29 July 2016 13:44:41 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The social contours of economic reforms

A still from the film Kaaka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai is the quintessential movie of the reforms era: it reflects how consumerist impulses have been democratised

Last week, India completed 25 years of economic reforms — a far-reaching set of economic measures which not only changed the face of the Indian economy, but also society. The newspapers, not surprisingly, were filled with articles about this, with some of them even running special editions to commemorate the event.

Most of the articles focused on the economic realm and how reforms changed the economy for the better, though they were some dissenting voices too. The critics can be classified into two groups — ones who feel that the reforms did not go far enough so their promise remains unfulfilled, and the other group, which questioned the very philosophical basis of the reforms ideology or the neo-liberal ideology, largely from a Left perspective.

Reforms and the Indian society

But most of the comment has been focused on the economic realm and very little on the social. How reforms have changed the social landscape of the country has, barring a few exceptions, invited little comment so far.

The reforms have successfully tapped the consumerist impulses of the middle classes of the country, making them its biggest supporters. But interestingly, this consumerist impulse is also getting increasingly democratized with the poorer classes also buying into it.

Though the impact of reforms on Indian society and culture would require a deeper analysis, I would like to comment on a movie which was released last year, which to my mind, lays bare the promises, failures and the contradictions of the reforms era.

Kaaka Muttai

Kaaka Muttai is a Tamil film which released last year and received much critical acclaim. The film won national awards and was also premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s a bittersweet tale of two young brothers’ desire to eat a pizza. The boys are barely in their teens and live in a sprawling slum.

To describe their living conditions as desperate would be an understatement. Their father is languishing in jail for a crime which is not revealed and the mother works in the burgeoning unorganised sector providing for the family and also scraping money for her husband’s legal defence.

The vacant lot where the children from the slum play cricket is taken over by a pizza chain for setting up their latest outlet. The land itself is acquired with the help of a local politician facilitated by a couple of ‘brokers’ from the slum. The film very subtly shows that when it comes to land, the lines between what is legal and what is illegal are blurred. After all, successive governments in the reform period have struggled to put together a credible land acquisition policy which is fair to both industry and the people giving up their land.

So a glitzy pizza joint comes up which literally whets the appetite of the two young protagonists and their journey to enter the restaurant and taste the pizza begins. But the director eschews sentimentality and keeps a light touch with a hint of the absurd always round the corner. The boys realize that buying a pizza is way beyond their means so they devise various ingenious methods to scrape the money required. This includes stealing coal from the Railway yard with the help of a Railway employee and selling it to the local scrap dealer, to transporting drunk men from the local bars to their doorstep on a small trolley.

Once the money is collected, new clothes have to be acquired to gain entry into the restaurant, which they manage to do by bartering their pani puri outside a mall to a young rich boy’s recently bought clothes. So the boys set out with new clothes and money in their pockets to fulfil their dreams of eating a pizza. But the watchman takes one look at them and refuses them entry into the restaurant and for good measure, roughs them up. The boys suddenly realise that the social bridge is too arduous to cross and money and new clothes are not enough. But an enterprising bystander, who happens to be a friend of the boys, captures the incident of the watchman roughing up the kids on his smartphone — another potent symbol of the reforms era.

Going 'viral'

The video clip inevitably goes viral, despite the comic attempts by a couple of hustlers from the slum of cutting a deal with the restaurant owners to stop it from going viral. Once the clip goes viral, the media and the TV channels get into their act and suddenly the entire city gets gripped by the story of two slum boys’ quest to eat a pizza. The newspaper columns and TV debates follow, where one panellist blames the whole incident on the excesses of neo-liberalism, which brought a wry smile to my face.

The owners of the pizza outlet, to limit the damage done and salvage their reputation, invite the boys to their restaurant, with the help of the local politician and money inevitably exchanges hands. So in the end the boys enter the pizza outlet amid much fanfare and media attention, only to realise that it doesn’t taste quite as good as their grandmother’s humble dosa!

So the movie brings out wonderfully how two-and-a-half decades of reforms have democratised our desires and consumerist impulses.

The film makes use of some of the most visible symbols of the reform era and tells us a story which brings out its potential, failures and contradictions. Kaaka Muttai, to me, is the quintessential movie of the reforms era. Whether the director intended that or not is another story.