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Maalai Nera Mallipoo Is A Stunning  Exploration Of A Sexworker’s Dereliction



Maalai Nera Mallipoo(Telugu , streaming on Aha)

Rating: ****

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.

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