down the fort, the boys are pretty much left to their own devices, trying to make a few Rupees salvaging coal from the nearby train tracks while otherwise imagining a better life for themselves – the kind they see on TV or through the fence of a rich kid’s backyard.

But their lives suddenly do look better when mobsters sell the bros’ local playground to shady real estate developers, who open up a brand new franchise for a chain known as “Pizza Spot,” which is like Domino’s except the pizzas are even greasier and far from actual pizzas. Hoping to save up enough cash to sample their very first pie, the two Eggs engage in various shenanigans about town, including one hilarious bit where they offer their services to neighboring men who are way too drunk to find their way home. (All scenes of drunkenness, as well as those involving cigarettes, include an on-screen warning that reads: “Smoking and alcohol are hazardous to your health.” And what about extreme poverty?)

This would make for a rather glossy and exotic kids flick – something like Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon shot with Bollywood standards – but as the story progresses it’s clear that first-time director Manikandan (who also served as cinematographer) has something else in mind. When the boys triumph over adversity and get the money they need, the restaurant’s manager won’t let them in the door anyway, and The Crow’s Egg soon becomes an allegory for the vast class differences that persist in India, revealing how people try to profit off a system that leaves little room for advancement.

It’s not a happy subject, but the film itself is charged with feel-good moments, some of which are artificially maintained through slow-motion effects and nonstop music by composer G.V. Prakash Kumar, others that are earned through a handful of clever screenwriting twists, not to mention endearing turns from the two lead cuties. The result is perhaps too uneven for Western audiences, though there’s a dark honesty to what’s being depicted that recalls Italian social comedies of the 1940’s and 50’s, making for a pizza that’s tastier than it seems, and ultimately bittersweet.

Production companies: Grass Root film, Wunderbar Films Pvt. Ltd., Fox Star Studios Pvt. Ltd.
Cast: Ramesh, Ramesh Thilaganathan, Vignesh, Aishwarya Rajesh
Director, screenwriter: M. Manikandan
Producers: Dhanush Kastooriraja, Vetri Maaran
Director of photography: M. Manikandan
Production designer: Vijai Athinathan
Editor: Kishore Te
Composer: G.V. Prakash Kumar
Sales: Fox Star Studios Pvt. Ltd.

No rating, 98 minutes