Tuesday, August 11, 2015

From a crow's egg to inside a kid's head

I watched two incredible movies the last weekend. So I am going to break the wedding diary series and put this piece in. Both movies were amazing- both were about children and both were funny and intelligent and wonderfully entertaining. In fact, it is only as I type that I realize they are in completely different languages, with drastically different budgets, and depicting almost different ends of the economic spectrum. The first movie was "Kaaka muttai" (Crow egg) and the second was "Inside out". (Interesting/funny-moments non-plot spoilers ahead!)

"Kaaka muttai" is a movie about two kids living in a Chennai slum. When a new pizza store opens in the neighborhood, they want one and decide to save up  (300Rs=~6$) for it. The story revolves around the little schemes they do to get the pizza and whether money was all they needed to get it.
"Inside out" is a Pixar creation and about what goes on in a girl's head when she moves to SF from Minnesota- the typical struggles of a regular kid who moves to a new place and faces change. of course, the main brainwave (no pun intended) was in showing her emotions as quirky characters in her brain who are trying to control her actions- and how they interplay as she eases in.

"Kaaka muttai" is an essential poor kids' story. Their dad is in prison, their mother struggles to make both ends meet, they themselves pick coal from near railway tracks to make 5-10Rs(=10-20 cents) a day. There is an undercurrent of struggle here, and someone could have made that struggle the cloud of gloom that hangs over the movie. But director M.Manikandan has made a great choice not to. In fact, though the very premise of the tale - the kids trying to save up to buy a single pan pizza- hinges upon their being desperately poor, somehow there is so much humor and so much joy in the narration. The kids know they are poor (as highlighted by how different their middle-class friend's life is) and yet, they go about their lives quite happily, in a way only kids can do, with a certain hope and an almost surprising honesty (who says poverty ought to make people criminal?) despite their funny schemes.
The cheer with which they say "My name is kaaka muttai. Naan chinna kaaka muttai avan periya kaaka muttai" (A terrible translation: My name is crow egg. I am small crow egg, he is the big crow egg. Yes, I don't translate this well.) is infectious and wins your heart instantly.
"Inside out", on the other hand is your typical American kid story. The qualms of moving to a new place, making new friends are things that aren't even talked about much in the Indian context. The emotions depicted (not just joy and sadness, but disgust which is more sarcasm really), the different personality traits they chose to highlight- hockey land, goofy land, friendship land, family land, and even the little things that they mention in her imagination- imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong, memories of princess doll names, and imaginary boyfriend- are so characteristic of the American growing up experience. Of course, goofy funny characters in her head jumping and falling and making general fools of themselves while the story moves on, is just simply Pixar (or Disney?).
With all this, one expects to see a generally upbeat movie- after all, Joy is the main character in the girl's head. Somewhat ironically, I thought, there was a lot more time spent on"Sadness"- to the point of showing how sadness is a big part of (and is important to) the girl's life.

To me, "Kaaka muttai" dazzled in its honest moments- moments of innocence (look at their expressions the first time the boys smell a pizza or walk with new clothes). Both the kids acted very well: while the younger one is incredibly cute and with a somewhat impish charm, the older one balanced a tougher tightrope beautifully- he was practical and honest and still with the same innocently joyous moments. In fact, everyone's acting in the movie was very natural- to the point where this could have been shot from the streets of Chennai and you couldn't have told the difference.
On the other hand, "Inside out " shines in the genius of interweaving neuroscience concepts (long term memory, emotion interplay, subconscious) almost casually with the child's tale while remaining true enough to the science.The level of detail was just about right- they did not belabor on neurotransmitters, nor did they leave out influences of memories, dreams, etc. That is definitely a Goldilocks zone where even young kids can get what's going on.

Both movies were amazingly entertaining, even though slow (I think Kaaka muttai was the slower of the two). "Kaaka muttai" had great moments of unexpected laughter, plus the different characters all played their respective roles in the enormous chain reaction  that influenced the lives of the kids. The one thing that the director needed to be applauded for was his refraining from unnecessary drama- nobody harasses the mother, nobody kidnaps the kids and tortures them, there is no big anti-protagonist plot at play here- a temptation that most Tamil directors would find hard to resist.
"Inside out" is more obviously entertaining- it is more slapstick. To me, the incessant optimism of Joy was great. I loved the repeating jingle idea (I can think of so many ones to play, if this were an Indian movie). The moments that they show towards the end. (I loved the cat one!)

That brings me to a different observation. I first read the "Inside out" outline when a friend recommended the movie and the minute they said brain, emotion blah I expected to be fully hooked. The 98% critic rating did not hurt the expectations either. Au contraire, the only reason I decided to watch Kaaka Muttai was because my favorite reviewer had given it a great review- in fact I half expected to be disappointed by it.  As it turns out, I ended up liking Kaaka muttai just a little better.

Even though I have never been that poor and I can relate to the American girl a lot more, "Kaaka muttai" just seemed surprisingly natural and grounded in reality that made it entertaining not just to kids but to adults as well."Inside out" was awesome, but maybe because the intended audience was little kids, or because it was part-fantasy, (I don't think it's because it's not Indian) it somehow did not move me the way Kaaka Muttai did.

In any case, both are amazing movies to catch this summer, and I highly recommend you watch them!

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