Maalai Nera Mallipoo Movie Review (2023)

Sanjay Narayanan

Sanjay Narayanan's exquisite, moving 'Maalai Nera Mallipoo', on aha, takes us into a sex worker's psyche

Maalai Nera Mallipoo Movie Review

Maalai Nera Mallipoo Movie Cast & Crew

Production : An Every Frame Matters Production
Director : Sanjay Narayanan
Music Director : H K Shakthivel

New media appears to have given the Tamil art-cinema scene a new push. Sanjay Narayanan's Maalai Nera Mallipoo is about a sex worker. The woman is named Lakshmi, and she's played by Vinithra Menon with a spectacular amount of world-weariness. Even her voice seems to bear the weight of the world, which includes her school-going son, a little boy named Karna. The narrative is constructed like a series of non-events. The situations themselves may be big: like when Karna goes missing, or when Lakshmi hits Karna when he uses the word "bastard", or when the landlord keeps asking Lakshmi for overdue rent and insinuating that he knows what she does for a living. And the biggest of all may be the woman downstairs asking Lakshmi just when her husband will be back. It tells us that Lakshmi has spun a story around herself and it could unravel at any time.

But to us, these "big events" are presented as non-events. They are just part of another day in Lakshmi's life. They are Lakshmi waking Karna up for school or buying flowers or dressing up for an evening of work. Lakshmi is presented as both part of a bigger world (through wide shots in the outdoors) and as someone contained in the small house she shares with her son. In a scene set in a tiny bathroom, we sense her claustrophobia. We sense the world closing in on her. But she is never sentimentalised. We are never asked to feel sorry for Lakshmi. We are just invited to observe her. This is a stylised film. The flower of the title is echoed in the floral patterns on bedsheets and saris. Neon-bright colours are seen in plenty. Lakshmi's dreams are presented in a surreal manner. And there are chapter titles like "Pookkalum kaayam seyyum." Again, it's something that tells us something about flowers.

Lakshmi's problem is that she cannot take money for nothing. She has a regular client, a filmmaker. When he offers her cash and says he is cutting off ties, she masturbates him and takes just enough money for the service performed. She needs the money, but she also does not want charity. But when the lockdown hits, she's in a real dilemma. We've heard about so many daily-wagers whose lives were affected, but I never thought of sex workers, whose whole life revolves around being outside. Maalai Nera Mallipoo brings out Lakshmi's plight in exquisite, moving detail – detailing every single step Lakshmi goes through. This proud woman is reduced to asking people for help. The character is brought to life in such incremental shades, like when she is told that someone she knows can help her with rations. She says, "But I haven't spoken to her in a long time…" What's left unsaid is again the issue of letting her plight become known to others whom she's not close to.

Another lovely character shade is when Karna asks about his father, and she says he's a filmmaker. Is this just something that popped into her head because she had a regular filmmaker client, or has she allowed herself to dream a little about this possibility. But in contrast to real life, where she wears colourful clothes, her dreams have her in stark colours. And then, social media comes to her rescue. Over the internet, the scar on her cheek – possibly a gift from a client – will not be so visible. This leads to the film's most dramatic scene, which is repeated twice. Again, is it her fear, or is it reality? Maalai Nera Mallipoo has a seemingly disconnected subplot about drug peddlers, and it comes around in a way you don't expect. That can be said about most of the film. This is not "the story of a sex worker". It takes us into a very specific psyche, and that's fascinating.

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Baradwaj Rangan

National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, former deputy editor of The Hindu and senior editor of Film Companion, has carved a niche for himself over the years as a powerful voice in cinema, especially the Tamil film industry, with his reviews of films. While he was pursuing his chemical engineering degree, he was fascinated with the writing and analysis of world cinema by American critics. Baradwaj completed his Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations through scholarship. His first review was for the Hindi film Dum, published on January 30, 2003, in the Madras Plus supplement of The Economic Times. He then started critiquing Tamil films in 2014 and did a review on the film Subramaniapuram, while also debuting as a writer in the unreleased rom-com Kadhal 2 Kalyanam. Furthermore, Baradwaj has authored two books - Conversations with Mani Ratnam, 2012, and A Journey Through Indian Cinema, 2014. In 2017, he joined Film Companion South and continued to show his prowess in critiquing for the next five years garnering a wide viewership and a fan following of his own before announcing to be a part of Galatta Media in March 2022.