The next time you walk into a shop to order a pizza or order one on an app, spare a thought for siblings Little Crow’s Egg (V. Ramesh) and Big Crow’s Egg (J. Vignesh) in the Tamil movie, The Crow’s Egg. What must seem like an everyday, even banal task for us is the basis for their adventure and introduction to social hierarchy.
The boys live in an urban settlement in Chennai with their mother (Aishwarya Rajesh) and grandmother (Shanthi Mani) while their dad is in prison. There are signs of poverty and squalor all around them, but the boys are enthralled by a pizza shop that opened near their house amidst much fanfare and celebrity sightings. They have never heard of this dish and at 300 rupees a pizza, it is out of reach for our young protagonists. They dropped out of school to pick and sell coal that has fallen from trains, but this only earns them 10 rupees a day. It may be a very long time before they can afford a pizza.
So, they dubiously agree when their grandmother announces she can make them a ‘pizza’ which is really dosa topped with capsicum and onions. Although it looked promising, the boys refuse to be mollified and rudely spit it out. It’s not stringy, they say. The pizza in the shop looked stringy!
Devastated, this gives them the determination to earn more money both through questionable and innovative ways. When they have enough, they walk into the pizza shop only to be chased away by a security guard who does not have time for these ‘slum kids’. This is Big Crow’s Egg’s social awakening. His optimism and can-do attitude gives way when he sees that there is a class hierarchy and his family are not welcome in some places. Little Crow’s Egg is still unaware of this and leaves it to his big brother to decide their next steps.
The consumerism, globalisation and class markers in Chennai are overt just as they as subtle. Housing is an obvious marker but so are clothes and food. While the siblings live in the urban settlement with no running water, their friend lives in a gated community with a playground. Their interactions with their friend are through a gate, as if to put people on distinct sides.
The presence of genteel ‘Western’ food eaten in a restaurant is a contrast to the pani puri sold by the side of the road. Even the boys’ names, Little and Big Crow’s Egg are a reference to how they steal crows’ eggs in their neighbourhood for sustenance. This throws their mother into despair because it’s a reminder that she cannot even afford to buy them chickens’ eggs.
Using precocious kids to depict poverty and hardship in movies is not new. There is something engrossing about watching kids navigate a world they do not realise is rigged against them. Some do it with cheerfulness and music (e.g. orphan Annie in Annie) while others are practical and learn to source their own food (e.g. Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Either approach can be tricky as it can come across as romanticising poverty or patronising. Beasts of the Southern Wild in particular is an example where viewers were divided about whether Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old whose father lets her fend for herself by catching catfish in the Louisiana bayou, should be celebrated or pitied.
This is when director M. Manikandan excels as we get the sense this is an accurate depiction of characters in Chennai and presented without much embellishment. The kids, Vignesh and Ramesh are not professional actors; they were kids from the settlement and trained for two or three months to act in front of a camera. The movie was also shot in the settlement, which is why it sometimes feels like a documentary.
Manikandan also showcases layered and varied characters who are beyond just ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There are profiteers both in their lives and outside their lives. There are sleazy politicians, just as there are social justice warriors. Their mother needs the boys to work and support themselves, but she is also aware that they are just kids who can get overwhelmed and scared.
When she finds out that her boys were kicked out of the pizza shop, she muses almost to herself, “Why open a pizza shop in this area, if not to taunt us?” It’s a good question and neatly encapsulates the movie.
This movie is sometimes unfairly compared to Slumdog Millionaire because it of its similar settings and themes. Although, The Crow’s Egg has a realistic colour hue and not the Hollywood yellow filter, which we often see in movies to depict some countries as dirtier and dustier than they actually are. A better comparison may be Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. In both movies, the protagonists have a single-minded determination to eat a particular food but really, the journey changes their lives more than the food.
Watch ‘The Crow’s Egg’ at SBS On Demand
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