Maalai Nera Mallipoo(Telugu , streaming on Aha)
Once in a while you come across a film saw real raw brutal and believable that the characters and their pain stay with you for days weeks and months. Maalai Nera Mallipoo is an experience hard to shake off. It delineates the derelict life of an intrepid sex worker in Chennai during the lockdown when all physical intimacy with outsiders had ceased.
It has been reported that sex workers died of starvation during the lockdown. Lakshmi, played with inexpressible dignity and unexpressed poignancy by Vinithra Madhavan Menon, survived. This is her story. Take it or leave it.
Writer-director-editor Sanjay Narayanan’s film is not really a film in the technical sense.At least, it’s not a traditional film where the heroine, if playing a prostitute, must milk the situation for sentimentality.Lakshmi has no time for tears. There is a son whose schooling needs constant funds, bills to be paid, a landlord on the phone(never seen) trying hard not to humiliate Lakshmi while repeatedly reminding her of the unpaid rent .
It is a claustrophobic world. Lakshmi occupies it with ruthless stoicism. The fact that she never caves in and seldom surrenders to selfpity makes her the most admirable hero I’ve seen on screen in recent years. That Lakshmi is played by a relatively unknown actress makes her all the more heroic. This is not the incandescent Tabu in Chandni Bar trying desperately to hold on to her client in hard days.
Lakshmi is someone whom you won’t give a second glance , as she quickly buys some affordable vegetable to cook before her son gets home from school.This is not Shabana Azmi(brilliant beyond words) in Pravin Bhatt’s Bhavna,assuming the role of a high-maintenance escort to make her son a doctor. Lakshmi is only worried about today, maybe tomorrow at the most.
The son Karna played by a boy called Ashwin bonds with his screen mother with such disarming disingenuousness I wondered if he is his screen mother’s real-life son(he is not).
Mother and son fight , starve together, and when food comes, dance together.
Joy or sorrow, we the spectators share every moment with Lakshmi: her happiness at home with her child , her humiliation in the bed of strangers.
Surprisingly she is never shown to be brutally ill-treated by her clients.
Isn’t life brutal enough already?
Sanjay Narayanan’s films will leave you so with much guilt at the way destiny is allowed to ravage the disempowered, you would want to reach out and tell Lakshmi, ‘It’s okay.It’s not so bad’. She may not take your helping hand , though. She is too proud for that. When one of her old reliable clients—incidentally,a filmmaker—offers her money out of sympathy, she quickly and firmly gives him a hand job.Calling it quits.
The film is visceral and unrelenting in its exploration of the dynamics of economical degradation. I wonder what was the need for the saturated colour schemes for every frame,with the colours running into corners of the frames like fish in a tank, as if Sanjay Narayanan wanted us to feel something about the mood of the moment beyond the immediate. The stylized storytelling was an embellishment this stark and unadorned film could have done without. I am sure even Lakshmi agrees with that.