The Crow’s Egg

November 19, 2015
Ramesh and J.Vignesh in 'The Crow's Egg' (2014)
Ramesh and J.Vignesh in 'The Crow's Egg' (2014)

Every so often one sees a small, irresistible film that puts the blockbusters to shame. Such is The Crow’s Egg, a low-budget feature about two young brothers who live in the slums of Chennai. It’s a story of crushing poverty that is never allowed to become grim or depressing.

This is a first feature by M.Manikandan, a director named in that quaint Indian manner (like cricketer, V.V.S. Laxman), where an initial may save a lot of tongue twisting. His two young leads are Ramesh and J.Vignesh, real-life slum kids who trained for three months to become accustomed to the camera and now seem like naturals. The film was shot in the slums, with no artificial sets.

The brothers are happy to be known by the nicknames, Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg. It comes from the practice of stealing crows’ eggs from the nest and eating them raw. The remainder of their diet consists of nothing more than a small daily helping of rice and vegetables.

The boys live in a crowded, maze-like shanty town with their mother and paternal grandmother. Their father is in prison, and their scanty funds are being channeled to a lawyer who is trying to secure a release. In order to make ends meet the brothers have been taken out of school and set to work picking up pieces of coal that fall from passing freight trains, for which they receive a pittance from a local shop-keeper.

Life is hard but not unhappy. The boys play on a vacant lot with a group of urchins, and spend time talking with a rich boy through a set of bars that separate the world of the slums from that of the rising middle classes.

One gets the feeling it is the rich boy, not the brothers, who is imprisoned. He is cut off from children his own age by barriers of wealth and birth. He represents the new India, starting to enjoy the fruits of prosperity while surrounded by the same dire spectacle of poverty and privation. His family takes its cues from the west, and isolates itself off from local traditions.

This is one of the effects of globalisation, which has made more of an impression in India than almost any other country. In this context the term is a euphemism because it is largely a matter of one-way traffic. The United States is not importing Indian customs and dining habits, but India is embracing American fashions and fast food as a mark of growing sophistication. The process could just as easily be called ‘cultural imperialism’.

Neither is there much evidence of the mythical ‘trickle-down effect’, through which the mounting wealth of a few gradually alleviates the poverty of the masses. Instead, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, while a new consumerism creates desires that can never be fulfilled.

The brothers find their unappeasable desire when the vacant lot where they play is sold, the crows’ tree chopped down, and a gleaming new pizza restaurant erected. Where the boys once sucked egg yolk, the wealthy citizens of Chennai are now dining on golden crusted, cheese-laden food for the gods. Or so it appears.

The quest for pizza becomes an obsession, even though a single serving costs as much as they might make from a month’s coal-picking. To raise the money requires all their ingenuity, and some assistance from their friend, Fruit Juice. But it’s not just a question of money, as slum kids, with their bare feet and dirty clothes, are not permitted to enter the spotless temples of fast food.

The brothers’ relentless efforts to eat pizza, and the frustrations they experience, play out like a parable of India in the age of globalisation which is also the age of high speed communication, social media and public relations. The quest for pizza is transmuted into a campaign for social justice, with the boys at the centre of a media firestorm. The film becomes a tale of fifteen minutes of fame, with pizza as karma. It is not so much about the object of desire but the abject state of desire itself in a society in which it remains almost impossible to rise from the bottom of the heap.

The Crow’s Egg
Written & directed by M. Manikandan
Starring Ramesh, J.Vignesh, Aishwarya Rajesh, Ramesh Thilak, Joe Malloori, Yogi Babu, Babu Anthony
India, rated PG, 99 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st November, 2015.

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